Food hub, biofuel facility possibilities for Chanute

Food hub, biofuel facility possibilities for Chanute

RANTOUL — Could the former Chanute Air Force Base become the site of a food hub or a biofuel facility?

Those are two possibilities being explored, according to Mike Royse, a community innovations consultant with the Center for Community Adaptation.

The village of Rantoul is providing $4,000 a month for the center's work on the project.

Royse said the village appears to be moving closer to seeing development of the property, with the help of several partners, including the University of Illinois, Parkland College, Champaign County Farm Bureau, Champaign County Economic Development Corp., Champaign County Regional Planning Commission and others.

Possibilities include a food hub, where fresh produce would be grown, and biofuel facilities and technology.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a food hub helps both producers and consumers of fresh produce.

It offers a combination of production, aggregation, distribution and marketing services. That helps producers gain entry to markets that would be difficult or impossible to access on their own.

Royse said area communities and agencies see the importance of local development on base because it affects the regional economy.

The former base has an "amazing" amount of space and infrastructure available for use, he said.

"It positions Rantoul as a jewel of the region and shows what Rantoul can do that nobody else can," Royse said.

Royse said the time has come for base development projects to be publicized, even if all arrangements have not been formulated.

A key hurdle is getting people to believe, he said.

"I'd say the key challenge that I've been hearing all of you face is disbelief in a future that's possible," Royse said.

He said the development has advanced "from conversation to concept, and now we've started to go from concept to potential feasibility."

Village board member Hank Gamel said the time "to start talking about this more widely" appears to be now, "when some of our people would be motivated to help and highly encouraged to help."

Royse said development of some type of biofuel facility could be more feasible due to a mandate that all state government agencies reduce their carbon emissions 25 percent by 2025.

"So what we're investigating here is, does that create a market for renewable energy, and can we sell that at a cost that is budgetable by these agencies?" he said. "Also, are we better to buy it from in-state or out of state?"

Royse said the Illinois Department of Transportation has developed a test plot of prairie grasses along U.S. 136 west of Rantoul.

He said agronomists want to determine whether prairie grasses would work in the renewable energy outreach.

"The governor wanted to look into this initiative," Royse said. "Could we grow grasses ... to create renewable energy?"

The food hub project could be the most realistic initiative in the short term.

Village Administrator Bruce Sandahl has been part of several meetings discussing the possibility of a food hub.

If the concept proceeds, the scope has yet to be determined. The hub could include a commercial component as well as an individual one.

"There's a tremendous interest in community gardening," Royse said, adding that the project ties in with the biofuels project.

Bradley Uken, manager of the Champaign County Farm Bureau, said his organization has interest in the food hub idea.

"We've got a goal (for) this fall that we'll be ready to start getting individuals interested in growing signed up (for next spring)," Uken said.

He said a Rantoul Township High School FFA effort this year will involve planting of an acre each of sweet corn and watermelons on the former base.

He said Illini FS has donated the seed for both crops to the FFA.

Uken said there has been a great deal of interest in the development of a food hub.

"So far there has been kind of a core group of individuals to put this thing together," Uken said. "We're trying to work out some details with some interested parties before we meet with farmers (and others)."

In addition to the village and both county and state Farm Bureau officials, representatives from Rantoul Township High School FFA, Royse, the University of Illinois and Parkland College have been part of the project steering committee, Uken said.

What part of the old base would be used has not been decided, he said.

Royse said an interest in better nutrition has helped fuel people's interest in growing or buying fresh produce.

"Stores and restaurants have decided to really focus on this, and demand is way up over supply," Royse said. "Illinois is bleeding profusely in terms of opportunity lost in bringing in fresh produce instead of growing our own. This could be addressed with food hubs."

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