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URBANA — A proposal by Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery to expand its operation into new foods and crops took a step forward Tuesday as the city council recommended approval of a lease for city land just south of the current operation.

Prairie Fruits Farm, which raises goats, sells cheese and hosts farm-to-table dinners, has plans to grow grain that could be used for bread, pizza dough and tortilla chips by 2021.

“If you haven’t had fresh-ground flour, it’s a different beast than what you normally buy,” said co-owner Wes Jarrell. “It’s more subtle, with even more interesting flavors as it sifts around. So we would be demonstrating some of that.”

The five-year lease would see Prairie Fruits pay the city $350 a year to use land the city owns just south of its operation near the intersection of North Lincoln Avenue and Olympian Drive.

A final vote will be held next week, said Brandon Boys, the city’s economic development manager.

The city currently leases the land for $700 a year to a local farmer growing corn and soybeans.

Boys said there was one other bidder, but the city went with Prairie Fruits because it better met the project outline to promote specialty crop production and agri-tourism.

The city may one day use the land for the eastward expansion of Olympian, which currently ends at North Lincoln, but that’s not expected anytime soon.

“There are no plans at this time,” Mayor Diane Marlin said.

She said it makes more sense to use that land for grains and vegetables than corn and soybeans.

“It’s an ideal location for giving young farmers an opportunity. Seven or 8 acres is nothing for corn production; it’s a lot of land for vegetables or grains for human consumption,” Marlin said. “I think it’s an exciting opportunity, and it complements what they’re doing there already.”

The project would include grains grown by Jarrell and vegetables grown by Catie Gregg, who works at Prairie Rivers Network, a local environmental group.

“Land access is really a big barrier for beginning farmers if you don’t come from a farming family, and so this is a great opportunity,” Gregg said.

In addition to growing produce and grains, they hope to follow organic growing methods and improve the soil.

“As soil scientists, we’re really anxious to document the changes and improvement in soil quality that are going to occur over the five years of the lease,” Jarrell said.

Because Olympian may one day be extended, Gregg and Jarrell are agreeing not to build on the land and to return it the condition it’s currently in.

Ward 2 Alderman Eric Jakobsson questioned whether this meant they would have to degrade the soil when they are finished.

“As I read it, it would be mandatory for them to degrade the soil before they leave,” he said.

But Boys said the lease would not require Prairie Fruits to worsen the soil.

“It’s an option of the lease,” Boys said.

The lease would allow them to “remove the developed organic soil and replace it with topsoil of the same quality as the topsoil present at the start of the lease,” according to his report to the city council.

“We have no intention of degrading it,” Jarrell said.

News-Gazette