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South Carolina’s indigo revival

By Emily Havener

Jermaine Euland of the African American Farmers Association and Ellie Davis of Dogleg Farms with their first crop of indigo seedlings. Image by Charleston Mercury staff.

Indigo has a mythology in South Carolina as a once-upon-a-time crop that has mostly disappeared from modern-day production. It is the official color of our state flag, chosen to reflect the uniforms of Patriot soldiers who fought against the British; this was probably also a practical choice due to the mass farming and production of indigo in South Carolina at the time. But nowadays, commercially produced indigo dye comes from a synthetic version made from coal.

Indigo seeds have continued to be quietly planted, however, on small farms, cultivated for artisanal purposes. Now, however, there is a movement to revitalize indigo farming and production in South Carolina and turn it into the vital commodity it once was. Oddly enough, it all started with hemp. Hemp is the crop that founded the farming careers of Ellie Davis, Jermaine Euland and Sheena Myers. Although none of them started out their careers as farmers, Jermaine and Sheena are now continuing a generations-long tradition of farming in their families. All three met growing hemp. And all three are now deeply involved in the renewal of indigo as a commercial crop in the Palmetto State.

Most South Carolinians have heard of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who is credited for her role in experimenting with indigo agriculture and processing, as well as promoting the indigo export industry to Britain in the 1700s. Rice was the cash crop in the early British colonies, but an increase in tariffs based on weight caused it to become less profitable, and colonists sought a replacement. Indigo dye was in high demand in Britain, but importing it from other countries was costly. As a subtropical plant, it would grow well in the S.C. climate, and it could be imported much more cheaply.

There are two types of indigo native to S.C., indigofera carolinians and indigofera lespotsepala, but early producers found they did not result in a quality dye. Eliza Lucas began experimentation with indigofera suffruticosa, which her father sent her from Antigua, Guatemala, where he was the governor; she and other growers may have experimented with the tinctoria variety as well. A 1976 article in The Journal of Southern History by David L. Coon indicates that she had help from a friend and neighbor, Andrew Deveaux, as well as from enslaved Africans: “Negro slaves were often experienced indigo makers. George Lucas attempted to get a Negro from Montserrat skilled in indigo manufacture, and in South Carolina slaves provided the labor for, and sometimes supervised, whole operations.” Once indigo exploded as a colonial cash crop in 1749, when Parliament agreed to subsidize the production of indigo in South Carolina, it also resulted in an equivalent demand for enslaved laborers.

The evidence of these operations is still visible in indigo vats discovered and preserved in Moncks Corner and John’s Island. The Otranto indigo vat circa 1750-1790 is located on the east side of SC 503 at Miles Inc., with a marker erected by Berkeley County Historical Society. In 2019, the Post and Courier published an article about another vat on a John’s Island property that has been sold for development.

David Harper is a founding board member of the International Center for Indigo Culture, which was created, he says, “to promote and educate people in the Lowcountry not only about the history of indigo here but also about its promise and potential for revival as a textile art.” His wife, Caroline, of CHI Design Indigo and other founding board members, textile artists Arianne King Comer and Donna Hardy of Sea Island Indigo, and designer and textile consultant Heather Powers, offer workshops through the center, which produces small harvests of indigo through land leased in Green Pond, S.C., and on Edisto Island.

Now CHI Indigo Design has contracted with Ellie Davis of Dogleg Farms, who is growing indigo on a larger scale. Ellie believes her farm is the first in almost 300 years to grow indigo commercially.

A sampling of the indigo-dyed products available from CHI Indigo Designs. Photos courtesy Caroline Harper.

Dogleg Farms was founded to grow industrial hemp for textile fibers and CBD, and Ellie, who worked as an urban farmer and farm educator with the Medical University of South Carolina and is certified in sustainable agriculture and irrigation design, was one of its first pioneers. However, she always had in the back of her mind something she’d learned from Nat Bradford of Bradford Watermelons, one of her farming mentors. “He kept saying, ‘Diversify, diversify,’” she said. Nat is famous for his watermelons, enough so that you’d think they would be the only crop he needs. But farming is fickle, and Nat told Ellie, “I’m glad I have okra to fall back on.”

Sure enough, two years in a row, in some of her plants the THC levels were too high, and she had to burn them at a loss. Then she couldn’t find anyone to work the fields in 2020 during the pandemic. That was how Ellie met Jermaine Euland, founder of the African American Farmers Association: “He showed up at noon in Orangeburg hottest day of the summer to help me harvest hemp.”

After founding Gentlefolk, her product line that currently offers a CBD salve and tincture, she became more interested in medicinal plants and added milkweed, wild cashew, echinacea, lemon balm and other herbs to her repertoire — but there wasn’t demand for them on an industrial basis, like hemp. She had to find another crop that fit that bill: “Since I was doing hemp fiber as well, the idea was that I could have another crop to pair with it, a dye to go with the fiber.”

Indigo checked the box, and almost as soon as Ellie contracted with the Harpers and CHI Indigo, other contracts fell into place. She ran into Suzette Bussey, a long-time friend and the owner of Norton and Hodges, which creates luxury accessories, at an oyster roast. Suzette told her that her spring line for 2022 was going to feature indigo, but she needed a supplier.

“This is the way it happens in Charleston,” Ellie said. “I got my second contract just from an oyster roast.” She has since signed more contracts with textile artisans in California, including Rooted Botanics, and expanded her growing operations to Sheena Myers’s farm in Adam’s Run, S.C., as well as to farms that are members of the African American Farmers Association.

Sheena’s grandparents were farmers in the Hollywood/Ravenel area. She said, “We had everything: sugar cane, farm, cotton, rice.” Following a career in the Air Force, during which she earned multiple degrees, including her cosmetology license, she became the first black woman in the tri-county area of the Lowcountry to receive her hemp license in 2019. She has since founded GenoType, an organic, CBD-based skincare product line that saw six figures in its first nine months. Now she has added indigo to her crop rotation, and she plans to include a dye workshop in her 300-square-foot agritourism facility that teaches visitors about exotic plant production.

Ellie and Sheena Myers with indigo plants ready to go in the ground. Image courtesy Sheena Myers.

Jermaine Euland, who founded the African American Farmers Association in 2019, says it is important that African American farmers be able to profit from crops like indigo. “A lot of African-American blood, sweat and tears were involved in the [initial] production of indigo, and I anticipate there will be a lot of interest,” he said. “We started in South Carolina, but recently Georgia has caught wind of what we’re doing here, and we’re going to introduce indigo to those farmers.”

Like Sheena, he is also a veteran who turned to farming; he served in the United States Marines Corps for 12 years. He attributes his green thumb to his grandmother, who farmed indigo in the early 70s on the family’s acre, which was on the Charleston peninsula in the vicinity of Ashton Street, along with vegetables for neighborhood families in a version of a farmers market/CSA. “Back then lots of the African Americans I knew had farms. We couldn’t just go into the stores, so we had to do everything on our own. Today there are less than 0.1 percent of African American farmers in the lower U.S.,” he said. He wants to change that by providing education and access to equipment, contracts and other resources to encourage new farmers to get started and thrive.

The association’s farmers started out with hemp, but Jermaine “would rather people be farmers than hemp farmers or indigo farmers or tomato farmers.” This is important for sustainable farming but also for profitability: When all the hemp plants on one of his member farms failed this season, he arranged to provide indigo plants from Dogleg Farms’ greenhouse, along with other crops. Next year indigo will be part of the crop rotation for all participating farms. Ellie Davis said it is called “green manure,” meaning that it replenishes the soil.

Growing and processing indigo is a labor-intensive process, starting with processing the seeds. Ellie used a rolling pin to crush the seed pods by hand, then scarified the poppyseed-sized results by letting them soak in hot water overnight. She started the seeds in the greenhouse and then transplanted the seedlings outside.

Separating indigo seeds from pods by hand; indigo seedlings, seeds and pods. Images by Charleston Mercury Staff.

For now, the indigo will be harvested by hand with a sickle or machete. Ellie said with a laugh, “One time my teenage daughter got in the car and my machete was in the front seat, and she just said, ‘Been busy today, Mom?’”

After harvesting, the indigo is fermented in in a vat filled with water, covered and steeped overnight. “It essentially starts fermenting because there’s so much biological activity within the leaf itself,” David Harper explained. “By the time you open the vat the next day it’s bubbling and the water is a vivid greenish-blue color.” The dyed water is aerated; in the 1700s, this was done with large paddles, and today it can also be done with pumps. Aeration forms the molecule that is indigo pigment, which settles into a muddy substance at the bottom of the vat; the water is drained and the mud is formed into cakes of pigment that are then dried.

Ellie is interested in experimenting with the different ways indigo can be processed. “You can let it dry in the sun first, and from there it begins to oxidize and turn blue. Then you crush and mix with water.”

David also sees room for experimentation with indigo in the area of design. “West African dying traditions were intricate and go back thousands of years,” he said. “But they were not able to be used here because enslaved labor was brought here for commodity production of indigo. People who might have been creating these incredible fabrics in Senegal or Sierra Leone may have been reduced to producing a cash crop for dye that was shipped overseas to factories.”

Now there is an exciting opportunity for local artisans and designers to develop a Lowcountry style of dyeing. Groups like the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission are an essential part of this; the International Center for Indigo Culture has collaborated with them on dying workshops in Gullah communities. David says the goal is to make information and access available: “This is part of your roots and heritage, and you get to be a part of its renaissance if you want to be.”

There are obstacles to overcome, such as developing a shelf-stable dye and the fact that synthetic indigo is impervious to the elements, making it still a more practical choice for dying the state flag.

It seems clear that if it is to succeed, the indigo renaissance will come about as a community effort. The history and heritage are already there; now it will be up to a new set of pioneers to make indigo a part of S.C.’s future.

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