A good year for monarchs

Justin Isherwood
A monarch sits on an eryntium plant at Wagley Ranch. Millions of acres of native milkweed and wildflowers need to be restored across the butterfly's migration route.

This last season at the wintering site of the Monarch in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, butterflies covered 6.05 hectares of those moist pine forests. There was fear for Monarch’s fate if another season saw a similar decline as the winter survey of 2016-17 with 2.48 hectares of over-wintering Monarchs. 

The Monarch like many other species depends on a pattern of migration that is in itself a survival hazard. The average route of a Monarch is 4,000 miles. The wonder exists how this route came to be, beyond, whether Monarchs might be trained or conditioned to something less hazardous, say Texas or Louisiana roost site, or multiple sites. It is the intriguing nature of migration, to understand what forces are at work to cause the Monarch and other species their often long torturous routes?

Many species migrate. Over-wintering has multiple strategies, some migrations are short, example: Colorado Potato Beetles. Some are long. Grey whales migrate 10,000-12,000 miles from the Mexican coast to the Arctic Sea. The arctic tern, a bird weighing 4 ounces, flies a route totaling 44,000 miles. A recent National Geographic study found this wisp of a bird flies twice as far in migration as previously thought. It continues to do this over the course of an average life span of 30 years, for you frequent fliers, air miles totaling 1.5 million. All from four ounces of avian zeal.

The Monarch holds a special place in our minds for its migration heroics, there are many others that accomplish similar feats. Six species of dragonflies fly 10,000 mile routes. Five species of leather back turtles swim 12,000 miles, the sooty shearwater is en route 200 days annually and flies a total of 40,000 miles, Pacific salmon migrate 2,300 miles, caribou 3100 miles, our CW semi-palmated sandpiper flies 3200 miles. Of 5,200 species of dragonflies, 50 migrate. The Northern Elephant Seal migrates from coastal California, where males and females follow different routes, males eat small sharks and rays, females prefer squid. The distance from the Gulf of Alaska to southern California is 13,000 miles. The route of the Arctic tern goes from a summer in the Arctic circle via Europe and Africa including feeding stops in mid-ocean to summer again, this time in the Antarctic.

For most of us the Monarch is the metaphor of migrating species, what we in Central Wisconsin see and interact with. I have long pondered what is my farm sector’s role in the support of the Monarch and other species? Ordinarily this business of agriculture is thought to be food and fiber. In the age of enormous volumetric farm surplus, and a seriously depressed economy, including an ever-increasing nitrate toxicity of the landscape, maybe it’s time to rethink American agriculture, as about something more than food and fiber.

My friend Harold Altenburg has for years boasted via his pickup truck bumper sticker that “Farmers Feed the World.” Maybe it’s time to expand on this concept as Harold uses the word. Feed the world, meaning all of it, including a long list of species. Is it time for American ag, for the Farm Bill, and a share of the food dollar to recognize that farmland is where this nation’s species have their principle sustenance? That ag, with its price/production disparity, including the profound need to save the family farm from an ever escalating CAFOing needs a new math, a new land ethic, perhaps as Harold’s bumper sticker states, Feed the world, the world of nature, species and migrants.

Why not begin with the Monarchs? Simply put, lands set aside for habitat. In a calculation it was discovered if Central Wisconsin irrigators left but 25% of their land as non-irrigated, they would recharge approximately their annual irrigation use. When United Potato Growers of America formed we believed that by retiring approximately 10% of our routine potato acreage we could better match market need, and coincidentally the law of supply and demand. To the goal creating a more fair and stable market. This same math, algorithm really, milk, corn and soybean has yet to discover.

With this de-emphasis comes a reduction of applied nitrates, a detuning to focus on elements like habitat. Those problematic fields returned to wetlands, to prairie and woods. And a better, more generous illustration of my friend Harold’s bumper sticker, Farmers Feed the World. If Ag could but recycle its problem fields, its corners, its edges, its slopes, its wetlands, sandy prairies, sand hills, low woods to milkweed and Monarchs and maybe a new version of prosperity that has too long been absent for the American farmer.  

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough, Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.