Books on homesteading have chugged along for years, finding readers in small towns, rural communities, and big cities who want to learn how to become self-reliant. But it’s the “little farm in the big city” trend that publishers are cashing in on this season. Come spring, a range of books about living sustainably in an urban environment will flood the shelves, some even despite potential controversy.
It seems life on the urban farm isn’t always as sweet as a bowl of just-picked cherries. Last October, Jules Dervaes of Pasadena--whose family turned its one-fifth-acre lot into a self-sufficient, sustainable farm and whose website , www.UrbanHomestead.org, gets “several million hits per month” according to a press release the family issued--trademarked the phrases Urban Homestead and Urban Homesteading. As of February 18, the family, which operates the non-profit Dervaes Institute, had contacted 16 organizations, publishers, and other businesses about usage of the registered terms. It sent cease-and-desist letters to radio shows, to a public library that was holding a free event on the subject of living sustainably in a city, and to Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, the authors of The Urban Homestead, published by Process in 2008. Corynne McSherry, Intellectual Property Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is now representing the authors and publisher.
Dervaes has also been in touch with the author of a book that Skyhorse will publish in April. In its promotional copy for Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, Skyhorse calls author Rachel Kaplan “an urban homesteader, artist, psychotherapist, and mother” who grows much of her family’s food in small plots in Sonoma County. A rep from the publisher said that despite Dervaes’s letter, though, it is still moving forward as planned with the title. Publisher Tony Lyons told PW, “All trademarks are not created equal. Urban Homesteading is clearly a generic, ‘merely descriptive’ phrase that has been used in the United States for decades. It is not a unique or especially creative combination of words. As a result, any trademark protection granted for the phrase Urban Homestead or Urban Homesteading would be very weak.” Dervaes did not respond to PW’s request for comment.
In June, Penguin will add The Complete Idiot's Guide to Urban Homesteading to its successful guidebook series. The book's author is Sundari Elizabeth Kraft, an "expert in urban homsteading."
Other forthcoming books on the subject play it safer—knowingly or not—with their titles. Amy Pennington, whose Urban Pantry was a breakout hit for Skipstone Press last year, has written Apartment Gardening: Plants, Projects, and Recipes for Growing Food in Your Urban Home. Sasquatch will publish the book in April. Apartment Gardening will contend with Your Farm in the City: An Urban-Dweller's Guide to Growing Food and Raising Animals by Lisa Taylor, just out from Black Dog & Leventhal; City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing by Lorraine Johnson, which Greystone published in February; Modern Homestead: Grow, Raise, Create by Renee Wilkinson (Fulcrum, Apr.); and The Edible Front Yard by Ivette Soler (Timber, Feb.). There’s even a new book on urban food-growing for kids: Watch Me Grow!: A Down-to-Earth Look at Growing Food in the City by Deborah Hodge (Kids Can Press).
Like anyone who is granted a trademark on a phrase, Dervaes must defend the terms Urban Homestead and Urban Homesteading vigorously—if he doesn’t, the law views him as giving up his rights to the phrases. Often, an author will grant a license to use a term for free. It remains to be seen whether or not Dervaes will take that route.