TEXT: For generations, farmers have despised milkweed and done their best to rid their fields of it.
2. Agronomist Heather Darby examines a milkweed flower.
TEXT: But along the U.S.-Canada border, in Quebec and Vermont, that's changing.
3. Still image of a milkweed flower close-up
TEXT: Some farmers are ripping out cash crops and planting the weed.
Vista, California – 19 August, 2015
4. Still image of a monarch butterfly on a milkweed flower
TEXT: One of the reasons they're doing it is to help restore the habitat of the iconic monarch butterfly.
Alburgh, Vermont – 22 June, 2018
5. Heather Darby tending the milkweed field
TEXT: They're also planting milkweed to make money.
Huntley, Illinois – 19 October, 2009
6. Still image of winds challenging the seeds of a milkweed plant
TEXT: A new market opened when researchers in Quebec transformed the plant's silky fibers into a high-end insulation for winter clothing and advanced other commercial uses for it.
Alburgh, Vermont – 22 June, 2018
7. Heather Darby walks into the plants
TEXT: Heather Darby was skeptical when she got a call from a contact of a Quebec milkweed pioneer looking for Vermont farmers to start growing the plant.
8. SOUNDBITE (English) Heather Darby, agronomist:
"You know, but I listened and the more he talked, the more, you know, I sort of thought, OK, you know, maybe this is something we should dig into deeper. And I think it was probably when he said, you know, 'well, there's already, I think at the time 200 acres or 500 acres or something, in Quebec,' that's when, you know, my ears kind of perked up and thought, OK well there's some farmers doing it there. It's not just this random person calling me, wanting to start up this initiative."
9. Still image of farmer Roger Rainville looking out over his field
TEXT: On the border, Vermont farmer Roger Rainville has turned precious acres of alfalfa over to milkweed several years ago. He's preparing for his first commercial harvest this fall. The market, while promising, is not assured.
10. SOUNDBITE (English) Roger Rainville, farmer:
"I've been getting calls from Oregon, from Colorado, from California, from Wisconsin dairy farmers saying we heard about this, what can we do to get involved? But I'm not gonna give a false hope. We have to make sure that we're ready to take on that extra. So, it's, there's no doubt in my mind that there's a market."
Pequot Lakes, Minnesota – 22 July, 2012
11. Still image of a monarch butterfly eating nectar from a swamp milkweed
TEXT: Over coming months, the monarchs will get their fill of the plant they're dependent on and flutter away south, setting up the harvest for the milkweed they leave behind.
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.
A ritual of autumn _ cracking the dry pods to watch the seed-bearing white fluff escape and catch the winds _ has faded.
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.