Slow, steady approach set for food, farm initiative on former base

RANTOUL — The village will take a graduated approach in beginning its food and farm initiative on the former Chanute Air Force Base.

Mike Royse, a community innovations consultant for the Center for Community Adaptation, which has a contract with the village, said organizers don’t want to bite off more than they can chew in the first year of the project.

The initiative will consist of a food incubator, which will include the planting of food plots; a food hub, which includes a packing, sorting, grading, marketing and storage facility; farmers market; education center and research facility.

“There was a little bit of nervousness about having an overwhelming amount of business day one when we were still working on the form of the lease and where we are going to get irrigation from and things like that,” Royse told the village board at last week’s study session.

He said only 5 acres will be planted the first year. (Up to 40 acres are available.)

Royse said he met with Mayor Chuck Smith and Comptroller Scot Brandon on the financial planning portion of the initiative.

A staff meeting was also held where Royse met with Luke Humphrey, recreation superintendent; Pete Passarelli, assistant director of public works; Martin Alblinger, economic development architect; Roman Fox, high school ag instructor; and Brad Uken, Champaign County Farm Bureau manager.

Staff recommended doing the initiative in two phases. The first year will be a pilot year in which a small number of tenant farmers plus high school students will plant crops.

“That way they can work out the interrelationships between the farmers, and access to tools and irrigation won’t be out of control,” Royse said.

The food hub will also be opened, “not only to handle the vegetables they are able to grow this year, which would be a pretty good amount, even though it’s a small bit of acreage, but to allow us to convene the education groups, the agencies across the state that want to encourage us to talk about grant funding and making an investment,” Royse said.

According to Royse, the steering committee believes “there’s a tremendous opportunity for food localization and commerce to happen, not only in the region but all over Illinois and that this region would be special because of the commitment to the packing, sorting, grading, training and other aspects of this facility.”

Also during the first year, they would “tighten up” Parkland’s and the University of Illinois’ contribution and involvement in the project and allow them to develop the curriculum.

He also said Donna Dalton from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity would like to bring representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, Economic Development Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Rantoul with a speaker from Vermont, which has “one of the national premier systems in farm and food incubation.”

Asked about the status of a farmers market, Royse said Uken “is a little worried we’re a little too late,” Royse said.

“One concern is if the local producers (there’s an awful lot of them out there, even though we need a lot more) ... don’t plan to produce excess, then we might not need the additional outlet.”

He said there are plans to hold the farmers market on a Wednesday, so it complements Urbana’s farmers market.



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