green bridge growers

posted December 23, 2013

A unique and inspiring model.  Here’s the scoop from one of the founders.

An exciting project is under way in Indiana, which I am proud to be a part of. Green Bridge Growers is an urban farming business in South Bend that my mom, Jan Pilarski, and I have founded together. Our business is in the area of aquaponics, which uses fish and plants together in the same system. Green Bridge has a social mission, which is to employ people on the autism spectrum (like myself). 90 percent of adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed, a problem that we seek to address. Also, 90 percent of the food we eat here in Indiana is shipped in from out of state. So we decided to start Green Bridge Growers to tackle both of these 90-percent problems.

In aquaponics systems like ours, the waste produced from the fish is converted to the nutrients that the plants need for growth. The plants then absorb these nutrients, cleaning the water for the fish. This kind of a system has many benefits such as four-season growth, reduced harvest time, and uses less water than traditional agriculture.

Bent on developing a solid business model, we entered the Notre Dame business plan competition this year and received the award for Greatest Social Impact. Following that, we built a prototype greenhouse this summer on the grounds of Hannah & Friends, a residential community in South Bend that works to improve the lives of people with special needs. Their participants are involved in all aspects of growing and caring for the plants and fish. Our venture works to train the participants and will use this prototype as a place to train our venture’s future employees. We are currently growing lettuce, basil, kale, and other greens in that 350- square-foot greenhouse. Our next step is to build commercial greenhouses, and we have already arranged to sell our produce to a number of local restaurants and grocers, and also at farmers’ markets. We are encouraged because Notre Dame Food Services is also interested in being a customer of ours.

Green Bridge Growers is also working to build a year-round herb garden in downtown South Bend in a skywalk between the Doubletree Hotel and the Century Center, our city convention facility. We are installing a drip irrigation system and have put in new organic soil into the beds. In early spring, we will plant the herb seedlings and later transplant them into the beds. Several downtown restaurants have already shown interest in buying from the herb garden once it’s up and growing. Our community is excited about this innovation and wants to see the skywalk turned into a real green bridge and one that leads to jobs, much like our name.

We are now moving forward with our plans to build our first commercial greenhouses. We plan for each of our greenhouses to be 2,000 square feet and employ five young adults with autism. To make this happen, we ran a campaign on indiegogo and doubled our first goal for $15,000 , allowing us raise the funds for a second greenhouse. We look forward having this impact, helping our community enjoy local food, and putting young adults with autism to work.