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Tuesday, May 13, 2003 02:20 pm

Homegrown

Local fare featured at this weekend’s Illinois Products Expo

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You could say Dan Heffelmire likes corn.

"That's his life," says his wife, Connie. "It's his passion and obsession. He's out there in the summer trying to create hybrids and hand-breeding corn for the future. His life has revolved around corn. He would do this job if he didn't get paid."

The Pleasant Plains couple has turned Dan's captivation with corn into a business called Prairie Foods, which produces Corn Crunch, a snack made by roasting specialty corn with a blend of oils and spices. The Heffelmires are one of approximately 90 business and agricultural groups that will be offering samples and showcasing their wares at the Illinois Products Expo this weekend at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Heffelmire honed his knowledge of the golden vegetable while working at Frito Lay and a Midwest corn-handling facility. In 1995, he started his own company called HB Specialists, which contracts with farmers to grow and export specialty corn. He soon decided that the world needed a new corn snack, so three years ago he and Connie, a former nurse, introduced Corn Crunch, which comes in flavors such as ranch, cheddar cheese, chilli-lemon, and even chocolate.

"It's not everybody's cup of tea," admits Connie, but the crunchy kernels "are similar to Corn Nuts, but not as hard," and taste "like Frito Lay chips." The corn is grown in Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri, and then the snack gets manufactured in Michigan.

Besides the Heffelmires' Crunchy Corn snacks, the Illinois Products Expo will feature a wide variety of items, from blueberry wine to blue cheese. An Illinois Wine and Cheese Garden will feature fare from state vintners and cheese companies. Other homegrown products include honey, barbecue sauce, marinated meats, pasta, fried catfish, "soynut" butter, coffee, apple cider slushies, jams and jellies, homemade pickles, nuts, candy, soy wax candles, salad dressings, pizza, and even hand lotions and soap made from corn and soybeans.

Another local entrepreneur, Debbie Taylor of Springfield, will be showing both her custom gift baskets and "Raven Hot" brand of gourmet wing sauce and seasonings, which were developed by her brother, John Raven. Her baskets, sold through Pooh's Corner Inc., are shaped like the state of Illinois and filled with local products. They're often given as gifts by Illinois companies, and one such basket even made it to the White House (it was a gift for Hilary Clinton). Taylor will be handing out samples of hot wings, but she says the "Raven Hot" sauce can be used on everything from fish to eggs to pizza. A new sweet hot sauce will be unveiled at the show.

"The Illinois Products Expo offers Illinois food companies an excellent opportunity to promote their products to consumers and food buyers," says Sandy Rolando, acting director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. "Attendance has increased in each of the expo's first four years, and surpassed 5,000 last year for the first time. Market development efforts like this are important to our economy. Food manufacturing is Illinois' leading manufacturing activity, and the state's 1,700 food companies create demand for our crops and jobs for their communities."

In addition to sampling Illinois-made food, visitors can learn cooking secrets from Nina Rossini, executive chef at the Governor's Mansion, and Howard Helmer, billed as the "World's Fastest Omelet Maker." Taylor, a Springfield teacher who started her gift-basket business in 1986, participated in the expo for the first time last year. "The feedback was incredible," she says. "Everyone has a good time, and I have to take my hat off to the Department of Agriculture--they make the show what it is."

Hours for the Illinois Products Expo are 4-7 p.m. Friday, February 28; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, March 1; and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, March 2. Admission is $2 for adults, free for children ages ten and younger. Door prizes will be awarded. A complete list of exhibitors and their products is available at www.agr.state.il.us/marketing/expo/expo.html

For more information on Corn Crunch, contact Prairie Foods, 100 E. Third in Pleasant Plains (626-1867; www.prairiefoods.com). To contact Debbie Taylor about her gift baskets or hot sauce, call 546-4686.

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