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Local milkweed seeds helping butterfly population in region

WILLMAR -- The monarch butterfly is a welcome summer visitor to Minnesota, but in the past few years the butterfly population has suffered severe setbacks. Weather, lack of habitat in its wintering grounds of Mexico and a decrease in the amount o...

WILLMAR -- The monarch butterfly is a welcome summer visitor to Minnesota, but in the past few years the butterfly population has suffered severe setbacks. Weather, lack of habitat in its wintering grounds of Mexico and a decrease in the amount of milkweed along its annual migration trail have all had a negative impact on Minnesota’s state butterfly.

“The monarch population is severely decreasing. A lot of that is caused by the reduction of habitat,” Johnnie Schmidt said. Schmidt is the owner of Crow River Organic Works of Litchfield and sells specially made seed bombs filled with local milkweed seed.

Milkweed is paramount to the survival of the monarch butterfly. Without milkweed there are no monarchs. Adult monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweed plants and it is the only food option for monarch caterpillars.

“The caterpillar has to eat the milkweed,” Schmidt said.

For the past three years Schmidt has been creating seed bombs filled with regional wildflower seeds to attract pollinators. This year he had the opportunity to grow four different varieties of milkweed from seeds he gathered in Kandiyohi and Meeker counties in the Willmar Food Hub greenhouse on the Minnwest Technology Campus.

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“I had pretty good success with it,” Schmidt said.

A few weeks ago he began removing the plants from the greenhouse and is now selling and planting them across the region, with the hope to increase the amount of milkweed in the area for monarchs to use.

“In nature a plant will get lucky to plant one seed,” Schmidt said. With his new project each milkweed plant’s nearly 80 to 100 seeds could turn into a full grown milkweed.

“One pod can go a long way,” Schmidt said.

To find the milkweed seeds he used in the greenhouse, Schmidt traversed his own family farm, along with miles and miles of country roads.

“I found them along roadsides mostly,” Schmidt said. In his travels Schmidt was able to find rarer types of milkweed, which he hopes to plant, harvest and then plant again to increase the population. Schmidt said there are five to six different varieties of milkweed found in Minnesota.

Backyard gardeners and farmers alike can join Schmidt to increase monarch habitat by either planting milkweed themselves, or let nature provide.

“Allow that stuff to grow up,” Schmidt said.

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While some varieties of milkweed can be somewhat aggressive, like common milkweed, Schmidt said as long as they are taken care of they won’t over take a garden. Other types of milkweed, like swamp milkweed and butterfly weed are smaller plants and could be better suited to a garden. Monarchs will utilize any variety of milkweed, Schmidt said.

Farmers and landowners with CRP land can add milkweed to the seed mix, to make sure the plant is available for butterfly use. The plant would also be a good addition to any buffer planting along ditches, Schmidt said.

Schmidt has already seen an increase in the amount of milkweed around the region. Last year he had to search far and wide for plants, this year however he’s finding milkweed flowering in many more locations.

“I’m seeing it in places I didn’t last year,” Schmidt said.

In just the few years Schmidt has been creating and selling seed bombs he has seen a significant rise in public awareness about the decline of both the monarch butterfly and pollinators as a whole.

“They are seeing how critical it is,” Schmidt said.

The University of Minnesota has been very involved in butterfly and pollinator research, Schmidt said, along with other organizations.

“We’re hearing about it more here,” Schmidt said.

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This increased awareness has also increased the amount of pollinator and butterfly friendly seeds and products found in stores, garden centers, farmers markets and cooperatives.

“It is really cool to see,” Schmidt said.

Pollinators, which include butterflies and bees, are necessary for the production of quite a few fruits, vegetables and grains. If there were no pollinators grocery shelves and garden rows would be far less varied.

“Without them all we’re going to be able to eat are soybeans and corn,” Schmidt said.

More information on Schmidt’s seeds and seed bombs can be found at www.bombforbutterflies.com or at Crow River Organic Works on Facebook.

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