Rethinking Milkweed: Pesky intruder or cash crop?

milkweed blossoms

Milkweed, long considered little more than a pesky intruder, could become a profitable crop for Vermont farmers.

Research being led by University of Vermont plant agronomist Heather Darby suggests that the white, fluffy floss produced by the plant’s seed pods has economic potential. It’s already being used in Canada for purposes ranging from winter jacket insulation to mopping up and oil spills.

Establishing milkweed as a crop would also be good environmental news. It could help the fast-declining monarch butterfly, because milkweed is an essential host plant for the monarch.

“We’re hoping that it’s a new opportunity for agriculture, with a lot of ecological value and good crop potential,” Heather says, as she surveys a large plot of blossoming milkweed at Borderview Farm in Alburgh, a UVM research site.

Just down the road from Borderview is Darby Farm, where Heather and her husband, Ron Hermann, produce vegetables, fruit, honey—and now, milkweed. Heather is the seventh generation of the Darby family to work the 130-acre farm, which was conserved with VLT in 2004.

This spring, VLT worked with Heather and Ron to conserve an additional 77 acres across the road that they had just purchased; the sale of the conservation easement helped make the land more affordable.

The couple has since planted 25 acres of milkweed on their new land. Combined with the large plantings at Borderview Farm, there are now more than 80 acres of milkweed under cultivation in Alburgh. On a visit in early summer, the research farm plantings stood waist-high and the purplish buds were beginning to flower, emitting a sweet scent that was attracting monarchs and other insects.

The plan is to harvest the first crop of the pods and floss this fall. There is some uncertainty about just how that will go because, as Heather explained, there are technical details with large-scale harvesting and processing of the floss that have yet to be resolved. “The harvesting-to-processing piece is the main bottleneck right now,” Heather says.

Other problems are the surprising fact that milkweed, though it flourishes naturally in Vermont, is somewhat difficult to get established. It takes three seasons for the plant to be ready for harvest. Heather and others are still working out how best to grow milkweed as a crop.

There’s also the stigma the plant bears as a weed, clear in its very name. It would take some time to change its perception to that of a cash crop.

Nevertheless, Tyler Miller, VLT stewardship director, notes that Vermont farmers have a long history of experimentation and innovation, trying out such crops as hops and silkworms. “It’s a long way to go before we know if this will work out,” Tyler says. “But this is the way a lot of successful things start out.”

Roger Rainville, owner and manager of Borderview Farm, has worked with Heather for years. Yet even he was taken aback when she came to him and proposed growing milkweed for research purposes.

Rainville looks out over the broad fields of blossoming milkweed and laughs: “My father’s probably rolling over in his grave.”

The research to date proposes that there are genuine economic benefits to growing and using milkweed. Estimates suggest that farmers can realize $500–$600 per acre.

Heather notes that the floss has great insulating potential. Climbers on Everest tested a parka insulated with milkweed. “They actually said it was too warm,” she says. In Canada, battens filled with the floss are being used successfully to clean up oil spills and runaway toxic waste. Because the floss fibers are both absorbent and hollow, they can be wrung out and reused, she explains.

monarch butterfly on milkweed blossoms

Just as exciting to the researchers as the plant’s economic potential is its ecological value. Milkweed is crucially important to the survival of monarch butterflies, brilliant orange-and-black summer visitors to Vermont and elsewhere in northern North America. They are rapidly declining in number, in part because of widespread milkweed eradication in the Midwest. The butterflies, which have a complex life-and-migration cycle that takes their descendants to Mexico and back, depend solely on milkweed to reproduce.

“If there’s no milkweed, there’s no monarchs,” says Kent McFarland, conservation biologist with the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. Monarchs can sip nectar from many flowers, but they only lay their eggs on milkweed plants and that is the only food their caterpillars can eat. That is why milkweed is known as a host plant for the monarch and is vital to their survival as a species.

Establishing milkweed as a widespread crop would, in effect, be creating a giant reproductive habitat for the butterflies, according to McFarland. “It could be a big win-win for the monarchs,” he says.

There are still obstacles to overcome and much work to do before milkweed is established as a crop, but Heather is looking forward to this fall.

“Getting it harvested will be really important,” she says.” And then, getting farmers that first paycheck.”

This article appeared in our Fall 2018 membership newsletter. Story written by Tom Slayton. Photo of milkweed flowers by Pieter van Loon. Photo of monarch on milkweed by Bob Heiser.