Harold Coble, a professor emeritus from North Carolina State University, recently had dinner with a corn and soybean grower where he talked about his research work with milkweed. As the New Orleans dinner wound down, Coble asked the farmer if he would be willing to plant milkweed on some of the odd, unused corners of his farm.
The famer sat back in his seat with raised eyebrows and crossed arms and said, “I spent two decades trying to get rid of all that milkweed and now you want me to plant it back?”
In short, yes. Here’s why.
Coble is working with BASF on the recently announced Living Acres initiative, a research effort focused on improving monarch butterfly habitats in high-production agricultural areas. The initiative started at the BASF Research Farm in Holly Springs, North Carolina, with the goal of helping farmers and other land owners increase biodiversity and develop best practices for establishing and maintaining milkweed plants — a critical part of the Monarch lifecycle — in non-cropland areas
North America has seen declining Monarch populations in recent years in part because of the loss of overwintering site habitat, changing weather patterns and the reduction in milkweed habitat. Monarchs need milkweed for summer forage and larval feeding sites, and reestablishing the plant can positively impact the population.
So now, in an interesting twist of fate, Coble is researching the best way to establish milkweed to finish out his career that started out trying to eliminate it.
“I started my career in late 60s looking at how to control milkweed problems in southern soybean fields. That is where it all started. I looked at more milkweed plants than I ever cared to,” he said. “Most farms have a few acres here and there and if you get a few plants started, they will take over an area.”
Once established, milkweeds are fairly self sufficient, but getting them started can be a challenge. BASF research found milkweed plants are most successful when established through a planting process using root sections. Though it is common to plant milkweed by seeding, only a small number of common seeds germinate. Planting root stock or buds results in the most successful establishment.
“It is kind of like planting a tomato plant. If you just spread some seeds out in the field and leave them, your BLT sandwich will be mostly lettuce and bacon,” Coble said. “Plants from root sections are much more vigorous than seedlings and will grow rapidly. They can easily reach up to six feet in height under good growing conditions.”
Under a grant from BASF, Coble identified seven steps for successfully establishing milkweed in non-production areas: seed/root, pot, plant, spread, water, grow and mow. While some areas of a farm may better support milkweed stands than others, this work focuses on non-cropland areas such as ditches, roadsides, alleyways and other border areas.
“Stewardship has always been a priority for farmers, and it is becoming even more important as a vehicle for improving biodiversity,” said Maximilian Safarpour, Ph.D., Department Head, Global Regulatory and Government Affairs for BASF. “The goal of the Living Acres research initiative is to show how modern agriculture can coexist with refuges for monarchs.”
At Commodity Classic, BASF announced first-year findings from Living Acres conducted on the BASF Research Farm in Holly Springs, North Carolina. The research, conducted in 2015, found that creating milkweed refuges will take an upfront investment of time, but once established it should sustain themselves year after year with minimal effort.
“The solution will not happen overnight,” said Luke Bozeman, Group Leader, Field Biology for BASF. “But the effort taken to improve monarch butterfly habitats will quickly make an impact.”
This, of course, all made for a very unusual dinner conversation at a certain table in a New Orleans restaurant before Commodity Classic. Watching the reaction of her husband at that dinner with Coble, the corn and soybean farmer’s wife quickly informed her fellow diners of her affinity for the beautiful monarch butterflies on the farm.
“And you know what?” Coble said. “I think this year he will probably be planting some milkweed plants.”