Growing and Marketing Dye Plants as Alternative Crops

Final Report for FW06-321

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2006: $20,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Western
State: New Mexico
Principal Investigator:
Charles Martin
New Mexico State University
Del Jiminez
New Mexico State University
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Project Information

Summary & Section 3

The purpose of this project was to investigate the feasibility of growing and marketing dye plants as alternative crops for small-scale organic growers in New Mexico.

Three commercial growers in the north, central, and southern areas of New Mexico grew cota (Thelesperma gracile), Hopi dye sunflower (Helianthus annuus var.) tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and weld (Reseda luteola), plus four other dye plant species, selected by the growers for their own climate zone and growing conditions. Crops were grown during the 2006 season and the biennial and perennial species were continued into 2007. The elective species were woad, madder, alkanet, and dyer's greenwood at Youngsville; coreopsis, marigold, tepary, and safflower at Cerrillos; and coreopsis, hollyhocks, rudbeckia, and yellow yarrow at Las Cruces. The main crop species plus alkanet, coreopsis, madder, marigold, tepary, woad, and yellow yarrow were also grown at the NMSU experiment station at Alcalde to be able to compare production methods and yields with those from the private plantings.

Record rainfall and severe flooding in the Las Cruces area during August 2006 wiped out all dye plants with the exception of Hopi sunflowers and yellow yarrow at the Las Cruces site. Exceptional rainfall in 2006 also brought about localized field flooding at the Cerrillos site, resulting in the loss of tepary and safflower. The yield and costs summary table is in Section 4.

Labor and input costs were documented and used to develop production cost and break-even price budgets for each of the main dye crop species, also presented as attachment in Section 4. Labor was the single biggest cost associated with each of the four main species, pertaining to weeding, harvesting, and processing of the crop. Production costs per pound for cota, sunflower, tansy, and weld were $3.87, $17.97, $3.63 and $8.30, respectively.

Distribution and marketing information was gathered, both from local and national sources, and buyers and fiber artists were surveyed to ascertain dye plant, color, and dye product preferences. Trade shows and festivals, specialty stores, and internet websites comprise more than two-thirds of natural dye suppliers, suggesting direct marketing potential for growers or processors of dye plants and natural dyes. Most consumers surveyed expect to pay more for natural dyes than for synthetic dyes. Natural dyes in greatest demand are woad, cochineal, and madder. Colors most in demand are indigo, blues, and reds.

Of the four main species studied, cota showed the most promise as a relatively easy crop to grow with consistent demand as a dye in the Southwest where it is known and valued. Hopi dye sunflower is easy to grow but is an agronomic crop that needs to be cultivated on a large scale to permit mechanical weeding, harvesting, threshing, and hulling in order to be profitable. Obtaining certified organic, consistent, true-to-type seed is also a problem. Tansy is also easy to grow and has an added benefit of being a versatile, multiple-use crop, but harvesting the flowers is labor intensive. Weld is easy to grow, harvest, and dry, and is a popular dye, making it a potentially viable alternative for small-scale organic growers.

Impacts -- The project stimulated interest among local fiber artists, especially those with land of their own to grow dye plants for their craft. It also brought together people of diverse backgrounds and areas, from sheep growers and wool processors to rural-based fiber artists and urban hobbyists. This project has helped to find common ground in the world of art between rural and urban communities and in so doing has opened up more opportunities for growers to begin to meet the needs of this niche market, and to foster greater sustainability in agriculture by tying in to the local economy. Most importantly, it has helped maintain the quality of life for rural communities by bringing greater attention to the fiber art traditions of the Southwest.


Our project had six main objectives:
To identify a number of dye plant crops for local organic small-scale farms to provide added income and meet local demand for natural dyes;
To begin to identify, apply, and demonstrate production, harvesting, and processing methods for these crops;
To identify both local and national buyers, and begin to establish connections and form marketing links between growers and buyers;
To conduct an economic and marketing survey to aid growers in determining break-even points, establish fair price ranges, and lay the groundwork for expanding the market for dye plants;
To provide experience to a few growers who can then form the nucleus of a larger natural dye plant growers organization, ultimately expanding the production base of dye plants in New Mexico and the Western region of the US;
To promote dye plants as alternative crops to small-scale organic growers, and to promote the purchasing of locally-grown dye plants by natural textile enterprises and fiber artists.

Results, by objective:

1) Identification of potential dye plant crops -- Refer to Table 1 for details on yields and production costs. Of the fifteen dye plant species tried, eleven were successfully grown at one or more sites in New Mexico. Sunflower was successfully grown at all four sites, including the Alcalde experiment station, but with mixed overall performance and quality. The sunflower seed, even though obtained from a reputable certified organic seed company, turned out to be inconsistent in its height, habit and seed color. At all sites the sunflower had a tendency to revert back to its wild type with small flowers and indeterminate, multi-headed habit instead of a single large stalk and seed head. Seed coloration was not consistently deep black, ranging in some cases from gray to striped to even white hulls. Plants with these traits had to be culled, leaving only the true-to-type single-headed, black-seeded plants. Culling and plant thinning detracted from the maximum potential yields.

Sunflower and tepary were the only dye plants where the seed was the main part harvested. As agronomic crops, they were tedious to harvest, thresh, and clean by hand, which added to the cost of production on a small scale due to the very high labor requirement. Dye plants where the entire tops can be harvested proved more feasible to grow and harvest on a small scale. Cota and weld both fit this category. Tansy was easy to grow, adapted well to all four sites up and down the state, but because only the flowers are the part used for dye, harvesting was time-consuming.

Of the elective species, alkanet, coreopsis, madder, marigold, woad, and yellow yarrow were successfully grown. Because alkanet and madder are perennials requiring mature roots, there was not enough time in this study for the roots to get big enough to harvest. Coreopsis, marigold, and yarrow were easy to grow but time-consuming to harvest, and because the flowers are very light and high in moisture, the dry yield was low relative to the labor input. Woad (Isatis tinctorius), a member of the mustard family, is very easy to grow, even becoming invasive when it is allowed to go to seed. Fortunately it is a biennial and can be kept under control by cultivating it as an annual and not allowing it to go to seed. The leaves grow in a rosette close to the ground the first year and must be picked or cut by hand. Demand for woad is high, however, offsetting the labor inputs needed to harvest and process this dye plant.

Due to insufficient emergence or stand loss, information is unavailable on dyer's greenwood, hollyhocks, rudbeckia, and safflower.

2) Production, harvesting, and processing methods -- All dye plant crops were planted in rows (as opposed to beds or solid-seeded). Irrigation methods varied from site to site: at Youngsville, plants were hand watered; At Alcalde, rows were furrow irrigated; at Cerrillos, runoff from the surrounding slopes was channeled into deep furrows along the rows; and drip irrigation was used at the Las Cruces site. In all cases, weeding was done by hand.

Depending on the plant part used, multiple harvests of flowers or leaves were obtained for coreopsis, cota, marigold, tansy, weld, and woad. Multiple harvesting has both good and bad points: it permits a better distribution of labor and the drying process over the season, and enables a scheduled use of the drying trays, but prolonged flowering times and repeated passes over the row increase labor costs as well. The difficulty of hand-harvesting and threshing of sunflower and tepary has already been mentioned. Woad leaves require additional grinding, mashing, and fermentation, adding to both the labor and skill required to bring this dye plant into a useable form.

3) Identification of potential buyers -- Kayce Powers, undergraduate economics student, under the guidance of Dr. Falk and with the assistance of Dr. William Gorman of NMSU and National Agri-Marketing Association (NAMA) students at Las Cruces, developed a list of local and national wholesale buyers, and conducted a field tour to visit local cooperatives and associations. They visited Tierra Wools, a grower- and weaver-owned company in Los Ojos, the Espanola Valley Fiber Arts Center in Espanola, the Rio Grande Weavers Supply in Taos, La Lana Wools in Taos, and Tapetes de Lana weavers' cooperative in Mora, all in New Mexico. This was an important first step in beginning to establish connections and networking with New Mexico's fiber artists. All groups expressed an interest in purchasing locally grown or wildcrafted dye plants and dyes. In addition, all of the companies developed in the list were contacted. All are buyers and indicated interest in purchasing from New Mexico. The main buyers were Alliance Imports, Earth Hues, Dharma Trading, Earth Guild, Aurora Silk, Table Rock Llamas, and Hill Creek Fibers. Please see the attached list of dye buyers, Section 4.

4) Marketing survey -- The marketing survey was also conducted by Kayce and the NAMA student team. The survey was divided into two target groups, individual fiber artists and natural dye industry businesses. Please refer to the summary included as attachment in Section 4. Majorities of both individual fiber artists and companies were interested in purchasing natural dyes and dye plants, with half of stores stating they were unable to meet the demand in natural dye products. Seventy-nine percent of customers stated they were willing to pay a premium for natural dyes. Among individual hobbyists and artists, there was significantly greater interest in purchasing natural dyes in processed form, either extracts or powders. As a result of this finding, growers may be able to take advantage of higher prices and greater returns by including processing of their dye plants as a value-added component to their production.

Another interesting fact obtained from the survey was the finding that the largest age category of individual fiber artists was the 55-64 year range. This suggests that the demand for natural dyes and dye plants may increase as more "baby-boomers" retire and take up hobbies or alternative careers, among them fiber arts. We conclude that the market for dye plants and natural dyes will continue to expand.

5) Establishment of a grower base -- Each of the three grower-cooperators learned enough about growing dye plants to continue on their own. Katy already had an interest and personal motivation to grow and use dye plants in her own craft, so she needed no additional incentive to continue growing dye plants. Participation in this project provided enough interest to the other two grower-cooperators, Becky and Luz, that they have decided to continue to grow dye plants as part of their overall crop mix.

For other growers, however, lack of knowledge is a major block to increased production and market expansion, especially lack of knowledge of potential buyers. To overcome this, we propose two possible solutions. The first is to encourage fiber art groups and businesses to host open houses or put on workshops specifically aimed at growers to introduce them to natural dyes and dye plants to let them know that the demand for these products is real. Secondly, a 'guild' or a core group of grower-artists who already know about natural dyes and dye plants could encourage and train other growers and familiarize them not only with some of the value-added processing involved, but introduce them to the fiber arts community and network as well. Such a group could work through existing fiber art guilds or organizations such as the Espanola Valley Fiber Arts Center.

6) Promotion -- See details of our outreach and dissemination activities in the Outreach section below. In addition to the education and dissemination activities of the project participants, this study attracted the attention and interest of NMSU's chapter of NAMA students, who were impressed enough by the production and marketing potential of dye plants that they made it the topic of their presentation at the annual national NAMA contest in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Gorman, faculty advisor for the team, reports that the team did an outstanding job of introducing the concept of growing and marketing dye plants as alternative crops to the judges, who came from more conventional agricultural and agri-business backgrounds.

Overall, this project has taken some important initial steps in researching and developing dye plants for New Mexico. By identifying some useful new crops, their production costs, marketing opportunities and obstacles, and by making contacts within the fiber art community, we have helped remove some of the grower risks associated with trying something new, and can begin to offer some basic information for growers to consider when choosing dye plants as alternative crops.

Benefits or Impacts on Agriculture

This project probably has had the greatest impact on grower-artists like Katy who can turn dye plants directly into high-value fiber art items. In New Mexico, and probably much of the Mountain West as well, rural society is increasingly made up of urban retirees re-locating to the countryside and taking up ag-related activities, artistic hobbies and second careers. In northern New Mexico especially, rural art studios have proliferated to the point where studio tours and art sales have become a viable and lucrative part of the rural economy. Fiber artists living in the country with irrigable land can directly benefit from cultivating dye plants for their own use or exchanging with other artists.

By tying agriculture more closely to cultural and tourism development, dye plant production has the potential to have far-reaching benefits to a broad spectrum of rural residents, not just growers. In the course of this investigation we uncovered Rural Arts Partnerships, a state-funded program through New Mexico Arts organization that promotes rural economic development through art. As they put it, "increasingly, adventuresome souls seek out rural New Mexico for its less visible/less marketed arts activity. Seemingly unlikely destinations boast outstanding public art, alternative gallery spaces, vibrant arts festivals, studio tours and community arts incubators. All contribute in different ways to rural economic development. These are just a few of the innovative ways that New Mexico’s rural communities are responding to the need for economic development based on available creative capital. Rural arts entrepreneurship helps to sustain a way of life vital to New Mexico’s cultural traditions, both ancient and emerging."

Even growers who are not cultivating dye plants can benefit indirectly through greater art tourism through rural areas. Rural tourists are more likely to spend money in other areas than just art, including farmers' markets, roadside stands, and country stores.

A previous survey of organic growers in New Mexico indicates that specialty crops typically make up five to twenty percent of their overall crop mix. The inclusion of dye plants, some of which have multiple purposes, can permit greater diversity and increase the percentage of specialty crops. With the exception of Hopi dye sunflower, which is a heavy nutrient feeder, needs protection from bird predation, and requires greater plot sizes to be economical, the dye plants studied are mostly low input species requiring less water, nutrients and pest control. This can translate to conservation of resources and an improvement in the farm environment.

Producer Adoption

Producer adoption of dye plant crops will be an essential factor in the growth of the natural dye industry in the Southwest. It is still too early in the introduction of these crops to be able to measure a significant adoption rate. However, interest has been high, as gauged by Alcalde Field Day and seminar attendance, and email inquiries from the press releases and newsletter articles. We plan on building on the experience of the three grower-cooperators to help other growers learn more about production and processing methods. All three grower-cooperators are self-motivated and innovative. On their own, Becky and Dave Thorp came up with the idea of using an electric stone mill with the stones adjusted to a wide-gap setting as a cost-effective method of hulling the sunflower seeds to separate the kernels from the hulls and create both a dye product (the black hulls), and a food (the kernels). Katy built a low-cost solar dryer for drying herbs and took the initiative on her own to experiment with using the dye plants that she grew. She continued to test for environmental effect on dye color and intensity based on gathering from different soils and different areas, and comparing her own and other locally grown dye plants to those obtained commercially. Luz has been growing herbs and cut flowers for the local farmers market, and has taken an interest in growing dual-purpose flower crops such as yellow yarrow, coreopsis, and marigold that can also be sold for dyes.

Based on our findings we recommend an ongoing education and dissemination program beyond this project; identifying more reputable seed sources; specific research on the germination and propagation requirements of dye plants; and the development of research publications and cultivation fact sheets to be distributed through extension offices. The most important recommendation is to continue to strengthen relationships between growers and the fiber arts community, to let fiber art groups know about local production that is already taking place, and to inform growers about potential buyers.

Reactions from Producers

While Becky and Luz had limited success with the dye plant crops selected, both are experienced growers and realized that bad weather is inherent in the risks of farming, and the crop losses from the flooding and exceptionally wet season of 2006 did not deter them from considering adding dye plants to their crop mix in the future. The growers did voice specific concerns regarding problems with inconsistent seed quality, and the lack of germination, establishment and production information on some of the new crops.

Each grower submitted their own comments and perspectives. The Thorps reported "Tansy grows well for us. It takes flooding well and is drought tolerant. It loves goat manure and our silty ground. More than half the sunflower plants that we grew expecting single large black seed-heads were multiple, one had white seeds. The seed source was not satisfactory for the production of single large heads. The coreopsis we will never do again, the picking is way too tedious. The marigold we will grow again. It was easy and fast to harvest. The tepary and safflower, although having the distinction of being the only plants that have ever drowned in our desert garden, we will grow again. This project opened up a new line of plants for us. We have been propagating and producing culinary and medicinal herbs for direct sale at the Santa Fe farmers market and dye plants have helped round out the inventory. And the sunflowers and tepary beans add to our food production. We intend to plant a much larger number of sunflowers in the coming season."

Katy commented, "The sunflower seeds were not true-to-type and I got quite a mixed bag of flower types. For the cota, the plants I dug sent off runners and by the end of the season, I had a start on a good stand. I had about a 75 percent survival with madder, and I had great germination with the woad. Despite the fact my coreopsis was pretty puny, I got a good harvest. I will replant this year. My research with Hopi dye sunflower shows they are better used on cotton and other cellulose materials. I made a liquor with the seeds and used them to stain my display booth with nice results. I think this might be a wonderful market for Hopi Dye Sunflowers. I was very impressed with the amount and depth of color I received from the madder grown on my farm. To me this says that my farm is a good place to grow high quality madder. I will be doing successive plantings each year from here on out. As yet, I'm not seeing any dyer's greenwood, and while I think this plant would do well on my farm, I will not pursue it any further. My tansy, madder, and cota are all coming back beautifully this spring. My farm is going to be listed as a dye grower in the 2007 New Mexico Fiber Trails book and I am hopeful that through it and other connections I will be able to sell any dye plant material that I have left over from my own use. I am excited about this and will continue to grow dye plants."

Luz made the following observations: "We experienced a rainy season last year that resulted in flooding. Hopi sunflowers were direct seeded into the field and were very successful. However, I experienced that some of the seed was not true to type, and had low germination with several of the other dye plant species. The yarrow I purchased from a local nursery and transplanted into the field. They established very well. I need to acquire more information on how and where to market them."

Recommendations or New Hypotheses

With over eleven hundred species listed as dyes in the Plants for a Future database ([]=Dye), this project has barely scratched the surface on the investigation of dye plants as alternative crops. Just among species in the American West, cochineal (actually an insect), Arizona walnut (Juglans major), prickly pear (Opuntia spp.), elderberry (Sambucus spp.) and blanketflower (Gaillardia spp.) are some of the more popular natural dyes worthy of future development. Since indigo is in such high demand, the feasibility of growing dyer's knotweed (Polygonum tinctorium) should seriously be investigated. Seed of dyer's knotweed is available from Idaho, so its cultivation may already be taking place in the Mountain West.

The high labor costs associated with harvesting and processing some of the dye plants points to the need to find or develop mechanized alternatives. Patented flower harvesters have already been developed ( but currently are so expensive as to limit availability only to large-scale commercial producers. Even cooperative purchasing of such equipment would require a large number of serious flower growers to make it feasible. Mechanized flower harvesting is being undertaken in Europe, especially for popular herbs like chamomile, but mostly done on a large scale. Chamomile harvester breakeven points have been developed (, again concluding that this type of harvester is best suited for large-scale growers. Affordable, appropriate machinery or equipment such as hand-held power hedge trimmers needs to be looked into, or refinements made to hand-held harvesting tools to reduce the tedious task of collecting a large number of small flowers like coreopsis.

For the Hopi dye sunflower, small-scale mechanized harvesting, threshing, and cleaning is essential to bringing production costs down. Large-scale commercial sunflower oilseed producers already use combines, but this option is out of range for most small-scale growers. Small-scale stationary threshers and seed cleaners are commercially available ( and are affordable if cooperatively purchased. This option is recommended.

Since seed quality and germination were the biggest problems growers encountered, we propose that development of locally adapted, true to type seed lines to serve as foundation seed be given research priority. This project also highlighted the need to study germination requirements and development of protocols for the lesser-known dye plant species. A new hypothesis that merits further study is the effect of environmental factors or cultural practices on plant pigment development, or the color and intensity of the dye derived from them. Tests are already being made on a trial-and-error basis by fiber artists, but a formalized approach to this area of study would begin to take the guesswork out of it.

For marketing, a grower-owned cooperative is proposed to be able to take a wide selection of species and process them into more marketable extracts and powders. The NAMA team has even come up with a name for a cooperative, De Colores. In the interim, existing fiber arts centers or woolen mills may be willing to purchase the equipment necessary to handle the processing aspects of dye plant production.

Much is needed in the way of future education. Training and education seminars for growers need to be made ongoing. Perhaps grower associations such as the New Mexico Herb Growers Association can begin to take over some of the educational aspects. One way that WSARE could help broaden the scope and effectiveness of this project is to offer funding to compile a dye plant production database or online production manual. WSARE professional training and development programs for researchers and extension agents are also greatly needed in New Mexico and other Western states to familiarize them with these alternative crops.

Dissemination started early in the project, beginning with an article placed in the NM Organic Commodity Commission newsletter. A copy of the article is included in Section 4. Information dissemination extended within New Mexico and as far as Arizona and Texas. Following is a list of the full outreach and dissemination activities conducted during the project:

May 26 -- New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission newsletter article, "Dye Plants as Alternative Crops for Organic Growers"
Aug 15th -- NMSU Sustainable Ag Science Center Field Day, Alcalde; Katy, Dave and Becky Thorp presented; 270+ attending.
September -- Press release:
Oct 6-7 -- Seed Sovereignty Symposium, Tesuque, NM. Katy gave presentation on native dye plants and dyeing; 200+ attending.
Dec. 9 -- Livestock Association, Mora, NM; Charles gave presentation on native dye plants; 28 attending.

Feb 16-17 -- New Mexico Organic Farming Conference, Albuquerque; dye plant display, press release handouts in the exhibitors' hall; 450+ attending.
March 2 -- Herb seminar, Santa Fe County Cooperative Extension, Santa Fe. Becky and Dave Thorp, Luz, and Katy gave presentations on their grower experiences; thirty attending.
March 26-27 -- Southwest Marketing Conference, Flagstaff, AZ ; Charles gave presentation on dye plants as alternative crops; 260+ attending, 24 to dye plant session.
March -- Sangre de Cristo Chapter of the Herb Society of America Spring newsletter, "Herbs to Dye For"
April 11-12 -- NAMA Marketing Project, Dallas, TX. Kayce Powers and student team presented.
May 7-8 -- Chinle Master Gardeners, Chinle, AZ; Charles gave presentation on growing native dye plants; 16 attending.
May 14th -- Native Foods Fair, Institute for American Indian Arts campus, Santa Fe; display board/table with dye plant samples and press release handouts; 200+ attending.
Aug. 9th -- NMSU Sustainable Ag Science Center Field Day, Alcalde, NM; dye plant research plot tour/demo, Charles presented; 250+ attending.
Aug 29-30 -- Risk Management Agency Hispanic Growers and Ranchers conference, Charles gave alternative crops/dye plant presentation; 42 attending.
Sept 15 -- Master Gardeners dye plant presentation, Albuquerque; Charles presented dye plant production information; 6 attending, two hours.
Nov. 2-4 -- NM Small Farm Conference, Moriarty, NM; dye plant display table with plant samples, handouts, and wall poster; 210+ attending.

Concluding this project, a research bulletin is planned that summarizes our findings, to be published as well as placed online at the NMSU website.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Katy Blanchard
  • Robert Gerard
  • Becky Tharp


Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.