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Vacant for five years, a former Target store near Chicago gets new life as an indoor vertical farm

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

CHICAGO -- A former Target that's been sitting vacant in Calumet City, Ill., for five years will be reborn as an indoor vertical farm producing locally grown greens for the Chicago area.

The 135,000-square-foot building in the River Oaks shopping center will house stacks of trays growing kale, arugula and other leafy greens under artificial lights. A retail shop on site will sell the produce to the community and invite people in to learn about how indoor farming works.

Once at full capacity, Wilder Fields will employ 80 people and produce 25 million heads of lettuce a year that will be available in grocery stores across the region, said founder Jake Counne. Wilder Fields is the new name of the company, which previously was called Backyard Fresh Farms.

The property was exactly what Counne envisioned when he set out to repurpose existing buildings as indoor farms to supply fresh produce to cities far from the growing fields of California and Arizona.

As retail giants close stores, a trend that's been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Counne hopes to put the buildings they leave behind to sustainable use.

"We think this is very repeatable," said Counne, who was a real estate investor before he became an agricultural entrepreneur. "There is a huge amount of vacant anchor retail space."

 

Calumet City, which borders Chicago's southern edge, acquired the building from Target and will lease it to Wilder Fields for 12 months, Counne said. After that, he plans to purchase the property from the city.

Counne expects to break ground by the end of this year, and have the first phase of the redevelopment completed by early next year. After operating at a smaller scale to work out the kinks, Counne plans to finish developing the site by 2023. A group of investors is funding the first phase of the project. He declined to say how much funding he has received.

Produce grown locally indoors has gained popularity with consumers in recent years for environmental and quality reasons. It uses less land and water than traditional agriculture and travels far shorter distances, so the product is fresher and lasts longer when it gets into consumers' hands. Growing year-round in controlled environments also cuts down on waste and contamination and avoids the challenges of unpredictable weather.

The Chicago area is home to several greenhouses that sell greens commercially, including Gotham Greens in Chicago's Pullman neighborhood and BrightFarms in Rochelle, both of which have recently expanded. But vertical farms, which use artificial light rather than sunlight, have struggled to succeed at a large scale.

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