Partnering to conserve the monarch butterfly migration

Mapping the Milkweed Marketplace

Historically, Asclepias syriaca (Common milkweed) has earned a cultural stigma as a nuisance species in agricultural and developed land. Common milkweed and its eradication have been included in university publications such as: Iowa State Weed Identification Field Guide, Missouri Weed Guide, and Weeds of Nebraska. With the development of Roundup ready crops in 1996, common milkweed that used to grow between rows of corn and soybeans in the past have virtually disappeared today.

Recent findings and recommendations indicate A. syriaca as not only a critical species for monarch butterfly survival, but recommend its re-establishment as a means of further expanding viable habitat for the migratory pollinators (Pleasants and Oberhauser 2012).

There are eight native seed producers and vendors involved with native grass and wildflower production at a commercial scale in the state of Iowa. Within this community, Asclepias sp. seed is available for purchase. Unfortunately, the prices are high. This sets up a market stalemate: little demonstrated demand for seed that is too expensive to purchase, and little commercial production capacity due to low demand.

Demand for native grass and wildflower seed has evolved over the past three decades in Iowa. State and federal support subsidize the purchase and planting of native prairie species, including milkweed, in Iowa roadside plantings. According to Iowa DOT, 1,093 pounds of milkweed seed have been seeded on 8,102 acres along Iowa’s roadsides from 2011 to 2013 alone.

While roadside plantings along state and county roads have incorporated milkweed species, plantings in non-linear, more expansive land parcels tend to lack the same diversity. Common milkweed is not included in any native seed mix sold commercially in Iowa for use on Federal USDA-NRCS Conservation Reserve Program acres.

If MJV and Xerxes Society efforts at the federal level succeed in changing NRCS specifications on Conservation Reserve Program plantings, this market may be even more economically viable for seed producers. But first, we need to understand how commercial producers perceive the demand for milkweed, and any difficulties associated with growing plants and harvesting seed. We also need to counteract the “weedy” stigma of common milkweed by actively recommending it in high quality prairie plantings.

The final report by the Tallgrass Prairie Center is available in the righthand column under Related Resources.

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