Milkweed: if you can’t beat it, grow it

THURSO, Que. — Dan Gagne is the first to admit he’s the odd man out growing milkweed. While farmers around him in western Quebec curse the noxious weed, he’s growing it as a cash crop.

Gagne, a physiotherapist who owns a 200-acre farm near Thurso, belongs to Co-operative Monark, consisting of approximately 100 farmers in Quebec and Vermont. These farmers are defying traditional wisdom, developing skills and technology to harvest milkweed.

Currently, the milkweed fibres have two main markets. One transforms milkweed into oil-absorbing mats that can be used to clean up oil spills.

“Because the fibres are hydrophobic, they will absorb oil in an oil spill. It will retain the petroleum but not the water in its fibre. It’s highly absorbent,” says Gagne.

“It has the advantage too of being re-useable. It can be reused three or four times,” he says.

Currently, Parks Canada is using the product for small oil spills and the Canadian Coast Guard ships use it also.

It’s warmer than down filling because it doesn’t absorb water so it’s often used as insulation for coats, mittens and gloves, sleeping bags and bedding.

“When you sweat, down loses its heating properties. Milkweed doesn’t,” Gagne says.

There are added benefits for the environment. Milkweed is a host plant for monarch butterflies and also attracts bees. With the monarch and bees under threat, planting milkweed can help to increase their numbers.

On Gagne’s 20 acres of milkweed, seeded last summer, monarch butterflies fluttered overhead this sunny August day en route to their winter migration grounds in Mexico. Harvest occurs later in the summer, after the butterflies have departed.

The co-operative provides Gagne with training, seeds and equipment to harvest it.

“The plant is not competitive. It needs clean ground for sowing,” he says.

The roots or rhizomes take time to spread. Little maintenance is required, although patience is needed. Milkweed takes at least three years to mature for harvest.

“Once the rhizomes get established though, they’re on their own,” he says.

He plans to add 25 acres of milkweed next year and hopes to net a profit of $800 per hectare annually.

It should remain viable as a cash crop for about eight to 10 years. After that, it needs to be reseeded.

“It’s an amazing alternative to cereal crops,” he says.

Gagne concedes that growing milkweed is controversial.

“I hope that all the farmers driving by right now laughing will stop and start asking questions,” he says.

Gagne hopes to have the last laugh one day, but for now, he will leave buffer zones between his fields and those of his neighbours.

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