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WATCH NOW: Company behind vertical farm in vacant Target hopes to roll out new technology nationwide

WATCH NOW: Company behind vertical farm in vacant Target hopes to roll out new technology nationwide


CALUMET CITY — The so-called retailpocalypse, followed by the coronavirus pandemic, has left the American landscape littered with the vacant caverns of empty big-box stores.

A Chicago company thinks it has the answer of what to do with at least some of that empty space.

Wilder Fields is using the former Super Target store in Calumet City that it's turning into a $40 million indoor vertical farm as a test run for a model it hopes to expand across the nation. Founder Jake Counne envisions such farms in empty big-box stores in cities across the country, each distributing organic produce to restaurants and grocery stores within a 100-mile radius.

"We see vacant buildings as new plains to be discovered. We see food deserts as fertile land that can be sown to support its surrounding communities," he said. "Our goal is to bring this vision to life, across the United States."

Indoor urban farming has been taking off across the United States. Gotham Greens, for instance, now operates two greenhouses in Chicago's far South Side Pullman neighborhood where it has been growing herbs and greens like butter lettuce that is sold around Chicagoland, including at the Whole Foods in Schererville and Jewel-Osco supermarkets in Northwest Indiana.

Gotham Greens runs traditional greenhouses, while Wilder Fields deploys artificial lighting to grow in vertical greenrooms that have quick harvests and can be readily adapted to grow whatever suits changing tastes and market conditions. It could get a new product on local supermarket shelves in as few as 45 days.

"It's a game changer in terms of the flexibility we can offer groceries," Counne said. "We'll be honing in on the market for the consumer to tell us what they want."

The vacant 135,000-square-foot Target by the River Oaks Mall will use artificial intelligence to grow 25 million pounds of greens, including kale, spring mix, microgreens, and Tatsoi.

"In the footprint of an average living room, we can grow a football field's worth of produce, and we can do it at a cost on par with what's grown on the West Coast," Counne said. "Our team created propriety hardware and software — we have multiple patents pending — that reduce the costs associated with energy and labor. These inventions also increase production growth because they make it possible to dynamically control the grown environment — a minute at a time — and to significantly reduce human contact."

Wilder Fields uses machine vision to look at the plants and understand how they are growing in real time. If it detects any signs of stress, it can dynamically adjust the environment accordingly. Being able to adjust conditions with a great degree of precision results in better yields, better flavor and better textures, Counne said.

"What happens is the plant itself becomes the center that's controlling its environment," he said.

The startup company, whose board includes Bob Mariano from Mariano’s, has been talking to major grocers in Chicago and distribution. It hopes to introduce new, more exotic greens to local dining room tables when its products hit the shelves early next year.

"We will use advanced technology to amplify Mother Nature's gifts," Counne said. "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. Eating healthy won't need to be a chose, it will be a joy."

If it's successful, Wilder Fields hopes to duplicate the model established in Calumet City, which will employ 80 people at full capacity and include a small retail store, in vacant big-box stores across the country.

"We'll be bringing back lost jobs," he said. "We'll employ the underemployed. And not just providing entry level, but creating a training path to real upward job advancement in the agtech industry... We want to do this across the nation. We want to continue to use existing buildings and vacant space. We want to be able to refurbish them into sustainable farms. We think it's a powerful idea. We're solving so problems at the same time."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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