How Stony Creek Colors Works with TN Farmers to Grow Indigo
Jay Head, a tobacco and row crop farmer in Cedar Hill, was skeptical when Sarah Bellos approached him in 2015 about growing indigo for her dye manufacturing company, Stony Creek Colors. “I was like, ‘This girl is on a wild goose chase,’ ” Head recalls. “But the thing has caught on. If her business model translates into what she thinks it will, this can be a big industry for Robertson County.”
Bellos, a 2004 graduate of Cornell University Agriculture School, had previously operated a small-batch textile dye house in Nashville for independent fashion designers seeking natural dyes instead of the petroleum-based dyes used in most clothing. “We saw that designers and customers really wanted to have a more transparent and ethical supply chain behind their fabrics,” she says. “Seventeen percent of industrial water pollution globally comes from textile dyeing and finishing. Natural dyes could be a solution, but it was really challenging for designers to find natural colorants at the volume and consistency they required. So I decided to solve that.”
She started with indigo, a broad-leafed, knee-high plant that gives blue jeans their signature hue. (The leaves, not the pinkish-purple flowers, yield the dye.) She’d grown it on her own small farm over the previous five years, so she knew it could thrive in Tennessee. Bellos also believed it would be a viable option for former tobacco farmers looking to diversify, in part because both row crops are planted in a very similar way. So she researched and tested the crop to identify three superior strains and set out to create unique partnerships with farmers like Head.
Instead of asking farmers to purchase expensive equipment upfront, Bellos’ team provides the seeds or seedlings, and the farmers plant and tend the fields. Stony Creek mechanically harvests the indigo leaves, leaving the stems and roots to be worked back into the soil as nutrient-rich fertilizer, and transports the plant material to the manufacturing facility, where the blue-purple indigo dye is extracted from leaves using a proprietary water-based extraction method. About 70,000 pounds of indigo plant material can be processed each day in the 80,000-square-foot building that once housed Robertson County’s first tobacco factory. Farmers are paid by the acre to grow the indigo.
Did You Know?
Indigo (n.): a tropical plant that belongs to the pea family, or a semitropical plant in the buckwheat family.
• The indigo plant’s leaves, not its pinkish-purple flowers, are harvested as a source of dark blue dye.
• 16: Number of Robertson County farmers growing indigo for Stony Creek Colors
• 70,000: Pounds of indigo plant material processed each day during harvest season
“Part of our value for our farmer suppliers is we are not just an indigo processor, but we also manage the complete agricultural value chain for these new alternative crops,” says Bellos, whose biggest customer is Cone Denim, a manufacturer in Greensboro, North Carolina. “We let the farmer focus on the part they’re good at, which is growing the crop. They don’t need to know anything about breeding plants, marketing indigo, making dye, or chemical and process engineering.”
Growing two acres of indigo for Stony Creek is a snap compared to the work involved in growing most crops, Head says. “As farmers, we’re always looking for a different avenue to make a profit off our land. With row crops, if you have a bad yield, then you suffer in your profit. There’s always something that can bring you down. But when you have a guaranteed price per acre and all you’ve gotta do is transplant these plants into a field and keep the weeds out of ’em, that’s pretty easy to do.”
Plus, the 36-year-old says, “I’m young and I don’t mind trying something new. I’m always willing to experiment.”
This year, Bellos is working with 16 Robertson County farmers, many of whom are growing indigo for the first time, on a total of 160 acres. More are on a waiting list, eager to partner with Stony Creek Colors as the company marches to its goal of overseeing 20,000 acres by 2021.
She is proud of her “showcase” crop and the team and farmers who have made it successful thus far – and with good reason. “There is a lot of interest in the emerging ag-tech field and the move toward bio-based chemicals,” she says. “But that industry, it needs more success stories from companies commercializing new crops and building industrial markets. So we’re glad to be paving the way in a way that’s hopefully going to add long-term value to Tennessee and to Tennessee farmers.”