Farmers as “Butterfly People;” William Leach’s Call to Remember and Restore Monarchs to Their Proper Place in Agrarian Landscapes



A simple but easily-forgotten fact about American farmers was recently revealed in what may be the most innovative social history of our continent since Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States thirty-five years ago. In Butterfly People, William R. Leach demonstrates that for much of the last two centuries, America’s farmers passionately pursued and diligently documented the variety of butterflies in their agricultural landscapes. In fact, they were among the best stewards of monarchs and some of the other butterfly species which have only recently suffered dramatic declines. Significantly, American farmers were historically recognized as being effective conservationists of monarchs and other iconic pollinators because they intentionally made room for them in their orchards, fields, pastures and hedges. In short, who Americans have been as a people during each era of history can be measured and judged by how well we have taken care of species in additional to our own.

Let us listen to Leach as he explains how many traditional farmers in the nineteenth century developed their pivotal relationship with North American butterflies even when most U.S. citizens still “had little interest in insects other than to eradicate them.” Leach notes that while the farming of mixed crops and livestock was “America’s most widespread economic activity” of that era,

“…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.”

Cultural historian Leach then explains just which of these agricultural landscape features and practices made a difference for butterfly conservation:

“Renewed by repeated mowing, the meadows, especially, teamed with many kinds of birds; sweet-smelling flowering plants, intoxicating in the summertime, such as milkweed, joe-pye weed, thistle, and clover; and butterflies. Black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes)  and monarchs (Danaus plexippus), among the most common and handsome of American butterflies, actually rose in number in relation to the spread of small farms…Authorities on butterflies today call these insects ‘pasture species.’”

Leach cites many eighteenth and nineteenth century naturalists to demonstrate that butterflies typically found safe havens in farmlands, including Hector St. John Crévecouer, Edward Doubleday, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Herman Strecker and Walt Whitman. Many notable twentieth century farmers also write of the abundance of monarchs and other butterflies in their farmlands up until the last two decades. 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; the Ardenwood Historic Farm in California;  and Phillip’s Farm in Virginia.

Even one contemporary natural history writer who makes the bulk of his living from farming has maintained the special relationship with butterflies which William Leach delegated to nineteenth century farmers. In his book, Scratching the Woodchuck: Nature on an Amish Farm, David Kline recounts the efforts that he and his wife Elsie have made to foster safe havens for sommervogel (butterflies) and to record the timing of the annual arrivals of monarchs at their farm near Fredericksburg, Ohio:

“Every year we plant flowers attractive to butterflies. For a few years we had a row of Mexican sunflowers in the garden…Biologists call butterflies indicator species; they reveal a lot about the health of an ecosystem. If there numbers are down, there is a problem somewhere… Insecticides used in orchards kill the good along with the ugly.”

Given that many butterflies are indeed sensitive indicator species, just what do the precipitous declines in monarch butterflies across much of the American farmscape over the last two decades reveal about the health of American agriculture? And what do they say about today’s farmers’ attentiveness to the needs of lives other than their own, and about the stewardship ethics of American society at large?

In October of 2012, the author ofThe Rural Life, Verlyn Klinkenborg, 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 which society—not nature—has control over:

“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, if any monarch conservationists whom I know would argue that American farmers or herbicide manufacturers ever intentionally sought to eliminate milkweeds from Midwestern farmscapes, or to substantively damage an emblematic species like the monarch butterfly. After all, many of their children and grandchildren are in love with monarchs, the story of their metamorphosis and the story of their migration. And yet, “unintended consequences” may happen whenever any of us—me included—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 all across the country are deeply concerned about the fate of monarch butterfly migration and are once planting milkweeds 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 regular use their own resources as well as those from government programs to provide for on-farm wildlife habitat that benefits a variety of “pasture species.” Many of these innovators are also willing to train neighboring farmers in best practices which not only benefit butterflies, but other pollinators as well than can assure farm profitability and food security..

And yet, a scatter of sustainably-managed farms within millions of acres of milkweed-devastated landscapes cannot possibly make a difference in time to advance monarch recovery unless many other players become positively engaged as butterfly people.” That is exactly why faith-based “care for creation” groups, educators, students, nurserymen and sustainable agriculture advocates are now joining together for a National Day of Action and Contemplation in mid-April 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 and more equitable food system over the long run.  It is also hoped that agribusiness interests such as crop associations may decide to affirm their own tangible commitments to take social and environmental responsibility for helping to restore toxin-free milkweed habitats and recover monarchs. The kind of restoration need to avert any further decline of monarch butterflies is both ecological and social, for it is unlikely to be scale-able and successful without the full range of participants currently engaged in American agriculture.

We welcome public statements about such commitments– from every kind of constituency seriously concerned about monarch declines   — to be released this April fourteenth, the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s death. Let all Americans become “Butterfly People” once more, and work to co-design a more diverse, resilient and equitable agricultural landscape for America’s future.

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