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Monday, February 21, 2011

Dervaes Family Jumps the Shark

Remember that Happy Days episode where Fonzie is water skiing in shorts and leather bomber jacket when he jumps over a shark? That episode is thought to have signified a change in the show that eventually led to its being taken off the air.  Years later, people still use the phrase “jump the shark”. Wikipedia says it refers specifically to “the point...where the plot spins off into absurd has reached a point of decline in quality that it is incapable of recovering from."  Dervaes family, I'm talking to you.

By now you’ve heard the news that the Dervaes family applied for and was granted trademarks to the phrases “urban homestead”, “urban homesteading” and a bunch of other ones.  Like many folks who've written about the Dervaes' this week, I was a big fan of theirs when I first started gardening and discovered garden blogs.  I couldn't wait to read about what new techniques they were trying in their garden.  I looked forward to seeing what they were cooking in that Jetsons looking solar oven.  And those walks they took their goats on.  God!  I loved it!  When I decided to build my own raised vegetable beds I combed their site looking for instructions or pictures of their beds so I could determine how to construct mine.  As much as I could, I designed my garden like theirs.  I remember thinking they’d be proud.  The more I read about them, the more I was amazed at their commitment to sustainable living especially in their urban environment.  I was impressed by how much of their own food they could produce on their small bungalow lot in Pasadena, California.  I would fixate on pictures they'd post of gatherings hosted at their house, looking beyond the guests at the mix-matched dishes they used, how their house was furnished with old looking stuff.  Wondering what it would be like if I’d kept and still used half the serviceable things I gave away, proudly wearing my dated household items as an environmental badge of honor.  I joined their site, commented on their blog posts, I was all in.

I can't pinpoint exactly when I stopped reading their blog regularly.  I just recall that over time, the content became less and less about what they were doing on their urban homestead and more and more about speaking engagements, TV shows and movies.  I went there to read about gardening but all I got was self-promotion.

Then, one day a few weeks ago I saw a preview of an upcoming episode of the VH1 TV show You're Cut Off which had been filmed at the Dervaes family's urban homestead.  Although I was excited to see a familiar blog on mainstream TV, something didn’t seem right about it.  These reality TV shows are just the type of thing they’d disapprove of, I thought.  Hell, I got the impression they were opposed to whole idea of TV!  They'd jumped the shark.  

In case you've never seen it, You're Cut Off is a reality show where a group of spoiled brats (these girls come from very rich families, they don't work and don't feel like they should have to) are forced to live together in a house and participate in "challenges" that are designed to make them appreciate what they have, motivate them to get a job and stop living off their families. The episode at the Dervaes house was predictable.  They made a smoothie on the blender bicycle.  They cleaned out the animal's cages.  A goat escaped.  And the Dervaes girls were there, one of them barefoot like usual.  I was not inspired by the Dervaes’ at all and it disappointed me.  Maybe they were just nervous or maybe it was the editing of the show but they seemed like zombies.  I guess I expected to see them speak so passionately about the importance of growing your own food and conserving energy that all the girls would be, well, converted.  Instead, they were more like "we make smoothies on this here bike.  Deal with it!"

It's funny how things snowball with the power of the Internet and social media.  A few days after the You're Cut Off episode aired, all hell broke loose for the Dervaes family.  Somebody found out they’d trademarked the common terms urban homestead and urban homesteading, cease and desist letters were being sent to authors of books written on urban homesteading long before they’d filed the paperwork for the trademark.  Facebook was ordered to take down pages that used the newly trademarked terms. And the family has been under attack ever since.  I expected them to be shocked and apologetic by our reactions but instead, they took down their Facebook page have since been posting angry sounding messages on their website about how we’ve misunderstood them.  “Get your facts straight!”  And something about “bloggers are not reporters!”  I love that last one the most since, well, they’re bloggers, too!

Most of the folks speaking out against the Dervaes trademark of this old and commonly used term are writers who understand and respect the need for trademarking and protecting intellectual property.  But they’re quite appalled that this term is even trademarkable (it has been commonly used to describe this way of life for a very long time) and even more so that the Dervaes family would take steps to prevent us from using the only term we know to describe the very thing they’re forever proselytizing about.  That they would pursue legal action against folks that share their goal and vision of how we could better use our backyards and are trying to teach people how to do it, just like them, has left us bewildered and angry.  

It’s clear their motivation has shifted and in the process, they’re losing a big part of their faithful audience.  I suspect the VH1 show and this trademarking debacle are just publicized examples of it and that this transition started a long time ago.  Maybe this was always the plan?  Either way, I believe this will be the beginning of the end of their business, as they know it.  I'm not saying Path To Freedom, Urban Homestead (and all the many other names they do business under) will cease to exist, but I am saying it won't continue in the same capacity.  And they’re going to need to recruit a whole new audience.  Since they’ve pissed off a huge part of their fan base, they might want to consider riding with this mainstream reality TV thing.  They’ll be widely recognized as the freakazoid family from Pasadena who take their goats on walkabouts around town rather than trailblazers committed to educating people on real ways to improve our planet.  As I said before, they seem to already be heading that way.  There's been a clear shift from teaching people how to build and manage their own urban homestead to publicizing and capitalizing on their personal family endeavors.  Now, at other's expense.

It all reminds me of John and Kate Plus 8.  Remember?  They started out as a nice wholesome family with a million kids but sometime along the way, the money, the fame, something went to their head.  Subsequently, the family fell apart. The husband may or may not have cheated on the wife; the wife turned into or was exposed as being a shallow mom pimping her kids for money.  Their show ended and now we mostly hear about them in the tabloids (last I heard two of the kids had been expelled from school for being bullies), or see them in cameo appearances on shows like Sarah Palin’s Alaska.  Or ones that recruit washed up celebs.  I still have flashbacks of Kate on Dancing with the Stars.  Every time I hear that Lady Gaga song Paparazzi I cringe as I picture Kate in that red dress, heavy make up, making that scary face. Awkwardly shuffling across the dance floor rigidly gripping her unlucky partner.  It’s got me wondering if the Dervaes are gonna end up selling potting soil at Home Depot one day.  I mean really?  What’s next for them?  And for God’s sake, what were they thinking?  I’m not worried in the least about them taking legal action against folks for using the term urban homesteading.  There are just too many of us.  But somewhere inside I feel a little sorry for them.  They had a good thing going. 

Dervaes family, I thought you were one of us.  I’m disappointed.  


  1. Gina - SO well put. Dead on. Jumped the shark. I remember staring at their pictures enamored with what they were doing with their garden, but like you when their message turned into where they would be speaking next, I stopped reading. And then I'd see them pop up now and again and wonder what was REALLY going on. The internet doesn't keep any secrets, as has been exposed in the last week. I'm also curious what their next move is as they've completely ruined their credibility. Maybe moving to South America and starting that cult...

  2. Very eloquent post! You have my sympathy; it's always hard to find out that one's heroes have feet of clay.

    The thing is, though, that the Dervaeses are not really trailblazers in any sense of the word, except maybe by taking their way of life to reality tv. I didn't even hear about the Dervaeses until shortly before this whole thing blew up their faces. I'm an urban homsteader. And they have nothing to do with it.

  3. Absolutely agree! I started reading their blog a couple of years ago (after I was already an urban homesteader...) and have watched, even in that small amount of time, the posts morph from useful information to what were essentially press releases.

    It is sad, but like you, I have a feeling this transition started happening a very long time ago. We're just finally seeing the Dervaes family for what they are.

  4. Gina, I appreciate your article here. I really feel sad about the Darveaus and for the womenfolk in the family. The emotional stress must absolutely suck.
    AND we are seeing his Trademark action be the catalyst for the beautiful collecting of minds on "Take Back..." FB.
    Blessing! Cindy MoonRose

  5. Great post! Thank you so much. (I'm following you now, btw!)
    In way, I am glad this whole debacle happened, as I have been introduced to some amazing blogs and like minded people who I may never have found. Thank you for such an insightful post.

  6. I totally agree- though I didn't know of them until the controversy, it seems pretty crazy to bite the hand that feeds- besides, I thought most eco-friendly gardner types were pretty friendly peeps :)

  7. Gina - What a captivating story! Whoever invented reality TV shows is responsible for the human race taking a step backwards.

  8. Great thoughts. It seems like everyone wants fame of some sort, but it often destroys what you are trying to do as well.

  9. I'm still SO completely dumbfounded as to why the Dervaes family thought this was a good idea.

    It's clear that I'm late getting the news but I am no less offended by it. The issue, clearly, is not only that the Dervaes family applied for a trademark on the 'Urban Homestead' terms but that the trademark system we have in place ALLOWED for such a request to be granted.

    This is not the first case of such stupidity but in light of the fact that it impacts an entire movement makes it all the more important.

    As soon as I read the news I was both repulsed and motivated to buy a farm and get away from such stupidity.

    It's a strange world we live in.

  10. Dervaes Institute has no exclusive rights on the phrase "urban homesteading" because it is registered in Supplemental Register. Dervaes knows the difference very well since he tried hard to register the phrase in the Principal Register, but FAILED. All the above didn't stop Dervaes from sabotage our local farmers market in Colorado - Dervaes ordered Facebook to disable our fan page with 2200 contacts. Dervaes caused serious finacial damage to small local farmers because they lost contacts with their customers. Dervaes don't communicate, don't apologize, don't try to recover our Facebook page. Dervaes Institute distributed unprofessional letter with request to stop using trademarked phrases even in discussions! This is the truth about Dervaes institute actions.