For much of the last two centuries, America’s farmers passionately pursued and diligently documented the variety of butterflies in their agricultural landscapes. They were also excellent stewards of monarchs and other butterfly species, some of which are now suffering dramatic declines. According to author and historian William Leach, many farmers even made room for them in their orchards, fields, pastures, and hedges:
Family farms…did perhaps more than any other landscape to convert Americans into butterfly lovers. Farms were distributed throughout the country, and while they sacrificed virgin forests and ecosystems in the short term, they contributed over the longer term to nature’s vitality. Their distinguishing features were not just plowed fields or barns or silos but also ponds, woodlots, hedgerows, stone walls, open fields along roadsides, and meadows by streams or riverbeds for grazing cattle, all created for human purposes but also serving as likely habitats and hideouts for animals.
In his new book, Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World, Leach cites many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century naturalists who thought of farmland as safe havens for butterflies, including Hector St. John Crévecouer, Edward Doubleday, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Herman Strecker, and Walt Whitman. Up until the last two decades, many notable twentieth-century farmers also wrote of the abundance of monarchs and other butterflies in their farmlands. And monarchs were frequent visitors to the farms, cabins, poems, and novels of once-famous American agrarians such as Gene Stratton-Porter, author of Girl of the Limberlost and a guide to Indian wildflowers; Louis Bromfield, author of Early Autumn and Malabar Farm; and Henry Beston, author of Northern Farm and The Outermost House. Indeed, monarchs and other butterflies remain in abundance on some historic farms still managed for their heterogeneous habitats, such as Bromfield’s Malabar Farm, today a state park in Ohio; on the Ardenwood Historic Farm in California; and on Phillip’s Farm in Virginia. Today, many farmers such as Amish dairyman and naturalist David Kline remain “butterfly people,” actively planting their fields with them in mind and recording their phenologies from year to year.
Given that many butterflies are sensitive indicator species, what does their precipitous decline over the last two decades reveal about the health of American agriculture? And what does it say about modern farmers’ attentiveness to the needs of pollinators, and about the stewardship ethics of American society at large? I’d argue that, in each era of history, Americans can be measured and judged by how well we have taken care of species in addition to our own.
In October 2012, Verlyn Klinkenborg, author of The Rural Life, wrote in the New York Times that there appears to be “a direct parallel between the demise of milkweeds—killed by the herbicide glyphosate—which is sprayed by the millions of gallons on fields where genetically-modified crops are growing—and the steady drop in monarch numbers.”
While Klinkenborg only partially recited the litany of causal factors that have negatively affected monarch butterfly populations over the last decade, he did suggest that agricultural and horticultural practices are one set of factors over which society—not nature—has control:
To anyone who has grown up in the Midwest, the result seems very strange. After decades of trying to eradicate milkweed, gardeners are being encouraged to plant it in their gardens, and townships and counties are being asked to let it thrive in the roadside ditches. What looks like agricultural success, purging bean and corn fields of milkweed (among other weeds), turns out to be butterfly disaster. This is the great puzzle of species conservation — it has to be effective at nearly every stage of a species’ life cycle. And this, too, is the dilemma of human behavior. We live in a world of unintended consequences of our own making…
Few monarch conservationists I know would argue that American farmers or herbicide manufacturers intentionally sought to damage populations of an emblematic species like the monarch butterfly. After all, many of their children and grandchildren are in love with monarchs, along with their stories of metamorphosis and migration. And yet “unintended consequences” may happen whenever any of us are inattentive to the larger ecological and economic landscape within which live and upon which we depend.
In a thoughtful essay in Landscape Journal several years ago, Dr. Laura Jackson, an agro-ecologist who now directs the milkweed propagation program at the Tallgrass Prairie Center in Iowa, asks a pertinent question: “Who ‘designs’ the agricultural landscape?” Her answer, in part, is this:
[The] Corn Belt is a “designed place” rather than simply a pattern shaped by many forces. Following a review of some of its ecological and economic consequences, I examine[d] the relative power of farmers, federal farm policy, and markets in determining the “design” of the [current] farm landscape. Several lines of evidence suggest that the agricultural landscape and production system is [now] designed primarily by global agribusiness corporations. Conservation policy will move forward only when consumers and taxpayers shrug off the myth of farmer as designer and pressure agribusiness to take responsibility for a healthy agricultural landscape and healthy food.
Farmers and gardeners across the country are deeply concerned about the fate of monarch migration and are once again planting milkweed and other wildflowers required by these butterflies on unprecedented scales. They are using conservation filter strips, hedgerows, integrated pest and weed management, and reducing herbicide use in some agricultural habitats to make way for monarchs once again. In fact, half of all America’s farmers regularly use their own resources as well as those from government programs to provide habitat for a variety of pasture species. Many of these innovators are also willing to train neighboring farmers in best practices that not only benefit butterflies, but other pollinators as well.
And yet, unless many other players become what William Leach calls “butterfly people,” a scatter of sustainably managed farms within millions of acres of milkweed-devastated landscapes cannot possibly make a difference in time to curb the catastrophic decline of pollinators. That is exactly why faith-based groups, educators, students, nursery workers, and both small-scale and conventional, larger-scale agricultural businesses are joining together for a National Day of Action and Contemplation on April 14th on behalf of monarch butterflies and other imperiled pollinators. The day will encourage a wider range of constituencies to work for on-ground solutions that benefit monarchs in the short term, and to take responsibility for a healthier agricultural landscape that generates fewer superweeds and less damage to beneficial insects. It is also hoped that agribusiness interests such as crop associations and herbicide manufacturers may decide to affirm their own tangible commitments to take responsibility for helping to restore toxin-free milkweed habitats. The kind of restoration required to avert any further decline of monarch butterflies is both ecological and social, and it’s unlikely to be scale-able and successful without commitments from American agriculture’s full range of players.
We welcome public statements about such commitments from every kind of constituency seriously concerned about monarch declines—visit the Make Way for Monarchs Facebook page to share yours. They’ll be released on April 14, the fiftieth anniversary of author and conservation hero Rachel Carson’s death. Let’s hope all Americans become butterfly people once more, and work to co-design a more diverse, resilient, and equitable agricultural landscape for America’s future.
Gary Paul Nabhan has written for Orion for three decades, and is founder and co-facilitator of MakeWayForMonarchs.org. His latest book, Cumin, Camels and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey, is about centuries of cross-cultural and interfaith collaboration among Arab and Jewish spice traders. Photograph via Flickr.com/Steve Wall.