Sustainability: Just What Is It?

Bridget Hildreth looks for the true meaning of a common but sometimes misunderstood term and finds it at Oregon's Flora Valley Farms.

The term “sustainability” is ubiquitous, or perhaps more apt, viral; because it has of late become thinly stretched and internationally commercialized, it has lost the tenors of meaning ecologist Garret Hardin originally imbued in it when he gave the American Advancement of Science presidential address “The tragedy of the Commons” in 1968. The problem is that in its overuse and in the multitude of self-serving reinterpretations, it has become less tangible, less grab-hold-able to the younger generation. I teach at a community college and worry about this. By its simplest interpretation, “sustainability” could have the potential to mean status quo, and isn’t that what we don’t want—to keep the same inefficient and consumptive models in place?

This past April, during an early morning downpour, my junior college students and I drove South on Highway 101 to Valley Flora Farms near Langlois, to further plumb the meaning of this word, sustainability. Dressed in boots, slicker, and stocking cap, ready for soggy outdoor work, Zoë Bradbury met us at the entrance to her 40-acre farm and directed us to a small equipment and tack storage shed to wait out the rain and field our questions. The farm, we learned, is co-run by mother Betsy and daughters Abbey and Zoë. Betsy manages the greenhouses and hothouse production for tomatoes and peppers; Abbey produces the locally famous “Abbey’s Greens,”  mixed lettuces, that she began ten years ago and stock our regions markets. Zoë is now in the thick of her fourth season with the wildly successful CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program).

It did not take long for students to grasp Zoë’s impressive work-ethic, worldliness and enthusiasm. She’d left for college on the East Coast at 16 and, from that point on, seemed to be in fixed pursuit of developing her calling. Zoë’ s trajectory of experiences in sustainable food systems has been vast: she volunteered in Free Trade; traveled to learn and work in other countries; labored on community and nonprofit pro-family and anti-globalization farms; studied Amish systems that were completely un-machined and out producing their conventional neighbors; apprenticed under teamster drivers in Montana; and returned to the Northwest to co-manage for three years a large commercial organic farm and CSA operation in Portland. Before returning home and beginning her own venture with her mother and sister, Zoë pursued her Masters in Food Systems Management.

Now 31-years old, Zoë has thoughtfully and physically invested deeply to become a conscientious farmer. Zoë’s love for her livelihood shone through in her ease of conversing with the students. She readily helped students, standing uncomfortable in the mud and unaccustomed to farm production, understand clear and practical models of sustainability as exemplified by her own ecological anecdotes, clearly distinguishing her farm model from the conventional consumer systems these students have been brought up on. She explained the work and mission of Valley Flora and provided a few world history lessons covering different food systems models of exploitation and regeneration taking place in developing countries such as Rwanda, Indonesia, and Cuba.

Zoë explained that “like a phoenix rising from the ashes, such communities are becoming more self-sufficient and more self-reliant.” Again and again, she emphasized how food, such a central aspect to our lives, needs to be better taken care of and not in the hands of so few. Presently in our country, 1.8 percent of the population is growing our food. Zoë stressed that this inverted pyramid is nonsensical and will not last with the present fuel and resource crisis: “We need more local farmers, farming smaller tracts of land.” In our rural region, Valley Flora is only one of two CSA’s. She suggested students consider Richard Heinberg’s research that warns, “If we are going to feed ourselves, we need about 50 percent more farmers before 2050.” Zoe would like to see more small CSA farmers discover our region.


Last year was year two for Valley Flora’s CSA project and they successfully ramped up to double production. People came to Zoe saying, “I have been waiting ten years for something like this.” She had planned to sell 25-40 shares but within three weeks had sold “fifty shares and was sending checks back, capping it, rather than over committing.” The philosophy of CSA is “Share the Risk,” Zoë carefully explained, “ It is a very different model than commodity farming where the consumer has no risk. Co-farming changes the framing around relationship.” The students were finally gaining on the term sustainability, finding out that it has something to do with shared responsibility — a relationship to ecology, to each other, especially when there is a threat to the harvest.

CSA , Zoë explained to the students, is for our neighbors within 100 miles, between Coos Bay and Gold Beach who want to eat food from the farm. Like a magazine subscription, members pay up front and receive a basket of food every week from June through November. “It is a commitment from the community, which is nice, because for conventional farmers there is typically a cash flow crisis in the spring when farmers need supplies, equipment, labor, and seeds. CSA members give you the capital to work with when it is needed most. In return they get a wide diversity of produce for 26 weeks.”

Zoë wants to keep the market very local, to even shift the balance more toward families and community members, to provide to just a few community markets and restaurants; she has no interest in getting bigger as the CSA premise is about feeding local people. Getting bigger means reaching more people within the delivery range of 45 minutes from the farm. Two years in and Zoë’s voice still conveyed amazement while she humbly expressed , “It is a wonderful feeling to know who is eating the food, to have the community invested as members of the farm.”


As our class drove home and reflected upon the visit to Valley Flora, students recognized an important word that kept coming up in our conversations with Zoë, a word that was thoroughly more compelling to us than the definition of “sustainability” that we had originally set out to explore: rejuvenation.

Student editor Nia, thinking out loud, offered that what Valley Flora is doing is not antiquated at all. Rather, by tending crops without machines or synthetic fertilizers and using draft animals, they are “evolving and renewing community enterprise.”

We returned to campus with a better understanding of that ubiquitous but somehow elusive term, “sustainability,” which on that day tasted like rain-drenched early spring strawberries. 


Bridget Hildreth is a narrative place writer, convergent media artist, fledgling documentarian and community access TV producer.

Visit Valley Flora on the web here.

Zoë Bradbury, Photo Courtesy of Valley Farms