While many see it as a pesky weed, Iowa farmers and landowners are being urged to plant milkweeds on their acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program or CRP. Monarch butterflies are falling in numbers and they depend on milkweeds to survive.
John Whitaker, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Iowa, is also a Van Buren County farmer.
“If you’re planting pollinator habitat this spring, look specifically for a habitat that has milkweed seed in that mix,” Whitaker says. “I will be. I’ll be planting a small plot, just a half-acre of pollinator habitat, and I’ll be looking for milkweed seed to make sure I have it in that.”
Almost one-and-a-half million acres in Iowa are enrolled in the CRP. If just a fraction of those acres were devoted to milkweeds, it would make a tremendous difference to helping along the important insect.
“We have fewer and fewer of the milkweeds because as farmers, we’ve really tried to get rid of them over the years,” Whitaker says. “I talked to one producer who produces a lot of native seed for us and he says, ‘I spent years trying to clean up the milkweeds out of my native seed and now you tell me you want to buy the seed I’ve been trying to get rid of?'”
Several factors are contributing to a loss of monarchs, like deforestation in Mexico, where the insects winter. Loss of milkweed habitat is also key to the butterflies’ decline. Monarchs depend on milkweed plants to lay eggs and for caterpillar nutrition. As adults, monarchs rely on milkweeds and several other plants for nutrition.
Whitaker says the orange-and-black butterflies are very beneficial to the environment and to crops.
“They provide a lot of the food source that we eat every day,” Whitaker says. “I can remember someone said if pollinators were gone, we would starve to death in four years. That may be very true and monarchs are a critical pollinator we have out there, just like honeybees.” Several milkweed species are native to Iowa.
The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium was recently established by Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. It will take a farmer-led, science-based approach to enhancing monarch butterfly reproduction.