A Journey Into the Blue

By Shaine Drake, with photography by Kalie Ilana Cassel-Feiss (except where noted)

Craig Wilkinson, far right, tends his indigo crop at DaVero Winery with volunteers
Craig Wilkinson, far right, tends his indigo crop at DaVero Winery with volunteers

A producer, processor, broker and purveyor of biodynamic goods, Craig Wilkinson has been immersed in the holistic and ecologically conscious practice of biodynamic farming since 1998. “It [Biodynamics] is really the beginning of my story,” Craig explains. When answering the question of what got him “into the blue” Craig says it all started nearly 20 years ago, before he ever considered growing and processing indigo crops. This is when he was introduced to biodynamics while attending Santa Rosa Junior College, studying horticulture and landscape management. It was just a quick mention of the subject by a new professor teaching pest management that sparked Craigʼs interest and served as the impetus for his greater mission to engage, inform and guide a public into the ways of biodynamics and its social, ecological and spiritual benefits. Each determined step he has taken has been on the path to creating a healthy agricultural ecosystem that establishes and supports a regional sustainable textile chain.

Craig WIlkinson
Craig WIlkinson

A “student of Steiner,” Craig finds inspiration and direction through the spiritual science and unique paradigm of agriculture that Rudolf Steiner, Austrian writer, educator and social activist, developed in the early 1920s. His insights and philosophy, called Anthroposophy, led to the creation of biodynamics and a movement that is represented by thousands of communities around the world, encompassing gardens, farms, vineyards, ranches and more. Craig saw, and still sees, Anthroposophy as more of a path than a philosophy, and sought a way to become involved. Time, unwavering self-motivation, and an industrious attitude have turned Craig into a biodynamic farmer. He did not seek that position out in the beginning—his involvement with biodynamics truly began when he was introduced to the Egyptian biodynamic organization Sekem via Demeter, the international certifier of biodynamic farms and products. Sekem is the only scale-certified producer of biodynamic cotton in the world. It is an initiative with the mission of ensuring holistic sustainable development in Egypt through uniting economic and societal lives, cultures and ecology. In biodynamic farming, soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock health are all dependent on diversity not just in the soil but in the community and partnerships involved in their care. For Craig, Sekem is the perfect biodynamic model; a vertical supply chain where the product is grown, processed and produced in the same diverse network. Such an ethically and environmentally responsible production is exceptionally rare in the textile industry and Craig saw an opportunity. “Cotton is what I wanted to do […] I want Sekem to happen here in the United States, because it made such a difference over there, and what he [Sekem founder Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish] did, thatʼs a model, it can be repeated here and itʼs a big vision.” That mission is what led Craig to meet Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess, and to become a key member and facilitator of The Indigo Project.

Upon his introduction to Sekem, Craig imported cotton products like t-shirts, tote bags and bandanas from the organization with the goal of establishing a market in the U.S. However, there was something missing: color. The imported goods all arrived in a natural white, which prompted Craig to begin researching and experimenting with natural dyes. In 2012, Craig attended a lecture given by Rebecca on Japanese Indigo (Polygonum tinctorium). Here, he acquired indigo seedlings, Rebeccaʼs book Harvesting Color, and began the thrilling, ever-evolving natural dye-making process. An exciting discovery found in Harvesting Color was that a beautiful sandy tan or coppery pink dye can be derived from horsetail (Equisetum arvense), which also happens to be a biodynamic herb. It seems a natural evolution to Fibershed cotton and indigo from biodynamics; both driven by passion with determination for sustainable, ethically-made products and agricultural health.

Cotton plant in bloom
Cotton plant in bloom

“I feel it, but Iʼm still walking it,” Craig says when talking of the greater vision of establishing biodynamic cotton production in the U.S. Ready and willing to wear many hats to achieve this goal, Craig sees it as something bigger than all of us. He sees the effect of the “soil-to-skin” process, especially when done biodynamically, reaching not only the community directly involved, but the greater society as well. A shift is sensed but the work doesnʼt stop here. Not content to simply market and naturally dye Sekemʼs products, Craig set out to find a cotton grower in his local fibershed for a collaboration. In 2013 Craig met Sally Fox, owner of certified organic Viriditas Farm in the Capay Valley of California and cotton grower and breeder extraordinaire who had already been employing biodynamic practices. Such practices involve her around 140 merino sheep enriching the soil while also being used for their fine wool, and growing Heirloom Sonora wheat that yields grain as well as plentiful root and straw to build the soil each year. When speaking of his first meetings with Sally and visits to Viriditas Farm to help in weeding, Craig recalls that this is when Rebecca was harvesting her large-scale indigo crop (the first of its size west of the Mississippi) at Riverdog Farm, a certified organic farm in the Capay Valley. He happily recounts an evening after a long day of work when everyone decided to float down the river to cool off, relax and celebrate their efforts. It was the beginnings of Craigʼs relationship with Fibershed, its producers and with farming.

In 2014, Sally was planning not to grow cotton due largely to the severe drought in California. Having already been working together integrating new biodynamic techniques into the farmʼs practices, Craig asked Sally if he could grow her seeds as an experiment, not for volume or scale. With Sallyʼs approval, Craig grew about 500 plants on two local sites, one being DaVero Winery and Farm an existing certified biodynamic farm in Healdsburg, California and where Craig and I are meeting today. “Being on a biodynamic farm, with that cotton and me using biodynamic practices from the get-go […] my cotton bloomed last year, bloomed and then I collected the seeds and thatʼs whatʼs growing now. So I say, Iʼve done it.” “It” refers to his goal of producing healthy biodynamic cotton. Biodynamic certification and continuing cotton production for Sally Foxʼs Viriditas Farm is what Craig is passionately working toward. He sees a future as a kind of biodynamics steward for the regionʼs agricultural growth and endurance.

Sally Fox in her cotton field at Viriditas Farm in the Capay Valley. Photo by Paige Green.
Sally Fox in her cotton field at Viriditas Farm in the Capay Valley. Photo by Paige Green.

This past May, Craig received a grant from the San Francisco-based non-profit Rudolf Steiner Foundation (RSF) Social Finance to continue his work with biodynamics and promoting a sustainable textile chain. This same foundation helped finance the 2013 Fibershed feasibility study for a California wool mill. With the grant, Craig plans to fund Viriditas Farmʼs certification with Demeter and spur a biodynamic cotton initiative within Fibershed. He also hopes to facilitate DaVeroʼs certification for biodynamic cotton. Already certified as a trader, Craig plans to bring in a consultant and establish the Biodynamic Trading Co. as a purveyor of high quality biodynamic goods with a future in setting up supportive farming contracts with those working biodynamically. “To have a vision, going ʻGod how can I contribute, how can I be a part of thisʻ and then to go ʻIʼm going to repeat the Sekem model here in the United States,ʻ but to get to this point where Iʼm getting closer and my network is strong…” For Craig the future is tangible and his goals attainable through this network of individuals, organizations and companies, like California Cloth Foundry that produces sustainable, ethically-made cloth and is based within Craigʼs own fibershed. A special characteristic of Fibershed is that projects can easily trigger one another; one supporting and inspiring the next and so on. This has been Craigʼs experience in the past from cotton to indigo and will very likely continue into the limitless future. “The players are in place.”

Safflower in Craig's dye garden, traditionally grown for both culinary and natural dye uses
Safflower in Craig’s dye garden, traditionally grown for both culinary and natural dye uses

Today Craig is working with Fibershed on the 2015 Indigo Project and cultivating an indigo crop planted on donated allotments of land at DaVero Farm and Winery. When visiting Craig at DaVero I find him tending to his dye demonstration garden on one of the allotments. The garden is woven throughout olive trees and is abundant with not only Japanese indigo, but madder, black Hopi sunflowers, safflower and flax. In addition to the garden, Craig is growing two long (approximately 400-foot) rows and three smaller rows of indigo plants on another allotment at DaVero among olive trees, corn stalks and pigs. “It is a kind of example of a polyculture […] an example of some diversity where normally it would be just weeds.” Such diversity on a farm is one of the main principles of biodynamic farming and integral in maintaining healthy soil and plants, even during a drought where farms like DaVero are working to fulfill a 25% reduction of water usage. These five rows, plus what is growing in his demonstration garden, equals a grand total of some 4,000 indigo plants. Craig is just one of the producers this year that will harvest and process indigo leaves to combine into 440 pounds of dried leaf needed for the production of sukumo, composted indigo leaves that can be used to achieve a wide range of blues in a dye vat year round.

Dried indigo leaves, ready to be composted into sukumo, which provides blue pigment in the dye bath
Dried indigo leaves, ready to be composted into sukumo, which provides blue pigment in the dye bath

Craig came to growing indigo at scale similar to how he began growing cotton; he saw an opportunity for growth and to become involved, a biodynamic vacancy, and committed. In 2014, Craig planted and propagated his first crop of 1,000 indigo plants at DaVero and Slow Creek Farm in Penngrove to create 100 pounds of dried leaf in just one year, ensuring a fifth year of local, large-scale production and a promising future. Craig sees the project and access to the Fibershed-built specialized indigo composting floor that creates the sukumo as a chance to combine the natural dye with his own biodynamic cotton, his real “beginnings of the blue.”

“Iʼve got to tell my story,” he tells me as we stand in the shade of a tree at the dye gardenʼs side and I ask about his beginnings. His openness and enthusiasm for the theory and practice of biodynamics and his current involvement with Fibershed and The Indigo Project is clear from the start. “This is only my second year and this is a gratis farm, theyʼve given me this land and I was once in the middle of the property here but they wanted to start growing food. Whenever someone says that ʻI want to grow food and medicine,ʼ I go, ʻthis is food and medicine.ʼ ” He speaks of the acceptance and trust he has received that proves to him the importance of diversity and community. “The farm is the organism, all that connectivity becomes one.”

Craig shares his educational display with volunteers
Craig shares his educational display with volunteers

In 2014 Craig organized ten volunteer work days where anyone willing and wanting to help could assist in seed propagation, field planting, harvesting and processing the dried leaves. Craig and I are meeting on the last day of a 3-day span of volunteer work days this year where the main objective is weeding the indigo crops. Not too long from now, when the indigo has reached a little over 2 feet in height, Craig will post more calls for volunteers to assist in harvesting. The bed of his work truck is set up as a kind of educational display for volunteers, including biodynamics literature and samples of Sekem-produced, Demeter biodynamic cotton clothing. His volunteers are put to work but they are first provided with real insight into the process and overall project. Volunteers are vital for Craig and the best results come from an open flow of information and shared experience. It is late in the day when a family from Ukiah, a town about 50 miles north of where we are in Healdsburg, arrives eager to help. They themselves are starting a wool mill in Ukiah. “Letʼs take a journey, this is a big vision,” Craig tells all of us, and we make our way to one of the long rows of indigo to begin the essential task of weeding.

If you would like to volunteer with the Fibershed Indigo Project, please contact fibershed@gmail.com.

Craig will be presenting at Fibershed’s Grow Your Jeans event on October 3rd in Bolinas, where the Fibershed community of farmers, ranchers and artisans will be coming together to celebrate the creation of locally grown and sewn denim jeans. To learn more, and purchase tickets to attend, visit our event website: http://growyourjeans.org.

Organic indigo + organic, no-GMO cotton = compostable local jeans. Photo by Paige Green.
Organic indigo + organic, no-GMO cotton = compostable local jeans. Photo by Paige Green.

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