Queen bees: holding the reigns to sustainable agriculture

A narrow two-lane road traveling alongside Floras Creek, enters into the heart of the Wild Rivers Coast.

Driving, cycling or walking a one and a half mile stretch from the South Coastal State Highway 101, this road divides the sun-kissed hills of red and orange brush, and opens to the Farmstand of proprietress Zöe Ida-Bradbury.

Delicately placed at sunrise, are freshly cut assortments of gerbera and chrysanthemums, and other flower varietals awaiting pick-up.

Just beyond the stand, wooden plows, with rusted bucket seats dating back to another era come into view. These tools, despite looking worn, are still in use — both hauled and dragged behind the farm’s draft horse. Maude is her name.

It’s harvest time at Valley Flora.

Farm

Zoë Ida-Bradbury of Valley Flora Farms in Langlois, Oregon (population. 500) runs a diversified organic family farm.

The farm grows more than 100 different crops of fruits, berries, vegetables and brightly colored flowers throughout the year, selling it all locally to restaurants, grocery stores, and donating surplus to the local foodbanks.

The farmstand and u-pick are popular choices among locals and visiting tourists — backpackers, campers and road-warriors — to access regional foods produced in this 200 day a year growing season.

“We have such an incredible microclimate here,” Bradbury said.

Valley Flora also has a 110-member community supported agriculture (CSA) program that customers subscribe to the farm for a season and receive a weekly basket from Valley Flora.

Family Heritage

“We are a mom and two daughters — a trio,” states Bradbury

Zöe and sister Abby’s mother, Betsy Harrison has been on the property for 40 years. Its 90 acres in total — about 20 of that is bottomland, 30 are hillside pastureland and then there’s about 40 acres in timber.

Both daughters were born on this land. Both daughters went off to college. Both attended Ivy League institutions: Dartmouth and Stanford.

“I was gone for about 15 years,” said Bradbury. “Getting the opportunity to live a lot of other places and work other jobs, I realized that its really hard to beat it here — its about as good as it gets.”

The women have one full-time employee, Roberto, who can be seen working on the tractor across the broccoli parcels that Zöe stands waist deep in.

With her newly sharpened knife that shines in the morning sun and with a flick of her wrist, Zöe methodically hacks off the green heads of broccoli one-by-one, tossing each over her right shoulder into the carrying bucket attached to her back. She repeats this action walking the 220-foot garden rows.

Powered by Love

Valley Flora is a mixed power farm.

“We rely on a diesel tractor, we also have an electric cultivating tractor, we have Maude, and then we have our bodies,” Bradbury said.

According to Bradbury, it’s good to be diversified in this way, as for example, if the electric tractor stops working; the women can have the horse work like a tractor.

“Maude has had some full days this season,” Bradbury said.

The women also hire a couple of part-time seasonal workers that support harvest and delivery help for the farm.

Bradbury states that she’s glad that she left the farm, having gained valuable perspectives from her outside experiences that she readily applies to her work with Valley Flora.

“A lot of people around (Langlois) don’t ever leave,“ said Bradbury. “… not that they don’t appreciate all the goodness that’s here, but I feel like, for me anyway, if you leave, as I did, you’ll discover a real conviction about wanting to be here.”

This was the case for the sisters.

“We have a huge love for this place, and this piece of land — it’s pretty idyllic,” states Bradbury. “It’s always been the center of our universe.”

Environment

Both sisters independently became interested in environmental issues in college. Abby majored in botany and environmental science, and Zöe majored in ecology and anthropology.

“For me, I found that in college, the more environmental studies classes I took —the more depressed I became,” Bradbury said. “I started to get really frustrated with all of this coursework that was presenting many problems, with very few solutions.”

Bradbury cared deeply about the human community element of the environment, along with activism and social change work. After college, she went to work for nonprofits doing this sort of work and found that she wasn’t fully fulfilled.

It wasn’t until she began working part-time on a few organic farms, and then for three years working as manager of an organic farm outside of Portland that she realized she didn’t just want to be the advocate — she actually wanted to be doing the farming.

These experiences steered Bradbury towards local food systems, and farming and specifically farming on an organic farming scale.

“I learned a lot there,” said Bradbury. “It really prepared me to set up my (our) own operation here.”

The opening year of Valley Flora’s existence was in 2008.

Growing Roots

Mother Betsy and Abby were already selling produce in Langlois and in the neighboring communities in Coos and Curry Counties. As a summer job, Abby had set up her own greens business while she was still in college. These combined activities provided a foundation and community support for the evolution of the family farm.

“We had established a lot of relationships with local stores and vendors for example, that it made it relatively easy to expand and take Valley Flora to the next level,” said Bradbury

Naturally, there were some growing pains for sure, financial primarily, to get the vision and the farm going for the three women.

“But, at this point, many growing seasons later, (the business) has really stabilized and it’s something that supports all four of us — especially Roberto.  He’s the sole breadwinner for his family. What we produce is enough that we give him a living wage, and support our own families,” said Bradbury. “It’s kind of a dream come true — and to do something that you absolutely love is the best.”

With narrow opportunities in Curry County, these women feel very grateful for the success of their family farm.

Community Connections

Partnerships are key for Valley Flora. There’s a producer just down the road, Carnahan Livestock, another woman-run business in Langlois  (there are more) that has eggs and broilers. Valley Flora is able to offer these products through their CSA and help spread the word about other local producers in the area.

Roberto’s sister owns the restaurant down the road in Coquille, Ore. She makes homemade tamales that are also sold through the CSA.

“There’s sort of this nice little network for us here,” said Bradbury. “And it’s encouraging to help each other out, and get other products out there, and deliver them to the community — it benefits us all.”

The back-story to this jeweled operation is that the three women all run three separate businesses, and it is Valley Flora that serves as the distribution umbrella. This means that they all their own bosses.

“It doesn’t have to be about business all the time. It’s not bad having lovely family dinners together, “ said Bradbury. “(Valley Flora) runs really well — it’s a good system that we’re really proud to be a part of.”

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