Green Bridge Growers: Growing organic produce, employing young adults with autism

Michelle Owens Photography

Add Chris Tidmarsh and Jan Pilarski to the long list of innovators in growing organic food.

When Tidmarsh graduated from college with degrees in chemistry, environmental studies and French, he discovered how hard it was to join the workforce as a young adult with autism. Pilarski, his mother, watched her highly capable son lose his first job and recognized that he needed a different path to apply his talents. [Ed. note: She wrote about the experience here.]

Together they co-founded Green Bridge Growers in South Bend, Indiana, providing  "skill-matched employment for underserved young adults on the autism spectrum through an urban aquaponics farm."

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Green Bridge Growers is a greenhouse business project, but you've put it together with a specific goal.

Chris Tidmarsh
Chris Tidmarsh 

Jan Pilarski: We’re an urban farm venture that is doing year-round growing, but specifically we have a social mission to employ young adults with autism through the work that we are doing in our local community. These young adults have great skills that are quite under-resourced in terms of being able to have an entry into the job force. We have the dual mission of growing delicious local produce and creating jobs that are meaningful for these wonderful young adults.

LRK: You and Chris together have developed a particular system. You've designed it, and you said it's tailored for young adults with autism. Can you give us an idea of what this system is? How does the greenhouse work? How does it work for people with autism?

JP: The system that we have uses a growing method called aquaponics, where fish and vegetables grow in tandem. The plants grow within a water base. The fish fertilize the plants with their waste; it's like the compost of the system. The plants grow very productively and wonderful herbs -- cilantros, mints, basils, specialty greens, lettuces -- all do very well in this system.

What it really taps into so well is young adults with autism have a great propensity for scheduling, for routine, for really stick-to-itiveness to stay with a system and a process. There’s a lot of monitoring, precision and scheduling to aquaponics.

We found that as we're pioneering a prototype and working with young adults to do training, this is something they are soaking up and doing so well with -- all that the monitoring, checking the water chemistry and taking care of the plants offers them.

Green Bridge Growers
Aquaponics at Green Bridge Growers: "The plants grow within a water base. The fish fertilize the plants with their waste." (Photo: Michelle Owens Photography)

LRK: I saw a figure that said 90 percent of people with autism are unemployed. That’s a pretty stunning figure.

JP: Right. I think that that shows the disconnect that there is between people being able to enter the workforce and use their skills and there being a place for these skills to be handily used.

In starting Green Bridge Growers, what we wanted to do was be entrepreneurial about this severe unemployment problem. We are trying to use these skills in a very productive fashion that will also produce good food for our area.

Green Bridge Growers
Green Bridge Growers

LRK: How many people do you employ in a greenhouse?

JP: Each greenhouse will employ five workers who will tend to the care of our plants and to our fish. We also see potential down the line for other types of tasks related to the business such as bookkeeping, computers and social media as other things that people who have autism would do very handily and do very well. We're really making use of those skills.

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