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Mishawaka Produce Farm Sprouts Hope

by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, November 20, 2020

Chris Tidmarsh thought like a farmer before he was one.

Although adversity threatened his livelihood, he persevered—weathering the storm like those connected to agriculture so often do.

Eight years later, what Tidmarsh calls his "big idea" supplies organic produce to retail outlets and restaurants in the Mishawaka area, provides him with the means to pay his bills and employs five workers who, like him, have autism.

And now that his Green Bridge Growers farm has successfully navigated through start-up territory, Tidmarsh has even bigger ideas.

"At some point we may be able to expand to new locations, that's my hope," he said while taking a break from transplanting lettuce in his aquaponic greenhouse in rural St. Joseph County last Wednesday. "And, employ new people. I'd say, probably, I'm hoping we could get 20-30 or more, but that might be ambitious."

When a conventional workplace didn't work out for Tidmarsh, who graduated with degrees in chemistry and environmental science from Hope College in Holland, Mich., he turned to unconventional farming with the help of his business partner, and mother, Jan Pilarski.

About 90 percent of adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed, according to the advocacy group Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism, and "our world seemed small and bleak," Pilarski once wrote.

"Individuals on the autism spectrum have an abundance of strengths but often process information differently and need help with social cues," she said. "While Chris had the credentials to get a job as an environmental researcher out of college, his employer declined his request for a few adjustments to the workplace to address his disability and he was soon let go."

That's when Pilarski, who at the time was the Justice Education Director at St. Mary's College in South Bend, and Tidmarsh started connecting dots leading to a plan that played to his interests, talents and strengths while taking advantage of qualities inherent in many people with autism.

Tidmarsh had an abiding love of science and farming, and while in college enjoyed buying fresh food from farmers markets in Ottawa County. He also worked one summer as an organic farming intern at the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice in Terre Haute.

"I wasn't fully committed to organic farming yet, but I had previously decided that I was interested in doing an environmentally related career, and that kind of got me interested," Tidmarsh said.

"What was actually going on when Chris was trying to put his pieces together," Pilarski added, "was that something to do with farming was what he felt called to do."

Her own parents were what she called "truck farmers," who would set up impromptu farm stands in strategic locations.

"I grew up in a farm family, you could say, actually inside the city of Milwaukee," she said. "They would put their produce in the back of the truck and set up near groceries or other places where people would be coming by to purchase. That was their way of marketing."

The family's farmland was eventually overtaken by airport expansion. Nevertheless, long before Pilarski changed professions, she had passion for growing things and earned her Master Gardener's certificate soon after graduating from Notre Dame.

Armed with that experience and the love for a son who had so much to offer in the right environment, it became clear that an entrepreneurial venture was Tidmarsh's pathway out of despair and to gainful employment.

Through extensive research, Pilarski and Tidmarsh concluded that small-scale, year-round farming based on the rapidly advancing field of aquaculture was the way to go, and in 2012 Green Bridge Growers was born.

"I think there's a very steep learning curve in farming, so just based on the fact my family did it doesn't necessarily equip me with the tools to farm; I want to be very humble about that," Pilarski said. "I learned from many people and Purdue Extension has been particularly wonderful. Also, touring other farms and getting some real know-how from people who are already in the field laid the foundation.

"It's a field with a lot of problem-solving and I guess I really connect with all those things. And because so many of the people who work here are on the autism spectrum, I acknowledge they have terrific skills that really are such a good match for farming."

People with autism often process information best through visual thinking—solving problems as though looking at pictures—and can be exceptional at carrying out certain tasks. Tidmarsh, for example, excels at precision seed-planting.

"There's a great stick-to-it-iveness, and attention to detail, and making sure things are the way they're supposed to be, all of which are so important because you can't be a slipshod farmer," Pilarski said. "In communicating with other farmers in the area, if they need an extra hand or are looking for help, I would say don't overlook people with disabilities because the ones I know are eager to work, will work so hard and want to do everything the way they're supposed to be done."

The Tidmarsh-Pilarski operation is situated on the site of a former ornamental grass nursery and is capable of producing 45,000 pounds of produce a year. A 350-square-foot greenhouse contains the closed-loop, highly sustainable, aquaponics system that converts fish waste into nutrients to grow a variety of plants all year long.

Water from seven tanks stocked with koi is transferred to growing towers, currently planted with lettuce in a medium made from recycled plastic drinking containers. After the filtered water is purified by the plants, it's returned to the fish, which are not grown for food but will be sold to high-end pond stores when they reach a certain size, Pilarski said. Only small amount of water lost through evaporation has to be replaced.

Next door, in the high tower, kale seedlings are growing in compost beds and spinach will soon be added for the winter growing season. This past summer, Green Bridge also grew tomatoes in the high tower, and outdoor garden space was also used to augment inventory.

The business has been operating at full capacity for the past four years.

"It's amazing that we've been able to get it set up and employ several people on the autism spectrum and employ several interns as well," said Tidmarsh. "I always believed that over time we would become profitable. I'm thankful to my mom for being able to help me get this set up because if I tried to do this on my own, I wouldn't be able to, or would have been intimidated.

"But together, we were able to do it and I like being hands-on. I enjoy getting to see everybody here and working in an area I enjoy doing. I'm proud of what we've been able to do so far."

Tidmarsh and Pilarski are looking forward to adding another high tunnel with funding acquired through a USDA grant tied to small-farm innovation, while serving as an example for other farming and non-ag enterprises.

"If you properly gauge things, you can pretty much grow things 11 months out of the year, so there is a lot of encouragement for small farmers who want to try four-season or cutting-edge methods," Pilarski said.

In addition to employees like Nate Karam of Granger, Green Bridge brings in interns such as Anna Ortega of South Bend, and volunteers from area colleges and universities while doubling as an on-site aquaponic classroom. Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization, provided invaluable support from the beginning, Pilarski said, and now Green Bridge is working in partnership with the group to help promote the creation of employment opportunities for autistic workers.

"I think one of the things they've appreciated about how we've developed and grown is seeing the possibilities of agriculture and farming as a really great fit for those on the autism spectrum," Pilarski said.

Tidmarsh and Pilarski are also teaming up with the Penn-Harris-Madison and the South Bend Community school corporations to work with 40-50 special needs students enrolled in vocational programs.

"We're real excited about that," Pilarski said. "We're doing what we can now virtually, but we're going to reevaluate it next semester and see if we can do some in-person. They would actually be like interns and they would get academic credit. The idea is, whether they would go on to become farmers or work with us, they would still acquire a lot of fantastic skills that would make them valuable in the workforce.

"I think we have a lot to teach people and there's a lot to learn here."

The farm's name says it all.

"Each part conveys who we are, or who we wish to be," Pilarski explained. " 'Green' expresses sustainability and wishing to not just take from the earth but to nourish and care for where and how we grow. 'Bridge' is being a way to allow people on the autism spectrum to find a pathway to work. And then, 'growing' expresses that we really are all about farming.

"We're planting seeds of hope."

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