Butterflies at the farm show

Amid the big machinery, the cattle chutes, the crop protection displays and the assorted farm do-dads at the Amarillo Farm Show, there was one colorful booth that stood out.

It might have had something to do with the larger than life Monarch butterfly cut-out asking attendees to plant milkweed.

You read that right—a booth promoting planting milkweed at a farm show.

BASF Sustainability Strategy Manager Chip Shilling knows how counter-intuitive his message is, but in the long run planting milkweed on non-productive acres might just save farmers’ productive acres. He was on hand throughout the show to share the Living Acres Monarch Challenge initiative that promotes farmers and ordinary citizens to voluntarily plant milkweed for Monarch butterflies.

You see, much like the beloved Buc-ee’s convenience stores that refuel Texans, the state’s milkweed population is the last refueling pit stop for Monarchs on their southern migration to Mexico.

“They can’t pick another weed, milkweed is the only genus of plants that provide their larval host, where the adult females lay their eggs, and it’s their only food source as caterpillars,” Shilling explained. “So, it’s absolutely critical to their lifecycle to have milkweed around. Here in Texas, there are more than 30 native species of milkweed, and across the U.S. there are more than 90 native species of milkweed they can use.”

Because of overwintering habitat loss, extreme weather events and declining nectar sources for adult butterflies, the U.S. monarch populations have dramatically declined in recent years, according to BASF. It’s to the point that Monarch butterflies are now being evaluated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide if they will propose listing them as an Endangered Species or a Species of Concern. The agency’s proposal will come out June 2019.

“Farmers have a great opportunity now to show that we’re trying to do something on a voluntary basis, versus being told how to manage their acres,” Shilling said. If the butterflies reach Endangered Species status, it could provide regulatory nightmares for farmers and agencies tasked with statutory protection duties.

And it doesn’t just affect Texas and other Great Plains states. Monarchs migrate through every state east of the Rocky Mountains, Shilling explained. And because they cross international boundaries from Canada to Mexico, managing such a mobile and migratory population for recovery as a species would be monumental if not impossible.

That’s why it’s important that farmers, ranchers, townships, suburban and urban households—everyone really—take an active role in planting milkweed where they can.

“One study says that 1.6 billion stems (of milkweed) need to be re-established across the eastern half of the U.S. to provide enough habitat for a fluctuating population,” Shilling explained. Since 2015, BASF has provided more than 35,000 milkweed stems to farmers, golf courses, school groups and other agriculture advocates in the U.S. and Canada. But re-establishing a milkweed population to sustain the butterflies is going to take time and farmers’ help, Shilling said.

And farmers are starting to come aboard, he added. Farmers have started requesting milkweed stems for their ditches, roadways, fencerows, waterways and other non-productive acres that can’t be actively managed. And urban and suburban groups are doing their parts too, he added.

Shilling said he’s heard of new homebuilders looking to add a patch of native milkweed to their landscaping designs, and youth groups planting milkweed in plots at their schools and community centers. They do well in both in-ground plantings and in container plantings, and will overwinter and come back in the spring, he added. And while it may not be visible to the naked eye, the milkweed is doing its job, he explained. Monarchs might have laid their tiny eggs in your milkweed stems and then moved to establish a chrysalis in a safer location away from predators. So just because you don’t see them using it doesn’t mean the plot’s a failure.

BASF provides milkweed stems free of charge through its challenge, Shilling said.

“If anyone is interested, we will ship our next milkweed stems out free in the spring,” Shilling said. “They can visit MonarchChallenge.com to sign up to receive milkweed stems in the middle of next May.” The address directs you to a Facebook page with resources like a database that takes the guesswork out of which milkweeds are native to each state and would thrive.

“Monarchs are one of those iconic insects,” Shilling said. “This issue crosses not only agricultural but urban and suburban acres.” And anything that brings farmers and urban residents together can bring added benefits down the road.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].

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