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.
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“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