Generally considered a pleasing wildflower at best and an annoying and insidious weed at worst, common North American Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is about to be reborn as a profitable, wild-harvested crop. What hasn’t changed is its indisputable role as the single food source for the incredible and tenacious Monarch Butterfly.
Bringing about this renaissance in the Outaouais is a new non-profit organisation, Nature Atout (NA), based in Wakefield.
In 2003, Michel Leclair, now president of NA and his friend (and subsequent NA coordinator) Pierre Bordeleau were wondering how to make use of the large amount of fallow agricultural land, forest verges, ditches and roadsides lying seemingly unused.
Their goal was to identify a niche market for a crop that would not require conventional cultivation methods, such as ploughing and the use of pesticides and herbicides, while creating a new local economy. It was Leclair who discovered American company Monarch Flyway (MF) and pursued them so intently that the Nebraska-based owners finally had to take notice.
*correction: please see comments*
Last year, impressed by Leclair’s enthusiasm, MF asked if 5,000 kg of milkweed seed and silk could be gathered. Over a few short weeks and with very little time to prepare, NA were able to collect and deliver 6,000 kg. Founder Herb Knudsen and his daughter Debbie Dekleva came to the Outaouias region last week for a three-day investigative trip, enabling them to assess the suitability of La Peche as a site for harvesting and to eventually become a Canadian base for the company.
Monarch Flyway was created 30 years ago by Knudsen. Deklava has been working for the company since high school. The company currently utilize Milkweed seeds for a topical pain-relief cream (Milkweed Balm) and the silk for insulation for bedding (Ogallala Comfort Company). They consider milkweed a “low-volume, high-value” crop.
Milkweed Balm, one of the products made from Milkweed by Monarch Flyway.
On July 20, an official agreement between NA and MF was signed at the Wakefield Belvedere in a ceremony that was both moving and inspiring. Nature Atout is now officially been designated as the first MF partner outside the United States. Numerous sustainable harvest sites have been officially confirmed within the Municipality of La Peche.
The scene at Wakefield Belvedere.
“People often say, ‘Oh we have a lot of Milkweed here’,” said Deklava. “But what is ‘a lot’? That’s hard to define. However when we […] saw the sites Pierre and Michel had identified, we were able to say, ‘Yes, you have a lot of Milkweed!’”
Milkweed exists in many forms all over the world. The sap and seed from the plant have long been used in herbal remedies and the extraordinary properties of the silk have been utilized as recently as WWII.
More than satisfied by the number and density of Milkweed fields in the area, Knudsen and Deklava were also overwhelmed by the friendliness and eagerness of the people they met, and the political, financial and social goodwill they encountered.
From left, Pierre Bordleau for Nature Atout with Herb Knudsen and Debbie Deklava of Monarch Flyway at the Wakefield Belvedere on July 20.
“As you increase volume, you increase opportunities,” Deklava told the assembled group at the Belvedere. “In step two, we will increase the harvest and evaluation [in the region]. We hope to bring production into the Outaouais, into Quebec and Canada. That way the [products] can eventually be harvested, manufactured and sold here.”
Mayor of La Peche and Warden of the MRC des Collines Robert Bussiere was one of the dignitaries present for the event.
Robert Bussiere, Mayor of La Peche and Warden of MRC des Collines.
“When you really start looking [for Milkweed], you see it everywhere,” Bussiere said. “There are a lot of abandoned farms here and a lot of farmers who would like to see that old land maintained. It's job creation, it's income for this region but it’s also contributing to the protection of the Monarch.”
Indeed, at the heart of both MF and NA’s mandate is the protection and support of Milkweed and by extension, the Monarch butterfly. The species is considered under threat across North and South America due to loss of habitat. By creating a commercial market for Milkweed, attention and care for the plants will necessarily follow. Deklava describes the ideal balance as “a working Monarch habitat”.
Picking Milkweed seed will not affect reproduction of the plant. Knudsen says the plants increase via rhizomes, as the seed only has a two percent germination rate. “The best way to increase milkweed?” he said. “Run over it a few times with a disc. That cuts up the roots and stimulates growth and reproduction.”
Paramount is the ongoing identification of areas with strong population of Milkweed plants. NA has created a phone app that helps people photograph and record areas in which Milkweed is prevalent. The app can be downloaded at the NA site. The submitted information will help identify the best areas for commercial harvesting in the MRC des Collines and surrounding areas. Gaining authorization by landowners and recruiting careful and diligent picking teams is also a top priority this year.
For more information on Monarch Flyway’s mission and products for sale, go to monarchflyway.com
For information on Nature Atout, visit natureatout.org
Contact Pierre Bordeleau at (819) 459 2697 for information on Milkweed fields or forming a picking team for this year’s harvest.