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Growing fresh veggies and jobs in St. Joseph County

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There could soon be more locally-grown, fresh veggies on your dinner table thanks to a new growing operation being built in St. Joseph County.

Green Bridge Growers, is all about creating jobs and hope for young adults with autism. The organization has been so successful, they are expanding and will be growing veggies in two new commercial greenhouses.

Chris Tidmarsh is good at a lot of things: He is detail oriented, loves working with his hands and enjoys farming.

"Right now we are growing mint," says Tidmarsh as he walks us through a small greenhouse operation at Hannah and Friends, "we also have cilantro and kale and lettuce."

Tidmarsh has autism and it makes working in a traditional setting difficult. That's why in 2013 he and his mother, Jan Pilarski, co founded Green Bridge Growers. They piloted the greenhouse at Hannah and Friends.

"I'd say the impetus for starting Green Bridge Growers was really my great conviction that there should be opportunities for young adults for autism like my son. You could say it was really a mothers love that kicked me into action," says Pilarski.

Green Bridge Growers is a social venture with a goal of adding to the supply of fresh, locally grown veggies while creating jobs and hope for young adults with autism. Pilarski says, in this area 90 percent of young adults with autism face unemployment -- adults like Matt Coleman. Matt has found his calling working in the Green Bridge Growers pilot greenhouse.

"Plants are not just on the ground anymore," explains Coleman as he walks us through how they use fish to help grow plants.

At the pilot Greenhouse, the group uses aquaponics to grow herbs and veggies. Aquaponics is a non-traditional form of agriculture that combines raising fish and growing plants. At the Green Bridge greenhouse, waste water from the fish is used to fertilize plants and the plants clean the water for the fish. This has worked so well in growing herbs and veggies in their small greenhouse, Green Bridge is expanding.

The group is building two 2,200 square foot greenhouses along Bremen Highway in St. Joseph County. They will use aquaponics to grow more food and raise fish. Their products will be sold locally and the operation will employ around 8 people.

"We are giving back to the community," says Pilarski, "we are entrepreneurial about a problem and not just waiting for things to change. And the young adults really feel there is great meaning to what they are doing."

"I'm glad I am able to help other people with autism and make a difference in their lives," says Tidmarsh.

The new greenhouses were funded through crowd funding. Green Bridge raised about $47,000. Green Bridge hopes to be growing plants in their greenhouses by June and there is a lot of extra space on the property to expand with more greenhouses and employees in the future.

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