An arts-focused urban farm initiative is coming to Baltimore

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The lot at 731 Ashburton St. Image via Google Maps.

A new state initiative will bring an urban farm to a vacant lot in West Baltimore, but instead of growing fruits and vegetables to eat, the focus will be on plants that can be turned into natural dyes for artists, Gov. Larry Hogan’s office announced Wednesday.

The inspiration comes from the governor’s trade mission to Asia in 2015, and a 2017 visit by first lady Yumi Hogan to her native South Korea, where she toured the Natural Dyeing Cultural Center in Naju. A delegation from the center came to the area earlier this year to demonstrate natural dyeing for potential partners in the farm.

Indigo, marigolds and the state flower, the Black-eyed Susan, are among the crops that will be grown on the plot of land at 731 Ashburton St., which is currently owned by Coppin State University.

“Our trade mission to Asia yielded many positive results, and we are proud to work with our partners in Korea to bring this innovative initiative to Maryland,” Gov. Hogan said in a statement. “This urban garden will have a tremendous impact towards the community revitalization of West Baltimore and our economy – from the natural dyes produced by the crops to the unique apparel which will be manufactured for the marketplace.”

A recipient of a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and a master of fine arts from American University, Yumi Hogan touched on the importance of this artistic tradition in a statement.

“As an artist, I know how much our local arts community recognizes the beauty and uses of natural dyes,” she said. “In Korea, natural dyeing techniques are handed down generation to generation, and we are excited to introduce this tradition to our citizens, including students hoping to advance their artistic and business dreams.”

Part of the project includes a new curriculum at MICA on the process. The school plans to investigate the history of the natural dyeing–while acknowledging the problematic ties, particularly with indigo, to the slave trade–and exploring more sustainable methods, said David Bogen, vice president for academic affairs and provost at MICA, and a co-director of the project.

“We want to create, through this work, great awareness of those histories and empower people to work differently going forward,” he told Baltimore Fishbowl Thursday.

That includes using a lens of racial and social equity to shape the curriculum, bringing in minority-owned businesses, farmers, artists and craftspeople from across the city for workshops and providing them access to materials and space to work.

The program, led by fiber arts professors Valeska Populoh and Piper Shepard, also hopes to develop uses for the plant pulp and organic material after the coloring has been extracted, said Bogen, noting that some dyeing processes for fabrics have been an “ecological disaster.”

MICA will spend the spring looking at spaces for the dye baths and other equipment, with an emphasis on finding the right infrastructure and best location for the community engagement component.

A slew of state agencies, including the Maryland Department of Commerce, Maryland State Art Council, Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corp. (MARBIDCO), and the local quasi-public Baltimore Development Corporation are kicking in $300,000 for the project.

Karen Glenn Hood, director of media relations and public affairs for the Maryland Department of Commerce, told Baltimore Fishbowl the money will go toward preparing the land, hiring a local farmer, developing the curriculum at MICA and processing the plants into dyes.

The city, Maryland Department of Agriculture and MARBIDCO will pick the farmer to work the plot, with the first planting coming next spring. The Parks and People Foundation of Baltimore is currently preparing the land for cultivation.

The first crop should arrive by July or August, said Bogen.

This post has been updated.

Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore Business Journal, b and others. Prior to joining Baltimore Fishbowl, he was an editor at City Paper from 2012 to 2017. He can be reached at [email protected]
Brandon Weigel


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1 COMMENT

  1. This does not read like a sound plan. Ask any weaver, spinner and dyer at the annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. To make dyes from plants, you need to collects large amounts of mature plant material. A vacant lot full of the plants mentioned would not serve people working commercially. Plus, the natural fivers (cotton, linen, and wool) that would be dyed and the chemicals needed for mordanting those fibers are expensive. They are going to grow onions for dyestuff? When only the brown papery skins are used for dye? What will happen to the rest of the onions? Just one example of illogical planning. Most of the best dye plants in Maryland already grow wild in weedy corners of every neighborhood: goldenrod, jo-pie weed, black eyed Susan and coreopsis, just to name a few. $300,000? Paid to whom and why?

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