The University of Illinois is taking steps to close a St. Charles Horticulture Research and Demonstration Center — but a coalition of public and private organizations is exploring options to save the facility that has been a hub for agricultural research and food production education in northeast Illinois.
For the last three years, the center has functioned as a learning farm for participants in the university’s beginning farmer training program. The 12-month course prepares prospective fruit and vegetable farmers with a comprehensive curriculum that covers all aspects of specialty crop production including business planning, high tunnel construction/operation, harvest practices, equipment operation, food safety and much more. Students meet one day per month for the class which is split between classroom instruction and hands-on field demonstrations.
The center in St. Charles is one of three locations across the state used by the university for the beginning farmer training program. The New Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Farmers course was developed with the support of a three-year USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program grant, and will conclude this November.
The center is home to a variety of agricultural research projects conducted by university faculty and graduate students. Research activities have included pesticide and fertilizer trials, experimental specialty crop growing techniques and nutrient management testing.
In recent years a few local companies have partnered with the university to conduct their own product trials and research on the Center grounds. One winemaker was able to make use of the Center’s grapevines for product testing in northern Illinois’ climate.
In addition to operating as a fully-functional research farm, the center has become a valuable community education resource — a field trip destination introducing young adults to specialty crop production as a career opportunity. Visitors will find demonstration plots around the main entrance to the research facility with informational placards that illustrate various horticultural concepts.
The research facility sits on a 70-acre tract of land at the corner of Peck Road and IL Route 38. The university leases the western two-thirds of the site to a local corn grower. All research activity and farm infrastructure is located on the easternmost 25 acres of the site (pictured below). This includes a 3,000 square foot high tunnel, greenhouse, storage warehouse, utility garage, tractor, irrigation system and other farm equipment. The university controls an additional 30 acres of agricultural land on the south side of Route 38 that it also leases.
A working group consisting of University of Illinois faculty and Extension staff, the Northern Illinois Food Bank, Kane County Farm Bureau and Kane County Planning Division are currently exploring options to preserve the Horticulture Center for continued research, production and education activities.
The group will consider proposals and funding options that could support ongoing food and agricultural programs managed by these entities.