Protecting our pollinators
When I think of butterflies, I think of the monarch and its iconic black and orange pattern. And as farmers, I think we’re perfectly positioned to be partners in solving the plight of the monarch butterfly.
As I understand it, 90% of monarch butterfly populations have decreased over the last 20 years. And because scientists estimate that one of every three bites of food we eat are directly dependent on pollinators like butterflies and bees, it’s hugely important that we do everything we can to support pollinators, including monarchs.
Illinois is particularly important to the monarch because we’re right in the middle of their migratory path between Mexico and Canada.
Decrease in habitat led to decreased populations
There are many reasons monarch butterfly numbers have declined, but the main ones are habitat loss, urban development and changes in farm practices. On the farm side, we’ve done such a good job controlling the weeds in our fields that there’s been an unintended consequence: Milkweed – the main source of food and habitat for monarch butterflies – can be hard to find.
As a child, I spent a lot of hours walking soybean fields and hand chopping milkweed and other weeds. Today, we have sophisticated weed control products that do that for us, so now we’re finding ways to bring milkweed populations back in other areas of the farm.
Together, we’re bringing back the monarchs
If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be planting milkweed, I’d have called you crazy. Because of the amount of land we care for, I know now that farmers are in a unique position to help pollinators.
I started my pollinator plot with a flat of milkweed stems. I planted most of them on land already being used for other conservation projects – a strip of land next to one of my fields – but saved a few for my landscaping beds in the backyard. What I noticed is they’ve been extremely easy to grow. I basically planted them and then let them be, and they really thrived.
As that first growing season progressed, I became concerned when I noticed the plants were being decimated. I looked closer and found that monarch caterpillars were eating the milkweed. That’s exactly what was supposed to happen.
I’ve seen the difference firsthand. It’s like that old saying, “If you build it, they will come.” If you plant pollinator habitats, the butterflies will come. Since planting my milkweed, I’ve definitely seen more monarchs around the farm.
And I’m not alone. There’s a coordinated effort with agricultural and other advocacy groups to increase pollinator habitats. A lot of others are working on this issue, and Illinois is one of the leading states in planting habitat that supports pollinators. In the last 10 years, more than 100,000 acres have been planted with pollinator-friendly plants in Illinois alone.Everybody has the opportunity to be part of this, even if you only have a small backyard garden or flower bed.
Good for pollinators, good for us all
We feel very passionate about trying to leave the world in a better place, and pollinator plots are just one solution. It’s very easy to do, and it’s the right thing to do.