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Vertical farm planned for former big-box store in Calumet City

A $40 million venture of Wilder Fields would replace a Super Target and generate a variety of greens.

A former Super Target store, at 1717 E. West Road in Calumet City, will be turned into a vertical farm supplying produce to groceries and restaurants within 100 miles.

A former Super Target store in Calumet City will be turned into a vertical farm supplying produce to groceries and restaurants within 100 miles, the project’s leader and local officials said Wednesday.

The $40 million development is a venture of Wilder Fields, which was founded on the city’s South Side and operated on a small scale under the name Backyard Fresh Farms. The company’s founder and CEO, Jake Counne, said he expects to create 80 full-time jobs in the facility at 1717 E. West Road, near the River Oaks shopping center.

Blending hydroponics—growing crops in a mineral-enriched solution rather than in soil—with artificial intelligence, Counne said his company can increase yields and reduce costs and water usage compared with other forms of agriculture. He said the company has applied for several patents on its processes.

At capacity, the 135,000-square-foot building will produce 25 million pounds of greens annually, he said. Officials said the Super Target store closed in 2015.

“We will blow people’s minds with varieties and flavors that they have never tasted, because those greens would have never survived the journey to their plate,” Counne said at an announcement of the project with the mayor of Calumet City, Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush.

Jake Counne

A first phase of the project is expected by early 2021. The phase will include an initial group of eight-level “cleanrooms” designed for different types of produce. Plans call for the building to have 24 cleanrooms by the end of the final phase in early 2023, along with a retail store and an education center.

Counne said his company is discussing incentives with Calumet City officials and expects to purchase the property from Target. He said the building has the proper size and proximity to his market, and its loading dock will be useful for distribution.

His company’s approach differs from that of Gotham Greens, which operates an industrial-scale greenhouse in Pullman. Counne said his facility relies on indoor lights and conditions it can precisely control, even to slow plant growth when there is little demand.

Finding a new use for a big-box store appeals to him. “To my knowledge, converting a big-box store to a farm has never been done before,” Counne said. With other investors, he’s also been involved in renovating and renting out several hundred homes on the city’s South Side.