Food-farm initiative has momentum in Rantoul

Food-farm initiative has momentum in Rantoul

RANTOUL — Plans for development of a Rantoul food and farm initiative and a renewable energy research center are making the most progress as part of the Rantoul Re-Imagination Project on the former Chanute Air Force Base.

And the food and farm initiative appears to be leading the pack in terms of readiness.

Mike Royse, a community innovations consultant for the Center for Community Adaptation, which has a contract with the village of Rantoul, said the agriculture sector of the project will boast several features, including a food incubator, farmers market, education center, research facility and food hub, which includes a packing, sorting, grading, marketing and storage facility.

Local residents could see evidence of the food incubator as soon as April 1 when planting begins on part of the 40 acres of ground set aside for food plots on the former base.

"People in communities all over the world would (prefer) to eat foods grown nearby that are healthy, that don't cost as much money, that create a sustainable community," Royse said.

He said that idea has grown in recent years.

Brad Uken, Champaign County Farm Bureau manager, has been a member of the planning committee since the inception of the ag component.

The food incubator would be a place for wanna-be food producers to get started — people who believe they can make a vocation out of farming but have no place to start. They would start small with a plot of land from as small as a half acre to as large as 5 acres.

The food plots will be divided between organic and traditional growing methods, Uken said.

The committee also envisions a farm education aspect of the development, providing an advisory role for growers.

Roman Fox, an ag teacher at Rantoul Township High School, is a member of the food and farm initiative steering committee. Last year the school's FFA chapter planted crops on 2 acres at the site, located near the intersection of Century Boulevard and Perimeter Road. A larger area will be set aside for other growers this year.

"We will start on the southern portion," Fox said. "As we add farmers and tenants, we'll work our way north."

The farm plots aren't designed for people who merely want to garden (other tracts are set aside for gardeners). The goal, Fox said, is to develop an alternative food production source — first at the farmers market level and later possibly selling produce to wholesalers.

"Even if they're farming only an acre or 2, maybe it could tie into (other) opportunities," Fox said. "(The market for) locally grown produce and foods is growing nationwide and in this region too."

It will be an opportunity for growers to develop their own operation and in the future possibly to market to grocery stores, restaurants and wholesalers.

Fox's focus will be primarily on the educational aspects for participating RTHS students.

"From my standpoint as an ag educator in town, (the focus) is to look at the eduction aspect, to give good hands-on learning, build responsibility and those kinds of work skills they need for the future," Fox said.

Fox said organizers hope to have the food hub — the vegetable packing, sorting, grading, marketing and storage facility — ready at Rantoul Business Center. With planting on the plots hopefully starting around April 1, it is the committee's goal to have the hub ready by mid-May to the first of June.

Both Royse and Fox said former Village Administrator Bruce Sandahl has been the point man with the group to develop the concept. They hope the village will continue to be open to development of the projects with the recent termination of Sandahl's contract as administrator.

Royse said the opportunity is there.

He said one economic consultant estimates Illinois is spending $300 million a year on food it could be growing itself but instead is importing.

"The idea is to encourage more farmers to grow foods we can consume locally, to connect that marketplace up," Royse said.

Uken said he has been focusing his efforts on the farmers market portion of the project.

He said the location of the farmers market has not been determined.

"The intention is to be somewhere in downtown Rantoul," Uken said.

Renewable energy plans

Several agencies are involved with planning for the Renewable Energy Research Center on the former base, including the University of Illinois and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.

"Almost every department at the U of I has something to do with biofuels, engineering, ACES (The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences). ... It's part of the architectural, regional and urban planning implementations," Royse said. "There's just an awful lot of interest in it."

The organizing committee will go after grants to develop the program.

In the biofuel program, a need for a gasification process has been identified that "allows us to set up a supply chain for varying types of biostock to create a market for it and produce syngas (a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen) and/or fuel, and the facility would be used not only to produce gas and fuel in which we could create electricity, it also would demonstrate how to take things like grasses and corn stover (produced from husks, cobs, leaves and stalks left in the field after harvesting) and even other types of biowastes that you would find around the community and generate renewable energy with it," Royse said.

He said a number of tech firms have a desire to test out their processes. One goal calls for a demonstration project that would be assembled and include a small-scale plant "that would work out the details of the supply chain."

Various sites on the former base are being studied.

Planners have also imagined opportunities in two other areas — 1) research and education and 2) recreation and tourism on the base, but those possibilities are not as far advanced as the food and farm initiative and renewable energy research center ideas.

The goal, Royse said, is to create high-paying jobs.

Instead of having one large user like the Air Force or a Boeing come onto the former base, the goal is to have several smaller developments there.

Royse said it would allow for greater innovation, local involvement and social good.

"What we're aiming for is to go after those two industries that are really strong in the area, and that's agriculture and research."

He said the economic development conveyance from the Air Force to the village calls for revenues produced by leases on the former base to be placed in a special fund, "which creates an economic development incentive war chest."

Rantoul awards funding to businesses that would produce jobs and would help the entire community, creating more investment in Rantoul.

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