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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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A Shelter for Permaculture

June 17, 2011 |

What began for Darrell Frey as a desire to homestead and learn basic self-reliance skills evolved into a passion for applying environmental science to design ecologically based farms and gardens. Drawing inspiration from the writings of Bill Mollison, the so called ‘father of permaculture,’ and the innovative farming techniques and bioshelter building strategies developed by the New Alchemy Institute in Massachusetts, Frey launched his farming operation, Three Sisters Farm in 1988 on five acres of land in Sandy Lake, PA to promote permaculture. At the center of his operation sits a unique bioshelter that employs permaculture design and utilizes sustainable agriculture methods, technologies and practices.

The bioshelter at Three Sisters Farm

The word permaculture is a contraction of “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture.” Frey defines permaculture design as a “system of ecological land use planning that incorporates sustainable energy, sustainable technologies, environmental design and an ethic of caring for the earth.” Elements in a system are viewed in relationship to other elements, where the outputs of one element become the inputs of another.

Bioshelters are solar greenhouses that employ ecological design systems indoors. The term ‘bioshelter’ was coined by the New Alchemy Institute to differentiate its work in greenhouse management and design from industrial monoculture greenhouses that rely extensively on petrochemical inputs.

The bioshelter at Three Sisters Farm is harvested year-round and consists of approximately 3000 square feet of garden beds and cold frames. Permaculture design and sustainable agriculture practices and methods abound in the bioshelter. “We lay out all our beds on contour so the irrigation is more efficient,” said Frey. “We have our compost piles, we have our drainage swales that drain from the compost and the heavy rain fertilizes some of our berries and our fruit trees.”

Frey and his team do not use any power tools at all within the bioshelter. “It is all hand tilled with trowels, and sometimes we loosen soil with a digging fork,” said Frey.

The facility contains a chicken coop, potting room, packing shed and a storage room. It draws it heat from sun and firewood, and recovers C02 from the indoor compost chambers and from the chickens in the coop. The bioshelter also functions as a seed propagation area that acts as the source for all the plants grown in the 5-acre outdoor garden. All of the flowers, herbs and vegetables grown in the bioshelter during the winter months are transferred to the farm’s outdoor gardens in early spring.

Three Sisters Farm grows fig trees, bay leaves, herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage, perennials, and a salad mix, which it sells to local chefs and subscribers. “The main purpose of it (the bioshelter) is for summer when we grow our salad mix that flea beetles will destroy outside like arugula, mizuna and mustard,” said Frey.

Schematic of bioshelter at Three Sisters Farm

Scaling Permaculture Design

While challenging, Frey does believe that it is possible to scale permaculture to feed large numbers of people sustainably. “A permaculture farm doesn’t define what a farm will look like as much as the tools and processes you use to plant it and manage it,” he said. Frey points to Wes Jackson’s efforts to develop perennial systems that mimic a prairie and allow for the harvest of multiple types of grains as one possible solution. Frey, however, said: “If you want to grow a thousand acres of grain you’re getting a little out of the scale.”

Challenges to Running a Permaculture Operation

“The challenges always for farming is the disparity between the value of produce and the cost of producing it,” said Frey. “You have to be innovative and figure out value added processes and specialty crops just to make it pay.” Frey said that Three Sisters Farm primarily relies on its salad mix to generate revenue.

Frey said the farm has been in business for 22 years, and that for 15 of those years it has paid its own bills and provided a healthy family income. Frey explains the seven year gap as a period where production dropped as a result of his decision to focus more time on developing permaculture education initiatives and programs, growing his permaculture consulting business, and writing his book, Bioshelter Market Garden: A Permaculture Farm.

“The farm doesn’t really fund ongoing development expansion,” said Frey. “That’s funded by my classes and consulting work. That was more of a choice to change my focus. There’s still a huge demand for our crops.”

Growing the Field of Permaculture

“I built this farm so that I could promote permaculture education and to further the field,” said Frey. His promotion of permaculture education extends to running off-farm workshops, hosting apprentices on the farm who learn firsthand about market gardening and permaculture design, taking on permaculture interns, and running a two-week permaculture certification program focused on research and design.

Frey is currently working to build additional cabins for interns to stay in while at Three Sisters Farm. His hope is to develop an active ecovillage, or training center, for permaculture design at Three Sisters Farm.

With what Frey has accomplished to date, he appears well on his way to insuring that permaculture design practices will spread and play a role in furthering the goals of sustainable agriculture.


  1. Kirsten

    cheers for this. nice to see some articles about this fine sounding initiative starting to pop up. We reviewed Darrell’s bioshelter book recently as part of

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