More than a weed…
By Renee Robinson-Seelye - 8/19/2020
The Meat Shed is our self-serve store on the farm. The self-service coincides nicely with our ever-changing schedule; whether we are busy picking vegetables in the garden, feeding pigs, or selling to folks at the farmer’s market, our local community can still enjoy the products from the farm by helping themselves. Due to the self-service, I often miss the chance to have conversations with those who shop while here. However, some catch me while I’m taking a stroll with my little ones. This week, I was able to have a nice conversation with two ladies; a conversation that had me pondering all week.
During our brief conversation, they both noticed some weeds growing alongside the road, and again within one of our pastures. They were incredibly delighted to see this weed, and I didn’t quite understand at the time what caused such joy. Typically, the sight of weeds does not spark joy to a farmer, so this was something that intrigued me. After they expressed how wonderful it was to see this weed, they then asked if we see many monarch butterflies. At the time, I had yet to see one monarch. I have seen many other butterflies around the farm, typically black or blue in color, but no monarchs. The ladies said that they suspected the cold weather in early Spring kept most of the monarch’s from making it back to us. I nodded in agreement, without fully grasping the entire conversation and we all went about our day.
As the week went on, I began to think more about our exchange. Why were milkweeds seemingly a prized fortune to these two ladies? Why did they ask about monarchs? Growing up on our farm, I always noticed the beauty in the landscape around me. I knew the uniqueness of each weed by its looks or the seed it produced. I understood why this particular weed was known as a milkweed, since the leaves of it produced a milky white substance when broken or split. I also took notice to the unique look to the flower every Summer as it revealed itself to me. However, when these two ladies were excited to see a milkweed, I knew that there must have been a reason beyond the beauty of the flower, it is not one I’ve seen displayed in the center of a table within a pretty bouquet.
I started researching the significance of a milkweed, and have been pleasantly surprised ever-since. I researched the internet and spoke with family members about the significance. My husband knew that monarch butterflies lay their eggs throughout early Spring and Summer on the leaves of milkweeds. But why milkweeds? It turns out that milkweeds are poisonous to most other insects, yet, when monarchs digest the milkweed it makes them off-putting to other predators. They eat milkweeds as a protective, survival technique. The larvae feed on the foilage of the plant, and the butterflies feed on the nectar of the flower. –https://wimastergardener.org/article/common-milkweed-insects/
Our warehouse manager also had experiences with Monarchs when he lived in Mexico for 5 years. He visited a monarch preservation forest and showed me incredible pictures of extremely tall and slender trees full of hanging Monarchs. I learned that while they are present in the North, there are four different generations/stages of the Monarch. During the first three generations, the Monarch only lives for 6-8 weeks, feasting on the milkweeds and pollinating other sweet plants along the way. The fourth generation is the only one to live for months, during which they migrate South towards Mexico. While in Mexico they live in forests within the mountains and require a specific climate and environment to survive winter in Mexico. –https://journeynorth.org/tm/monarch/SanctuaryFactsOyamel.html
Many specific environmental factors contribute to the life of a Monarch butterfly. They are nearly endangered due to deforestation, weed control and human interference with their habitat, which has limited the number of viable places that Monarchs can live. Therefore, if someone informed about this entire process happens to see a natural form of their habitat, it of course would spark joy and delight.
The final person I spoke with during my quest to learn more about the correlation of the milkweed and butterfly, was my father. As soon as I mentioned milkweed, he immediately responded with “oh, yes, the monarch butterfly,” and let me know that there was no coincidence to the fact that milkweed is often present on our farm. You can find it alongside the road, growing up a hill, alongside a building, or within a pasture that is at rest until the growth is suitable again for animals to forage it. He has been working hard at preserving this weed in small amounts, even though it is invasive and a nuisance to most. There is a specific place designated for it across our street, that grows up the hill. Over the years he removed small trees from this hill, to allow for the natural growth of grass, wildflowers, and milkweed to promote pollination.
After my journey learning more about the landscape at the farm, I honestly felt a bit naïve. I am sure I learned all about this in school, yet it slipped my mind, and I have been overlooking these milkweeds since my childhood. However, I also felt encouraged. Encouraged to keep learning. This insight was cultivated by the sometimes brief, yet powerful connection that we have with the customers who visit us at the farm, farm markets, or through social interactions online. This story proved to me again, that this relationship is not one-sided, and the benefit of having such flows back and forth with one another. We learn from you, as much as you learn from us, and that is incredibly valuable. And wouldn’t you know it, during one of my walks on the farm that week, I happened to notice a beautiful monarch fluttering around. I followed it and, of course, watched it land on a beauty of a milkweed.