How to Make Indigo Blue Dye

Three summers ago, I was cruising the Nashville Farmers Market when I spied Hill and Hollow Farm’s vegetable, flower, and hand-dyed yarn stand. What drew me in was the color blue. Indigo blue. 

On that June morning, owner, Robin Verson, was selling Japanese Indigo plants; the plants she uses to make indigo dye for her gorgeous yarns. The yarn is milled from wool shorn from her own flock of Jacob sheep. I wanted in on this exciting blue action. I bought four of her seedlings and planted them that day. By September, the plants looked like this.

As the plants matured to the flowering stage, I was surprised to see there was no blue in sight. The leaves were green, the flowers were pink, and the stems were a bronzy-red. With winter approaching, I left my small crop of indigo to die, in situ. Little did I know how easily they would self-seed here in Tennessee. Three years later, I had a bumper crop of volunteer Japanese Indigo plants.

During the summer, I noticed there were hints of blue on some of the bruised leaves. Hmmm. The color was in the leaves. I read up on how to extract indigo pigment from leaves, and I saw words like alkalization, oxidation, and reduction in the directions. Principles of Chemistry– the only course in college that made me call home crying.

Back I went to the Farmers Market, now three years later, to find Robin to look for the help I needed.

It turns out every summer when Japanese indigo plants are ready for harvest, Robin hosts all-day long indigo workshops at her farm in Breeding, Kentucky. I signed up for a Sunday in late August.

Upon arrival, I immediately fell in love with her farm and her sheep. I wanted both!

Robin explained the steps we were going to go through. Two weeks later, when I went to try it myself, I texted her to ask for a quick cheat-sheet version of the directions. Here is what she wrote: strip leaves, steep in water to 160º (measure water first), alkalinize, oxidize and reduce water, wait for reduction to be complete, dye and send me pictures! Robin had walked us through all these steps with humor and grace … and hospitality; she and her husband, Paul, fed us every step of the way.

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Harvest and Strip Leaves
Our first job was to strip the basil-like leaves from the 24 pounds of indigo stems harvested that morning. To create the brightest color, the plants are picked just before they start to flower. Once cut, they need to be processed immediately before naturally occurring enzymes in the leaves start to decay the indigo pigment (aka indican).

The black buckets were full of fresh stems, the red baskets held the stripped stems, and the two 80-quart stainless steel pots held the fresh leaves.

2. Make the “Indigo Tea,” aka Dyebath
Robin placed the pots of leaves over propane burners. She poured 12 gallons of tap water into each pot (enough to cover the leaves with water) and lit the burners. The water was heated to 160º over a two-hour period. We used a long compost thermometer to keep track of the temperature.

At 145º you could smell the wilted copper-tinged leaves and see why the dyebath is referred to as “indigo tea.” When the tea was 160º, we cut the heat. We put on heat-resistant gloves and used a short rake to scoop out the leaves and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. The leaves went into the orange compost bucket. The tea stayed in the kettle.

We poured the tea through a sieve to remove dirt and debris.

Robin scooped up a jar of the tea to show us the desired color. The indican molecules had broken down into blueish-indoxyl and sugar.

The indoxyl will not stick to cloth in its current state. It needs to be chemically modified by alkalinizing it with ammonia, oxidizing it with oxygen until it becomes blue-green in color, and reducing it by adding sodium hydrosulfite and allowing it to rest until it becomes neon yellow. Here’s the play by play of that:

3. Alkalinization of the Dyebath
We raised the alkaline level from 7 (the pH of water) to 9 by adding household ammonia at the rate of 2 tablespoons/gallon of liquid used. Some people use baking soda, wood ash, or lye to accomplish this.

4. Oxidation of the Dyebath
Next, we oxidized the dyebath by introducing oxygen in the form of air. We scooped up and poured bucketfuls of dyebath over and over again for 20 minutes to add lots of air bubbles. The liquid turned a deep green-blue. During this process, the indoxyl is transformed into very fine insoluble blue particles. They still won’t stick to fiber in this state, but we’re getting there.

I found this image of workers in Asia adding oxygen to an indoxyl-laden dyebath at http://www.industryofallnations.com/Jeans-At-Industry-Of-All-Nations-ccid_80.aspx.

5. Reduction of the Dyebath
The next step is to reduce the dye molecules in the dyebath. To do this, a reducing agent like sodium hydrosulfite, Spectralite, or Rit Color Remover is added at a rate of 1 tablespoon/gallon of water. Robin had us gently stir in the first two tablespoons of the reducing agent and sprinkle in the rest to not introduce more air. Reducing agents absorb electrons and transform the blue insoluble particles into a neon-yellow color that is now considered in solution. Cover the pot for the two hours it takes the reduction process to happen. The dyebath will look like this when it is ready to dye fibers.

While the mixture reduced, we had lunch. Lunch and dessert were prepared by Robin and her family. The amazing farm-to-table meal was scrumptious. Everyone was gushing. The meal included slow-roasted tomatoes that I loved. Here’s the recipe for them.

Time to Dye!
Before coming to the farm, Robin had asked us to wash the textiles we wanted to dye to remove all dirt and grease. She soaked them in warm water before we dyed them.

The pre-soaked textiles are now added slowly to the warmed dyebath (100-120º). Absolutely no stirring is allowed (to prevent another oxidation). The garments or yarn stay submerged for 15 minutes. It is during this soaking period that the textiles lose their color and become “indigo white” which is in fact, more like “neon-yellow.” The items are removed slowly along the side of the pot to diminish the chance of drips introducing air bubbles.

6. Re-Oxidation
As the textiles are removed, the yellowish indigo particles adhere and penetrate into the fabric’s crevices and transform into insoluble indigo blue as the air mingles with the dye and re-oxidizes it. To intensify the color, let the textiles rest and then redip for another 15 minutes to add more layers of color. Never leave items in the dyebath for more than 15 minutes per dip.

As the re-oxidizing is happening, you’ll see the fibers turn yellow, then green, then green-blue, and ultimately indigo blue. It’s kind of magical.

 

Give the yarn a bath in clean water and vinegar to set the color and then allow to dry. As an aside, notice the four ties spaced intermittently around each skein of yarn. That’s what keeps yarn from getting tangled while dyeing. In all of my years of knitting, I never considered why those ties were there.

I dyed yarn and this shirt.

I can’t thank Robin enough for her instruction and hospitality while we were with her. I urge anyone interested in learning more about this artform to sign up for one of Robin’s classes next year. You can find her here.

And so what did I do with my crop of indigo? Did I try this at home? You Betcha.

I harvested, weighed, and stripped the leaves, and stewed them in water to 160º.
  

I removed and strained the leaves, alkalinized the dyebath, oxidated it for 20 minutes, and finally, reduced it for 2 hours in the kitchen sink.
  

I unwound a ball of yarn, rewound it around a chair, and loosely tied it (so it wouldn’t leave marks), soaked it in the reduced dyebath for 15″, and later, rinsed it in a vinegar and water bath to fix the color.
 

The results were terrific. I dyed both skeins of blue yarn in the photo, one with indigo dye made at Robin’s workshop using her super fresh indigo leaves and the other, a lighter blue, in my sink using my not so fresh leaves (they had already flowered). I also over-dyed a gray linen shirt I had made for me in India. I love it!
 

Once you get started and have a sink full of dye, you start searching the house for things that would look good blue. These muslin dish towels painted for me by my beautiful friend, Mary Carter, were dingy and stained. Now they are a pretty indigo blue.

If it wasn’t time for dinner, I would have re-dipped everything to add another layer of color, instead, with a roomful of hungry family looking at me (it was now 6 pm – this took all day!), I opened the drain and let the dye go.

My favorite, most satisfying days are the ones where I get lost in a project and lose all sense of time. Trying my hand at making dye extracted from plants I grew in my yard provided for one of those exciting and memorable days. Please write a comment if you have anything to add to this epic post. I still have so much to learn about growing plants and making natural dyes.

A Good Book
For a good read about the history of indigo farming and dyeing in Colonial America, I suggest, The Indigo Girl, by Natasha Boyd. The book tells the story of Eliza Pinckney, who, as a young, industrious farmer learned to successfully grow indigo in South Carolina. It’s a page-turner.

One last indigo image: the inspiration for this indigo journey started during our trip to India in February. Little did I know, when I took this photo of an IndiGo Airlines bus from our airplane window in New Dehli, how far my curiosity about this rich color would take me.

Related Posts
Making Homemade Plant-Based Dyes
Group Project: A Shibori Dyed Quilt
Morning Rounds in the Garden, July
To Dye For: Making Naturally Dyed Easter Eggs
Learning How to Block Print in Jaipur (India, Part 2)
Shopping for a Saree in South India

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Eulogy for a Chicken

Treating our baby chicks like pets and naming them seemed like a good idea. At first. They were cute and cuddly like pets, and they kept us entertained with their constant chirping and the adorable way in which they climbed over one another to get to their food. We had fun choosing names for that first flock, too: the two brunette Plymouth Barred Rocks were named for my Sicilian grandmothers, Marion and Concetta, the blonde Buff Orpingtons for Hubby’s grandmothers, Alice and Mildred, and the Rhode Island Reds for my zany red-headed great aunts, Bridget and Josephine. Neighborhood children and adults visited every day. Life was good.

The chicks grew up to be a beautiful and sociable flock. They loved to climb the stairs to our back porch and hang outside the screen door while we humans visited inside. This was back in the Spring of 2012 when the Metropolitan Government of Nashville first passed the Domesticated Hen Ordinance allowing urban residents to keep up to six chickens in their fenced-in backyards.

Chickens at the Backdoor

In the beginning of our poultry husbandry, it was all cartoonish chickens running across the grass in their funky lopsided way, and chicken idioms come to life. After about five months, eggs started appearing in the nest box, and it seemed like a happy bonus rather than the original intent. A few years later, with the addition of blue-egger Ameracaunas to the flock, the variety of eggs became downright gorgeous.

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Eventually, the Circle of Life, Survival of the Fittest, Mother Nature, whatever, showed its hungry head and there was some attrition in the happy flock.

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I didn’t grow up on a circle of life farm, so when the hawk picked off the first few chickens, it took me a while to adjust. The chickens adapted to this menace better than I; they learned to run for cover whenever they heard the hawk’s whistling call or saw his shadow overhead. They also learned to make a beeline for the bushes when I let them out in the morning to avoid being out in the open where a hawk could easily spy them. They were smart chickens.

As there was more attrition to come, at some point, I had to stop naming the replacement chickens. Instead, I referred to them by their breed. That is, until last Spring, when I brought my newly acquired Golden Comet chicken to visit Glendale Elementary School in Nashville. There, a young girl in Ms. Meadors’ kindergarten class raised her hand and asked me the chicken’s name.  I hemmed and I hawed. How could I tell this darling child I didn’t name my chickens anymore because Mother Nature could be ruthless? “Comet,” I replied with a motherly smile. The name stuck.

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Last week, Comet, the only chicken in the flock who liked to be held, died. This is a tribute to her.

One Chicken’s Life

Comet was born on a rural farm in Kentucky that raised Golden Comets, a breed known for being good layers. Once the baby chicks were hatched, they were placed in an open field in movable cages known as “chicken tractors.” The chickens fed on the grass beneath their feet until it was all consumed and then the cages, with their big supporting wheels, were rolled to another area of the field.

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Once the chickens outgrew the tractors, they were moved to a fenced-in apple orchard for grazing. The canopy of apple tree branches helped protect the flock from hawks.

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I asked the farmer, whom I knew from previous visits to the farm to buy eggs, if he would sell me two of his young layers. He did so with some reluctance — I don’t think anyone had ever asked him that question before. He sent his son to fetch two chickens. The young boy, obviously adept at this task, snuck up on the chickens and grabbed them by the ankles.

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We brought the chickens home and waited until nightfall to introduce them to the established flock. This is a time-honored technique used to decrease the likelihood of new birds being hen-pecked by older girls in their society. The idea is that the birds all wake up together and are not as startled by the presence of the newbies among them. We’ve learned from experience this method doesn’t always work, so for added insurance, we bought a “flock block” and placed it in the enclosed run with them. We hoped it would give the birds something enjoyable to peck on rather than each other.

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It worked; the older ladies left the new girls alone. We have since discovered that as long as we keep a second food source in the run, the chickens have less reason to be territorial. There is now peace in our small chicken kingdom.

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Comet’s life gets interesting.

As I mentioned earlier, last spring, I started bringing Comet to visit children in elementary school classrooms.

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Comet got to visit many schools. There is no telling how many children stroked her golden-red feathers or touched her rubbery red comb.

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Here is Comet in Ms. Benson’s kindergarten classroom where children got to feed Comet leafy greens and pea shoots with their soft leaves and curly-cue tendrils.

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The Boy Scouts came to visit her.

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And, the Girl Scouts.

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The scouts all learned How to Tell If an Egg Is Fresh or Hard-Boiled. You can learn how, too, in the video located in that post.  

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Comet and I were featured in a photo shoot for a nationally known online knitting magazine called Mason Dixon Knitting. I adore this photo of Comet taken by my dear friend and neighbor, Ann Shayne. Ann later gifted me with the beautiful purple and raspberry colored handknit cowl.

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A few more remembrances of Comet.

Here she is eating her leafy greens and peas.

Tilling and munching in the compost pile.

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Visiting while I planted an asparagus bed.

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Taking in the scuttlebutt at the watercooler.

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Leading the charge as the flock followed me around the yard.

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Comet was one fantastic chicken.

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In Memory of Comet:
50 Ways to Make a Frittata
Quiche Lorraine with Bacon and Kale
Freshly Cooked Tortillas

Related Stories:
Family Dirt
Spring Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
Fall Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
How Canola Oil is Made (from plants grown locally)

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

Crunchy Roasted Tamari Almonds

I love these salty, crunchy protein-rich almonds and the best news is they are a cinch to make. I start with a large bag of whole, unsalted almonds, toss them with tamari soy sauce, add a few shakes of cayenne pepper, and then slowly roast them in the oven.

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Tamari is a refined version of soy sauce known for its smooth and earthy taste. The primary ingredient in soy sauce is soybeans. I realize you probably know this, but have you ever wondered how soy sauce is made?

How Chinese soy sauce is made:
1. Dried soybeans are soaked and cooked in a vat of water.
2. Oven-roasted cracked wheat kernels are then mixed into the vat of cooked soybeans. Yeast is added to start a fermentation process.
3. Salt water is added, the ingredients are mixed together, and the mash is poured into a wooden barrel to ferment for a  year.
5. When sufficiently brewed, the mash is placed in a cloth sack and pressed to yield soy sauce.

Tamari, the Japanese version of soy sauce, is also made from fermented soybeans, but little or no wheat is used. Thus, tamari is typically a gluten-free product. The brown fermented mash in this version is known as miso. The high protein miso, also known as a fermented soybean paste, is pressed, as well, to yield tamari.

How are soybeans grown?
I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to write about how soybeans are grown for a long time, as they are a common sight to see along Kentucky backroads.

In mid-June, I saw a planter truck drill a hole into the ground and drop a seed between the rows of stubble left behind from the just harvested winter wheat. By this I mean, the planter truck followed directly in the tire tracks of the harvester truck; crop harvesting and new-crop planting in the same afternoon. Check out this post if you want to learn the difference between a planter, a combine, a harvester, and a grain truck.

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A soybean field in early September.

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Soybean pods up close and personal.

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Soybeans, with their golden color, are usually the last crop standing in the fall.

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As the number of daylight hours wanes, the combine and grain cart get ready for one last call of duty before the close of the year’s farming season. I’m always a little sad when the growing season is over.

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Dried soybean pods after an October harvest.

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Ingredients for  Tamari Almonds:
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3-pound bag of unsalted whole almonds
⅓ cup Tamari Soy Sauce (look in Asian section of grocery store)
2-4 shakes of cayenne pepper, depending on how much heat you like (optional)

Instructions:
Preheat oven to 200º.
Line two rimmed baking pans with parchment paper.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together almonds and tamari. Be sure to shake the bottle of tamari first. Add a few shakes of cayenne pepper and mix well.

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Divide coated almonds evenly between the two large and lined baking pans.

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Every 30 minutes, remove pans from oven, toss the nuts and return to oven. I rotate the pans in the oven each time I take them out. Nuts should be ready in two hours.

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They will be soft when they first come out but will crisp up as they cool down.

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Other appetizers.
“Croatian Cheese” a Flavorful and Exotic Appetizer Made with Feta and Goat Cheese
Auntie Martha’s Spicy Spinach (aka Spinach Madeleine)
Grandma’s Italian Fried Cauliflower
The Classic Pimiento Cheese Sandwich

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

The Tobacco Barns of Trigg County, Kentucky

It was the smoking barns that first drew me down the rabbit hole of learning about the tobacco plant, Nicotiana. I had no idea the billows of smoke that hovered around these barns came from a curing process that has been used to preserve tobacco leaves for hundreds of years.

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In retrospect, I’m so glad I didn’t call the fire department!  My friends who grew up on farms with smoking tobacco barns said strangers were always coming to their door to inform them their barns were on fire.

These alluring barns with their hovering fog-like smoke are everywhere in the agriculturally rich fields of Kentucky.

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It wasn’t until I opened the door of this historical barn that I became enamored with the mottled leaves hanging on racks that rested on a series of ever-rising rafters and the low-burning fire beneath.

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The architecture of the barns, the tantalizing smell of the drying leaves, and the agricultural history associated with the growth and harvest of tobacco have captivated my attention ever since.

The Tobacco Barns

There are two types of barns built for curing tobacco in Kentucky: those specifically constructed for air-curing and those built for wood-firing. Which barn one uses depends on how the tobacco will ultimately be finished. Flavored tobaccos like those used in pipe blends, snuff and tobacco chew, are smoke or fire-cured in barns that are tightly sealed and have smokestacks. Cigarette and cigar blends, which use a higher grade tobacco known locally as Burley, are simply air-cured in barns that allow for a cross breeze.

Air-Curing Barns

Tobacco that is to be air-cured goes into barns built for air-circulation with small open spaces between the wall slats that allow air to blow through.

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They do not have smokestacks.

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Here is another one. This air-curing style barn is my favorite.

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Notice the light coming in through the open spaces in the walls. And the rafters. Notice the rafters. So beautiful! When I am standing in this barn, I feel like I am standing in a church.

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Here is a photo of the same barn filled to the ceiling with tobacco. There are seven levels of rafters to hang the tobacco.

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When the wind is blowing, the sound of the leaves rustling is lovely. Add to that the smell of the tobacco and the whole thing is intoxicating. Take a look at this video.

 

Wood-firing Barns

There are a few telltale signs that a roadside barn is built for wood-firing. Besides the smokestacks, there is always a stack of wood,

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and a hill of sawdust near the barn, which are used to build and keep a low-burning fire smoldering on the floor of the barn for weeks.

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Here is the interior of a historic wood-burning barn at The Land Between the Lakes HomeplaceThe smoldering fire is built in ditches on the ground.

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Compare that to the interior of a commercial wood-burning barn. Same concept, but in this barn, there is about six inches of firewood covered by a full 18 inches of sawdust.

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To create the low-burning fire, the farmer makes a series of evenly spaced holes in each row of sawdust for the entire length of the barn. He then stuffs straw in each hole and pours a little diesel fuel into the holes. Once he ignites the straw, it burns and connects with the wood stack underneath. The fire gently smolders for about a week. At this particular barn, the entire process is repeated later for another week to finish off the dehydration and smoke-curing process. I’ve read that the goal of curing tobacco is to get the moisture count of the leaves down to twenty percent so they can be transported for finishing without crumbling.

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Growing Tobacco

I haven’t witnessed how the seeds are started, but a farmer told me they are started in seed trays and planted in the ground in May.

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In July, the farmers “top” the plants, removing the flowering seed heads to encourage more robust leaf production. Any new leaves that try to grow are individually suckered off by farmers, or they are sprayed to halt new growth.

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That brings us to late August. The plants turn yellow indicating they have ripened and are ready for harvest.

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You can read up on the different varieties of light and dark tobacco leaves, and the sugar content of the leaves here.

The Harvest

The farmers begin the harvest process in late August or early September depending on the weather and ripeness of the tobacco leaves.

Here are the tools of the trade for harvest: a tobacco knife, a tobacco spear and a rack of tobacco sticks.

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First, the stalks are chopped down at ground level with a tobacco knife. Meanwhile, someone goes up and down the rows of tobacco plants and places a tobacco harvesting stick on the ground about every six feet.

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Next, a farmer comes through, picks up a stalk and pierces it with a black tobacco spear placed over a tobacco stick. The farmer threads up to six stalks onto each stick and then moves onto another stick. This process is called “sticking.”

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This farmer kindly allowed me to take a video of him sticking. It follows.

 

The many speared piles look like a row of small haystacks when seen in a field.

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Curing

Next, the stalk-laden sticks are gathered and laid across the top bars of a metal tobacco transporter.

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The transporters are pulled by a tractor to the curing barn where the racks of stalks (on the sticks) are hauled up into the rafters of a barn for drying.

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I thought for sure the farmers had some sort of lifting machine to do the job of raising the sticks up to the ceiling, however, they do not. It is all done by hand.

Another farmer named Ernesto graciously showed me how he and his team of men passed the sticks, loaded with stalks, up to the top row of rafters, bucket-brigade style. I love this video. It shows the hard work that goes into climbing up the rafters, passing the sticks up, and ultimately hanging the tobacco stalks to dry.

 

I am so grateful to the migrant farmers who allowed me to film them at what is a very hard job done in very hot weather.

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Related Posts on Commercial Farming in the Area
Raising Sorghum Cane
How Canola Oil is Made (from plants grown locally)
How Local Canola Crops are Grown
Farming Equipment 101: Harvesting Winter Wheat
Cranberry Love

Dear Reader,

I have enjoyed learning about the harvest and curing of tobacco. I would love to hear your stories, so please feel free to include a comment if you ever worked or lived on a tobacco farm and can shed more light on the practice of raising and harvesting tobacco.

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram and Pinterest at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.