Depleted monarch butterflies and honeybees could get a boost from Iowa farmers over the next few years, thanks in part to lower commodity prices that have prompted landowners to shift more than 100,000 acres of row crops into habitat for creatures vital to pollination.
Over the past four years, Iowa farmers have enrolled 127,005 acres in a federal conservation reserve program designed to sustain butterflies, bees, wasps, birds and bats — with all but 15,000 acres being added in the past year, according to the Iowa Farm Service Agency.
In fact, Iowa has about 40 percent of the nation’s total acres of pollinator habitat, the agency said. The federal contracts require the land to be set aside for habitat for 10 or 15 years, with penalties for ending them sooner.
Part of Iowa’s adoption comes from a big state and national habitat push.
Monarch and bee populations have dropped dramatically nationwide, in part because of the loss of native prairies and meadows they need for food and reproduction. Parasites and pesticides also contribute to losses, scientists say.
Monarch populations in central Mexico had rebounded last winter, but a spring ice and snow storm destroyed about three-fourths of the insects before they could begin migrating.
Scientists fear monarch populations again rival their lowest recorded level, set in 2013-14, when overwintering butterflies covered less than one hectare — roughly 2½ acres.
Honeybees have also been hit hard. U.S.beekeepers report a 44 percent loss of colonies this spring, compared with a year earlier.
Big economic impact
The economic impact is significant. Honeybees pollinate more than $15 billion in fruits, nuts and vegetables each year.
Altogether, pollinators benefit crops valued at $24 billion, the federal government said.
To help restore pollinators, the Obama administration wants to add or enhance 7 million acres of pollinator habitat by 2020.
“Farmers understand they can add habitat that’s beneficial to pollinators and good for the environment,” said John Whitaker, executive director of the Iowa Farm Service Agency.
The conservation reserve program targets land that’s environmentally sensitive, including ground that’s susceptible to erosion or flooding. It can range in size from whole fields to small unproductive parcels of land.
Shrinking profit margins
The federal conservation reserve program also might be more financially attractive to landowners now than in past years, given declining rents that have come with falling commodity prices and farm income.
Farmers have balked at paying farmland rents that aren’t in line with lower prices for corn and soybeans.
Corn prices are down nearly 60 percent since hitting record highs in 2012, a drought year. And soybean prices are nearly 50 percent lower.
“Our rates tend to lag the market, whether they’re going up or going down,” Whitaker said. And with farmland rents dropping, “our CRP rates are more attractive than they have been in past years. And that makes a difference.”
The pollinator habitat initiative also provides an incentive to participants over general reserve programs. The program pays half the costs for pollinator seed, which also is rising in price because of growing demand.
Altogether, Iowa farmers and landowners have about 1.6 million acres enrolled in the federal conservation reserve, netting them an estimated $318 million annually. Iowa landowners added about 217,000 acres in total conservation reserve land this year, halting enrollment declines that began in 2007.
At its peak in the 1990s, Iowa had about 2.2 million acres in conservation reserve programs, federal data show.
Laura Jackson, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa, said she’s encouraged that Iowa farmers are adding pollinator habitat.
“It’s a great development,” said Jackson, whose center works with a range of Iowans — from seed companies and roadside vegetation managers to farmers, schools and urban residents — to grow and better manage prairies.
Reaping the benefits
Jackson said the center is working more often with farmers.
“We’re trying to help develop better seed mixes that ensure farmers are more successful,” she said.
For example, the Cedar Falls center is comparing the pollinator mix that’s used most often in Iowa with less expensive seed mixes to see how they perform. And they’re hoping to share the information with federal conservation officials to cut costs.
Jackson warns that it may take a couple of years before Iowans begin to see more pollinator habitat acres take shape.
In fact, she said, the acres planted last fall or this spring could look like a mess of weeds.
“Nobody plants a prairie and has it looking good in year one and year two,” Jackson said. “Nobody, the experts included.”
Growers are unlikely to see anything flowering the first year. “It’s not really until the end of the third growing season that you’ll see” fields of flowers and native grasses, she said.
“And we know that not every planting is successful,” Jackson said. “A lot of things can go wrong between getting enrolled and having a successful planting.”
Among the possible problems: Some seeds can get planted too deeply; erosion can carry seeds away, resulting in gaps that get filled with weeds; and failing to mow, especially the first year, can result in weeds growing taller than prairie plants.
“Prairie plants are growing down, putting their roots down deep. Meanwhile, the weeds are growing tall, shading them out and killing them,” Jackson said.
Mowing gives growers four times more prairie plants that survive the first year, and they’re “10 times bigger than plants in unmowed plots,” she said.
“So you get nice big, robust plants that are better able to survive the competition in year two, if you mow.”
Seeing ‘huge demand’
Jackson said growing demand will be good for companies that need time to grow the seeds used in pollinator habitat.
Mixes, with plants such as asters, milkweed, blazing stars and coneflowers, can cost about $450 an acre, four times what landowners paid before pollinator acres exploded.
“There’s a huge demand for pollinator mixes,” said Howard Bright. He and his wife, Donna, own Ion Exchange, a native seed business near Harpers Ferry.
“The inventories have dropped quite low on some species that were never low before,” Bright said.
The eastern Iowa couple began building their native seed stock in the late 1980s.
“We were known as the weed people when we first went out collecting seed,” Bright said. The couple worked with landowners of wetlands, savannas, “goat prairies” on steep bluffs, and woodlands to build their seed business. They also bought an undisturbed prairie in western Iowa to build the seed stock.
Bright, who in the future plans to focus on building pollinator mixes, hopes farmers and landowners will stick with their prairie plantings, even if commodity prices rebound.
“Most of these perennial plants will live a long time,” he said. “We’ve got fields that are 30 years old. And they look better every year.”
Fewer monarch butterflies this year?
Last winter, scientists celebrated seeing just over four hectares (roughly 10 acres) of overwintering monarch butterflies in Mexico.
Overwintering populations had grown from a disastrous 2013, when there was only two-thirds of a hectare of butterflies.
Most of the gains were because of favorable weather, rather than increased habitat, said Laura Jackson, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa.
But last winter’s gains were short-lived. Shortly after releasing the news, a large snow and ice storm killed three-quarters of the butterflies in central Mexico.
“It’s probably why we’re seeing so few monarchs this summer,” Jackson said.
Scientists hope to build a steady overwintering population of six hectares. “We need lots and lots and lots more habitat,” Jackson said.
“Every little bit helps. Everyone who plants milkweed in their yards or farms should feel good about that,” she said.
Reference: The Des Moines Register