MILK­WEED MAKEOVER

Pre­vi­ously de­spised plant be­com­ing prof­itable while help­ing but­ter­flies

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Money - By Calvin Wood­ward As­so­ci­ated Press

QUE­BEC CITY — For gen­er­a­tions, North Amer­i­can farm­ers have de­spised milk­weed and done their best to rid their lands of it. “I hate to have milk­weed in my straw­berry field,” Nathalie Leonard says from her farm by the Que­bec vil­lage of Lac-du-Cerf.

So why does she have 60 acres of milk­weed grow­ing on pur­pose? It’s for the sake of but­ter­flies — the iconic mon­archs. And for a chance to turn milk­weed into profit.

“Ev­ery weed,” she says, “is only a weed be­cause it’s in the wrong place.” Leonard and her part­ners in Monark, a co-op­er­a­tive of farm­ers through Que­bec and into Ver­mont, hope milk­weed now has found its right­ful place in their fields.

In­trigued by the no­tion of help­ing to re­store the sink­ing pop­u­la­tion of monarch but­ter­flies — and per­suaded by the stir­rings of a new mar­ket — these farm­ers be­gan clear­ing land or rip­ping out cash crops and turn­ing pre­cious acres over to a plant they’d pre­vi­ously seen as a nui­sance.

The milk­weed makeover be­gan when re­searchers in Que­bec trans­formed the plant’s silky fibers into a high-end in­su­la­tion ma­te­rial for win­ter cloth­ing and ad­vanced other com­mer­cial uses for it, like sound in­su­la­tion and ab­sorp­tion for oil spills. Win­ter coats stuffed with milk­weed fiber reached out­door re­tail­ers in 2016, fetch­ing $800 or more apiece. The Cana­dian Coast Guard tried milk­weed garb and liked it. And as a side ben­e­fit, the dis­tinc­tive honey from milk­weed fields is prized.

Yet the com­pany formed to process and mar­ket the fiber col­lapsed last year, forc­ing the farm­ers who grow it to step in and try to make a go of the whole milk­weed ini­tia­tive. They’re on track for per­haps their best har­vest in the five or so years since the milk­weed ex­per­i­ment be­gan, but where the fiber will go af­ter the fall is un­cer­tain.

The or­ange and black mon­archs are wholly de­pen­dent on milk­weed. The plant is the only host for their eggs and sole sus­te­nance for the cater­pil­lars, which feed on milky se­cre­tions from the leaves. Milk­weed has been in rapid re­treat, crowded by ur­ban development, at­tacked along road­ways, and driven from pas­toral land­scapes by her­bi­cides that spare re­sis­tant corn and soybeans.

But in re­cent years, as the plight of the mon­archs be­came more pro­nounced, com­mu­ni­ties, schools and gar­den­ers be­gan plant­ing patches of milk­weed along roads and pub­lic build­ings and in back­yards to give the but­ter­fly a fight­ing chance. A 2017 study at the Uni­ver­sity of Guelph in On­tario found there’s noth­ing more ef­fec­tive in this ef­fort than the all-you-can-eat buf­fet of a farmer’s field of milk­weed — vis­i­ble from the sky, rooted in rich soil, and iso­lated from traf­fic and pol­lu­tion.

When Uni­ver­sity of Ver­mont agron­o­mist Heather Darby first heard of Que­bec’s ini­tia­tive, from a man who called look­ing for Ver­mont farm­ers to join, she was thrown. Milk­weed is toxic to live­stock — one study says it gives cows “pro­found de­pres­sion” on the rare chance they eat it. It’s been a mark of shame on farm­lands, a sign of sloppy main­te­nance.

“Oh gosh, here’s an­other one of those peo­ple with some crazy idea and he wants farm­ers to grow milk­weed!” she re­mem­bered think­ing. “But I lis­tened.”

Af­ter learn­ing that hun­dreds of Que­bec acres were al­ready un­der milk­weed pro­duc­tion, she reached out to farm­ers in Ver­mont whom she con­sid­ered in­no­va­tors — peo­ple who would “want to lis­ten, wouldn’t laugh too hard, might try it out.” Now, more than 100 farm­ers in Que­bec and about a half dozen in Ver­mont are pro­duc­ing milk­weed for Monark, of which Nathalie Leonard serves as pres­i­dent.

The eco­log­i­cal and eco­nomic prom­ise of milk­weed prompted Roger Rainville to con­vert 50 prime acres of his farm lin­ing the Cana­dian bor­der to milk­weed sev­eral years ago.

“This was a whole field, from here to the woods, of just beau­ti­ful al­falfa,” he said, ges­tur­ing over the dense green crop of pur­ple­flow­ered milk­weed, 3 miles (5 km) north of Al­burgh, Ver­mont, as he awaited the mon­archs on their north­ern sum­mer mi­gra­tion.

“You get along road­sides and there’s not much fer­til­ity there. I tell farm­ers, if you’re go­ing to grow this, if you try some­thing new, do it on your best soil,” he said. Farm­ers from across the U.S. call him to ask how to get go­ing with milk­weed.

It takes two or three years af­ter plant­ing for milk­weed to flower and pro­duce the pods burst­ing with fluff. Once es­tab­lished, they can be ir­re­press­ible.

On her Lac-du-Cerf farm, Leonard will have her first har­vest this au­tumn, her sec­ond year af­ter plant­ing. She’ll pick the pods by hand be­cause no way has been de­vised to har­vest them me­chan­i­cally while pre­serv­ing the long, wide fibers es­sen­tial for fine cloth­ing, the lu­cra­tive end of the mar­ket.

It’s a short har­vest, about three weeks, mak­ing for a la­bor-in­ten­sive, in­ef­fi­cient process, and a bot­tle­neck that pro­duc­ers must over­come if they are to make a milk­weed in­dus­try take root.

“If we can man­age to find a way to har­vest at a faster rate, dry it and give it fine Farmer Roger Rainville, left, and Uni­ver­sity of Ver­mont agri­cul­tural re­searcher Heather Darby ex­am­ine a field of milk­weed. qual­ity, then we have no short­age of peo­ple who want to buy it,” Leonard said.

“We are re­ally pioneers,” she added. “We could lose it all. That’s how it works. You al­ways need dream­ers and peo­ple who are stub­born enough to keep go­ing when peo­ple say it’s time to stop.”

The monarch pop­u­la­tion is cleaved by the Rock­ies: Those east of the moun­tains win­ter in Mex­ico by the tens of mil­lions, while much smaller num­bers in the West mi­grate to Cal­i­for­nia. It’s one of na­ture’s mir­a­cle mi­gra­tions as the del­i­cate in­sect ranges over as many as 3,400 miles, as far as south­ern Canada, in a round trip that takes sev­eral gen­er­a­tions to com­plete.

Mex­i­can of­fi­cials re­ported in March that the win­ter­ing mon­archs, clumped tightly in trees, cov­ered 6.1 acres last win­ter, a de­cline of 15 per­cent blamed in part on bru­tal storms that sea­son. The but­ter­flies cov­ered more than five times that ter­ri­tory 20 years ago.

Now the cy­cle con­tin­ues: On Rainville’s farm, monarch eggs have been spot­ted on the leaves.

Over com­ing months, the mon­archs will get their fill, find their wings and flut­ter away south, set­ting up the har­vest for the milk­weed they leave be­hind. It’s a fraught jour­ney — for the in­sects in their against-theodds flight, and for the farm­ers try­ing to help them and make a buck.

As­so­ci­ated Press writ­ers Sa­man­tha Shotzbarger in New York and Chloe Kim in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.

CAL WOOD­WARD/AP

GRE­GORY BULL/AP

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