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Milkweed is the only food source for the monarch butterfly caterpillar, an iconic but declining species of North America. To farmers, milkweed is commonly viewed as a weed.
However, Borderview Farm and UVM Extension are looking to change that view. Together, they are researching the potential of milkweed as an agricultural fiber crop. The pods of the milkweed plant have long been eaten by Indigenous Peoples, but be aware, milkweed sap contains toxins called cardiac glycosides, and should be avoided unless you know what you are doing. Milkweed fiber was also used as a filling for life jackets during World War II. In more recent years, the insulation, floatation, and absorption qualities of the fibers have gained recognition for their market potential. Successful large-scale production of this plant as a fiber crop remains a work in progress. Research trials at Borderview Farm are still in the early years. Results, however, show promise that milkweed could provide economic and environmental benefits in the face of climate change.
Most agricultural crops grown for food and fiber in the United States are nonnative annuals that require planting and harvesting each year. In contrast, milkweed, a perennial plant with a lifespan of 8 to 10 years, is native to much of North America. When growing a crop like milkweed, soils are covered for a long period of time. As a result, soils under milkweed production are disturbed far less compared to soils growing annual crops. Less disturbance helps to protect the soil and reduce erosion. Protecting soils is increasingly important as the Northeast experiences more, intense rain events. Erratic trends in weather during critical times of the year also reduces the window of opportunity for farmers to work their fields. Milkweed as an agricultural crop holds great potential. Farmers may want to consider planting milkweed as they look to diversify, adapt, and increase the climate resiliency of their operations.
“It’s not coming, it’s not ‘when the climate changes.’ The climate is changing. We’re in it. And so, farmers are already dealing with this on a day-to-day basis. Managing the soil is a really important part of mitigating or adapting and reducing risk… it always has been… and that’s a climate adaptation. Not having to be out in the fields in the early spring when we’re getting a lot of rain, or in the fall when we’re getting a lot of rain. The less tillage we have to do - there’s a lot of benefits to that. Especially, as the climate becomes more erratic and the time that we have to do those types of practices becomes highly variable.” -Dr. Heather Darby, UVM Extension
Lynn Knight is an Agricultural Economist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Co-Director to the USDA Northeast Climate Hub. Here she shares insights from a recent economic case study that looks at milkweed production at Borderview Farm.
Although milkweed is a native plant in the Northeastern United States, not much is known about how to maintain it as an agricultural crop over time. To improve this knowledge gap, researchers from UVM Extension’s Northwest Crops and Soils Program ran field trials (see 2019 report). Results from these trials will help farmers to better understand how to establish and manage this potential opportunity.
Is it economically feasible for a farm to grow milkweed as an agricultural crop? Over the past 10 years, many farmers have shifted their views on milkweed. What once was considered a weed is now considered a potentially valuable plant. Researchers are examining approaches and the related costs and benefits of growing milkweed. In this economic case study, learn more about the strategies one Vermont farm is taking to diversify and adapt to a changing climate.
As the climate changes, agricultural producers face unique challenges. The workbook, Adaptation Resources for Agriculture, was developed to address the needs of famers in the Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States. This resource can help producers, educators, and service providers develop a strategy for adapting to climate change and climate variability.
“It’s not a political issue for us, it’s a reality. We just change with the climate, the climate doesn’t change with us,” muses Roger Rainville, farmer and owner of Borderview Farm.
Monarch butterflies are one of the most familiar butterflies in North America. Known for their orange and black beauty and their long migrations from Mexico to the U.S. and Canada, monarchs depend on milkweed to survive. Milkweed is the sole source of food for monarch caterpillars and is an abundant source of nectar for the adult monarch and many other pollinators. Studies indicate that monarch populations have suffered significant declines in recent years. In part, this is because development, agriculture, and invasive plants have led to a decrease in native plants like milkweed.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is partnering with NRCS to put the focus on pollinators. This international nonprofit group protects the natural world through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats. The Xerces Society uses science to guide their conservation work. Funds that support efforts to conserve monarch butterfly habitat are available through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Land managers can check out the following programs for more information.
- Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
- Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW)
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
Check out these regional and international resources to learn more about conserving the monarch butterfly and milkweed. Resources are also available to help farmers who want to conserve monarch habitat while running a sustainable business. The NRCS Storymap, “Working Lands for Monarch Butterflies” helps to answer some questions, including the following:
- How can I develop a plan that promotes monarch and pollinator habitat while still reaching my goals as a producer?
- What conservation practices will help me reach my planned goals?
- What technical and financial assistance is available through NRCS and other partners?