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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Indigo Initiative Ramps Up in Baltimore with Building, Incorporates More Fields and Black Farmers

Indigo dye is harvested from the plant that does everything from making cotton jeans blue to giving boots, sneakers, home décor, wood, and leather brilliant shades of blue hues. Before these items can become colored treasures, seeds are needed to grow indigo plants which sprout leaves for harvesting. It may not be foremost in one’s thoughts to imagine that indigo plants have been growing locally in Baltimore for four summers, but jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities are expected to arise because of a progressive initiative.

The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) hosted a groundbreaking on June 28, 2022 for the Natural Dye Initiative (NDI), in partnership with Upton Planning Committee, Inc. According to a press release, the NDI, which is “a collaboration dedicated to the development of a natural dye ecosystem,” will be housed in the historic Harriet Beecher Stowe School. It is located at 1223 Argyle Ave. in Baltimore. Fields in the 1200 block of Argyle Ave. and five additional locations will be utilized.

(l-r) Howard Tutman, Development Officer, Baltimore City DHCD; Sammy Hoi, President, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA); Darroll Cribb, President, Uptown Planning Committee (UPC); Wanda Best, Executive Director, Upton Planning Community; Jules D. Howie, Director, UPC Westside CDC; Dr. Sheri Parks, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, MICA; Nicole Davis, Real Estate Agent, Baltimore City, DHCD; Owen McEvoy, Deputy Secretary, Maryland Department of Housing & Community Development; Sean Stinnett, Deputy Director, Mayor’s Office of Minority and Women-Owned Business & Director of Baltimore Main Streets; Larry Brown, Assistant Director, Baltimore Region, Maryland Department of Housing & Community Development
Photo credits: Ian Harpool

The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development is providing funding for purchasing the school building and rehabbing it; purchasing large processing equipment; providing labor and materials for readying the land and clearing it; and covering fencing expenses. Other funders are participating.

Wanda Best, the Executive Director of the Upton Planning Committee (UPC), described herself as “a connector of resources” who runs the community organization that serves as the umbrella for six neighborhood associations and the Pennsylvania Ave. Main St. corridor. The indigo is being grown in Upton. MICA is leading the NDI.

Event participants view development plans for the Natural Dye Initiative
Photo credits: Ian Harpool

Dr. Sheri Parks, the Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at MICA, explained that while MICA has demonstrated other natural dyes, indigo has the most cultural relevance. Enslaved people once took care of the crop in places such as South Carolina. Parks added that “natural indigo had almost died out,” while mentioning that it had been replaced by synthetic indigo.

In the past five years, a growing resurgence of interest in natural indigo has evolved, so the NDI’s existence is well-timed. This summer marks the first time that farmers in other parts of Maryland and the U.S., such as North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia have been involved in a different type of partnership through the NDI. Specifically, farmers who have larger acreage could participate. Parks explained that engaging directly with Black farmers entails reintroducing them to indigo and assisting with growing a crop that is more lucrative.

“These farmers are growing seed that we provided to them this year,” Parks said.

Additionally, Best is also a dietician who stated that indigo has health properties. She has farming roots, too. Best pointed out that Black farmers have always struggled to find alternative crops. However, indigo is quick growing and profitable.

The Blessing of the Land, a West African Tradition, performed by
indigo artist Kibibi Ajanku

“I’m a farmer,” Best said, explaining why the community development piece of the NDI has come full circle for her. “One of the farms in South Carolina is my family farm. We raise Angus cows, but we’ve decided to participate in a part of this.”

MICA’s students, faculty, and paid urban farmers have pitched in at various times to take care of farming the indigo. Park’s role has partially been to assist with developing the project as a community-based undertaking. Job creation has been an integral aspect of accomplishing the goal while working with Best. After the farmers harvest their indigo, the leaves can be separated from the stems with industrial machines, then they can be grinded and packaged. It will be prepared for retail and wholesale selling. While explaining this process, Parks explained that jobs are expected to be available since the NDI’s online selling of purchased indigo is also part of the plan. Classes will also be held for community members to broaden their indigo expertise

Parks also reflected on how the idea to bring indigo to the Baltimore area was sparked by First Lady Yumi Hogan. The Korean-American artist’s hometown is Naju, South Korea. Hogan wanted to find out if indigo could grow in Charm City, so she reportedly asked MICA to prepare a presentation for the Korean delegation. Since it went well several summers ago, growing three strains (types) of indigo as a demonstration unfolded.

“And as everybody expected, the Asian strain which is grown in Korea, grows the best,” Parks said.

Karida Collins, owner of Neighborhood Fiber Co., leads a yarn dyeing company on Utah St. in Baltimore which manufactures yarn for hand knitting and crocheting. Collins is a partner to the NDI. Her small business has hosted workshops for it. Collins hopes to assist new entrepreneurs who will enter the indigo ecosystem. Additionally, her company will provide use of its facility to process indigo leaves while NDI’s facilities are being built.

“I’m excited about this (NDI) project, and I’m excited about being able to contribute to it as a partner,” Collins said.

Please visit https://www.instagram.com/bmorenaturaldye/ for NDI updates.

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