SANDY LAKE, Pa. – We’re not talking your average salad here.
Darrell Frey puts in the good stuff, 10 to 20 ingredients like watercress, mustard greens, spinach, kale, endive, arugula, 10 lettuces, nasturtiums, other edible flowers.
Want more variety? Add organic cucumber slices, maybe some Sungold cherry tomatoes, from hanging vines.
His salad mix is a favorite in Pittsburgh-area restaurants and catering houses, in demand nearly as fast as he and his wife, Linda, can grow and harvest it.
Their growing system, called a bioshelter, lets them market their produce year-round.
Location, location. The bioshelter is tucked near a treeline on a 5-acre parcel near Sandy Lake in Mercer County, Pa..
Out front there’s a pond bordered by tall reeds and a solar pump housing, berry brambles, a spiral-shaped garden and trellises with bare hardy kiwi vines overhead.
This early November day it’s dreary outside, and the gardens show it. There’s barely a hint of green on this farm.
Inside the bioshelter, it’s a different world.
Greened up. The bioshelter is a green oasis filled with houseplants, vegetables, herbs, and succulents.
It’s never below about 50 degrees here, Darrell Frey says, and it’s easy to work inside in shirtsleeves when the snow is falling outside.
Better yet, the 105-by-40 foot wood and glass building makes him more money than a 5-acre field of corn or hay ever could.
How it works. The family manages the bioshelter as its own organic ecosystem. They control the environment with heat, predatory insects, planting and harvesting.
The bioshelter functions with active and passive solar heat.
Fans blow heated air from the second floor – near the sloped south wall and windowpaned roof – downstairs into a series of ductwork.
That ductwork winds under the dirt and gravel floor and opens underneath a series of waist-high beds.
Each bed is made from cinder blocks and has a gravel bottom that’s heated by the ductwork. The heat radiates upward into the soil and plants growing there.
And every warm day on the calendar, everything inside the bioshelter absorbs heat that’s passed back into the environment on cooler days.
Frey explains that concept of passive solar heat to the schoolchildren who tour his facility by drawing attention to 55-gallon barrels and smaller planters. The barrels are D-cell batteries, he says, and the smaller planters are AA or 9-volts.
On cooler days, those batteries give the bioshelter warmth and power plant growth.
A warm bath. There’s also the “hot tub,” a 600-gallon concrete indoor above-ground pool with an immersed heater.
The Freys can heat the pool and use it to warm and water plants on especially cool days.
The bioshelter functions purely on solar heat nine months of the year. Now, when winter is setting in, the family is stockpiling the three cords of wood it may take to get through a harsh winter.
But harsh for them is different than it is for an everyday gardener. If December and January nights stay above 20 degrees, they may not need much wood at all, Frey says.
The facility design keeps operating costs low. Frey estimates he’s paid half his building costs over the past 15 years by saving on heat.
“It’s really the super-insulated design that does all this,” he said.
Market gardeners. The Freys’ interest in bioshelters developed in the 1980s.
“I guess you could say we were homesteaders,” Darrell Frey said of his family’s lifestyle. “We wanted to be market gardeners.”
He soon found himself teaching workshops at nearby Slippery Rock University and at Penn State. He wasn’t on staff and didn’t have teaching credentials, but had the real-life knowledge about sustainable development, organic growing and structure design to share with others.
“I got to thinking if I was going to teach it, I better do it, too,” Frey said.
In February 1988 he wrote a grant through the state’s energy office for $60,000 to build his own bioshelter.
It went through, and the Freys, with three young children in tow, were in business.
Three sisters. By the end of 1988, the bioshelter was built.
The 5-acre parcel where it sits had been fallow for three years, taking a break from the corn, soybeans and hay that had been there for years.
The farm’s name came easily to them: Three Sisters, named for the native American food crops of corn, beans and squash.
“That’s traditional native agriculture. It’s a balanced diet and the companion plants work together. That’s what we wanted to achieve,” Frey said.
First cutting. Just into 1989, the Freys were ready to make a crop.
Their first sales came in with great success and immediate publicity. Restaurants heard about him and wanted his produce.
Just a 60-mile drive north of Pittsburgh, Darrell Frey could load his truck at 10:30 a.m., make $1,500 worth of foodservice deliveries, and be back in the bioshelter managing his crops by 3:30 p.m.
Frey estimates traditional row crops previously grown on this property netted $1,000 each year. The last farmer to work this ground said he could harvest about 17 round bales off the property; at $25 per bale, that was only $425, Frey said.
“We’re producing up to $40,000 each year and keeping homes for birds, butterflies and other wildlife,” Frey said.
“It’s about nurturing nature.”
Nurture. But the Freys also see it as nurturing themselves.
It’s been a big part of growing up for the Frey children, Zack, now 24; Christopher, 21, and Terra, 18.
Both sons were married in the bioshelter. Terra and her boyfriend work there, hauling in wheelbarrow loads of firewood during the winter and helping at harvesttime.
Darrell Frey says the family eats well year-round, and the business affords him the lifestyle he wants – being able to work with plants, a unique structure, and people who are interested in sustainability.
“This structure’s design is small-scale and efficient,” he said. “With consumer food prices as low as they are, growers have to be innovative,” to keep their heads above water.
“There certainly should be a bioshelter in every community. It’s a food production facility, has educational and social value, and we need to develop more local food systems,” Frey said.
“Plus, it’s a nice place to be in on cold winter days, surrounded with green.”
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