Tag Archives: Sustainable agriculture

“A Place at the Table of Life” – How Jan Pilarski Describes Green Bridge Growers


Sometimes when I listen to The Splendid Table (which I do regularly) I am overwhelmed by the gustatory sophistication, the plethora of herbs and spices of which callers speak knowingly, the time and energy serious cooks spend on their art. Though mortified by my pedestrian palate, I listen with envy and admiration.

Last week I set aside my inhibitions and turned up the volume as Lynne Rossetto Kasper and her worthy crew held me spellbound with the riveting story of Green Bridge Growers (http://www.greenbridgegrowers.org, a vibrant Indiana farming initiative that mixes fresh produce and aquaponics with social justice and meaningful work for adults with autism.  (http://www.splendidtable.org/story/green-bridge-growers-growing-organic-produce-employing-young-adults-with-autism) The cross pollinization took root in my imagination.  I needed to know more about the founders, Chris Tidmarsh and his mother, Jan Pilarski.

At its core the mission of Green Bridge Growers is to leverage new jobs for those with autism by employing aquaponics to grow vegetables close to consumers, year-round, and at a profit.  Though palate-impaired I recognize a recipe for a win-win enterprise.

The robust Green Bridge Growers website (fed my interest in the produce and the purpose of this dynamic operation.  In terms of growing practices, the venture uses organic growing methods and materials, including aquaponics, to operate year round at the farm near South Bend, Indiana.  “Within this system, fish and plants grow in harmony, producing faster growing rates and much less waste.”

In financial terms, the customer base for GBG includes “high-end restaurants and grocery stores” and farmers’ markers, with talks underway to establish a relationship with Notre Dame University Food Services.

From the perspective of social mission, the role of GBG is described thus by co-owner Jan Pilarski, mother of Chris Tidmarsh:  “to create jobs that harness the amazing skills of young adults with autism.  We grow local, organic vegetables for our community, and those who buy from us help to create jobs and change lives.”

As is often the case, it was personal experience that sparked the idea that has become a prosperous and socially conscious business.  Jan Pilarski tells the story of  her son Chris, a high functioning autistic college graduate who couldn’t deal with the social challenges of a traditional job.  When he returned home, jobless, his mother recalls that “it was food that slowly brought us back to life.”  Chris had a passion for fresh, healthy, local food.  The family looked around to learn, among other things,  how other sustainable ventures had taught practical farming skills to inner city youth, to veterans, and to others marginalized in the work economy, to people who excel at the essential routines successful farming demands.

GBG is story of creative and socially responsible thinking.    Today sustainable locavore is hot, farm-to-market is the rage, sustainable agriculture ventures are establishing deep roots and reaping results throughout Minnesota and the Twin Cities.  What this story adds is the social goal of engaging a fresh and eager crop of growers in the process of sharing the labor and reaping the rewards.  It takes work, patience, holistic thinking and a social commitment.   The harvest is rich is countless ways.

As for GBG, they’re growing as fast as their crops.  There was a great article about the project in The Atlantic a few months ago.  (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/an-organic-greenhouse-run-by-farmers-with-autism/282145/gbg).  Chris and Jan star in an informative video they produced as part of a successful crowd-sourced campaign that will allow them to expand their equipment, their market and their employee base.

Needless to say, GBG excels at tweeting the latest news, freshest produce and wisest quotes – The quote from Friday, May 30, is from Mark Twain who wrote:

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.  The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting the first one.”  No surprise that Chris Tidmarsh and Jan Pilarski have declared this the mantra of Green Bridge Growers.

Contact information for GBG:  Innovation Park Notre Dame, 1400 East Angela Blvd, South Bend, IN 46617 574 310 8190, greenbridgegrowers@gmail.com




International Year of Family Farming – What it’s about, Why it matters

For Minnesotans the true Rite of Spring is planting season – even if the experience is remembered or vicarious.  Planting season with real farmers on real tractors with genetically un-modified seeds, rotated crops and other practices that promote sustainable agricultural systems.  Happily, nostalgia is giving way to reality as urban farming, farm to home, and farmers market programs and locavore cuisine raise the profile of family farming and the role that family farmers play in growing nutritious food to feed a hungry world — while protecting the environment and preserving the land.

Still, conspicuously absent from the mainstream headlines is the news that 2014 is International Year of Family Farming!   This global effort aims to reposition family farming at the center of agricultural, environmental and social politics “by identifying gaps and opportunities to promote a shift towards a more equal and balanced development.”

IYFF offers the chance for a global conversation among family farmers and, even more, among those working outside the agriculture sector, to creatively re-think the central role, strength, and challenges to the family farm.  Planners encourage policy makers to think systemically – to connect the dots that link family farming with the organic whole in which family farming is an essential player – the environment, economic development, sociological, cultural and community ties.

Who should celebrate the International Year of Family Farming?  This is, after all, an international initiative, promoted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in particular.  At the global level, attention is understandably on the mega-issues – addressing world hunger, building strong economies in third world countries, promoting sustainable agriculture.  The UN website describes an ambitious vision and sets the context.


Still, for Minnesotans, family farming is a local issue that invites individual and organizational attention.  Close to home, who has a stake in the celebration of the IYFF?   Everyone, of course…..

  • Anyone or any organization that cares even peripherally about safe food or the environment
  • Educators and educational institutions that shape both the opportunities and the attitudes of youth
  • Local newspapers and the advertisers that support their role as the connectors of the community
  • Urban oriented media that need to go on the road not just for features and oddities (fun as they are) but for hard news and news analysis.
  • Government agencies that gather and manage data – if it’s not counted, it doesn’t count when resources are allocated or services delivered.
  • The faith community whose rural presence is precarious at best.
  • Proponents of broadband — though there’s been a lot of talk and action, there’s not been a so much talk about or engagement of small and family farmers
  • Obviously, family farming matters to each of us because we all care about  land preservation, clean water and air, safe food, the state economy,  the welfare of all Minnesotans…..

Bottom line – focus on family farming deserves to be moved to the front burner.  The voices of family farmers must be heard in every discussion.  The data needed to reflect the reality.  The environment, the economy, the story of Minnesota’s heritage depend on our collective awareness and understanding of family farming as a core value.

The International Year of Family Farming offers Minnesotans a push to get up and do what needs to be done to understand and preserve our proud heritage.



Leadership, local economy and lunch shape Farm to School Curriculum

Poking around is a persistent addiction.  Though the geography and focus shift with time, exploring new terrain simply expands the possibilities.  Thus, in my quest to spread the share the message of open government, I have had the privilege to meet with scores of great people who are doing amazing work on issues that include sustainable agriculture, the rural economy, the environment, children’s health, food safety,  family farms, ethnic diversity —  always looking for the open government thread that runs through just about everything – once you start looking for it.

All of this poking around reinforces my quest for practical examples of creative approaches to systemic thinking about critical issues – including creative thinking  about the confluence of healthy food and sustainable agriculture.  Thus my delight at the discovery of a treasure from a somewhat unlikely source – the new Farm to School Youth Leadership Curriculum recently released by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).  It’s fresh, fun and online for all to adapt and apply.

Farm to School offers a promising approach to engaging 11th and 12th graders to build leadership skills by working in partnership with food service staff, farmers and local food sources to re-think their own local food system —  to possibly take a hand in forging links between local farmers and the breakfast and lunch programs that both fuel and forge healthy habits in young learners.

The curriculum offers six lessons that may be taught consecutively over a semester or as single lessons or activities to complement other classes.  In order to make its way into the classrooms, Farm to School fulfills national and state curriculum requirements.  The goals range from promoting children’s health and “food literacy” to “strengthening local economies by expanding markets for small and mid-size agricultural producers and food entrepreneurs whose products have typically been unavailable in school meal programs.”

Erin McKee Van Slooten, who worked on the curriculum design, notes that “despite the rapid growth of Farm to School programs around the country, the legwork of connecting with farmers and sourcing local foods can often be difficult for school staff on top of their day-to-day work.  Our curriculum puts that work in students’ hands, while teaching them about their local food scene.”

Labeled a “youth leadership” project, the IATP curriculum is just that.   Natasha Mortenson helped construct the curriculum.  Reflecting on her experience as an ag educator and FFA advisor at Morris Area High School Mortenson  says that her “students have taken ownership of the Farm to School program in our school, and have developed leadership and team building skills as they completed tasks in learning about our local food system and seasonal availability.”  The goal, she says, is dual:  about implementing Farm to School and about “growing young leaders that understand how to build a program from the ground up.”

The Farm to School Youth Leadership Program was funded by the Center for e Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the John P. and Eleanor R. Yackel Foundation, the Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Whatever your memory of or interest in your own experience, your business or your kid’s or grandkid’s school lunch you’ll find the IATP approach a departure from past experience.  Forget what was then, take a look at the full package on the IATP website – lots of background, great graphics  and tips on promoting the Farm to School concept and curriculum.

As we haggle over nutrition and costs,  and wring our hands about how some needy families have been mistreated by the present system,  take time to step back, grab a nutritious locally grown snack, and, with the help re-think the whole approach to a tired tradition with which the folks at IATP have had the grit to grapple.

Learn more on the IATP website