Spring and summer mean a lot to Northeast Ohioans. It marks a time when people can finally sit on their porches, the sun stays out past 5 p.m., Lake Erie melts, and the color green arrives. Another arrival is the Monarch butterfly and its iconic orange and black wings.
However, the monarchs aren’t visiting quite like they used to in recent seasons. Experts estimate that the eastern monarch population has decreased by 90 percent in the last 20 years. This is due to many reasons, such as increasing weather changes that have killed off migrating monarchs from the south and the decrease of their only food source, Milkweed. To curb the population loss the federal government has created programs in which farmland can be repurposed to become wildflower fields.
Cue Robert Boyer. Currently residing in Avon Lake and a photographer at TRG Multimedia, Robert inherited three acres of farmland in Wooster, Ohio in the in ‘90s. Though he has family and friends with farms, Robert had no plans to use the land as such. Originally, the property was going to be used as a retirement for Robert and his wife Debbie, but after consideration they wanted to be closer to town.
“Two thirds of the land is open farmland and I decided that one acre could be donated to butterfly conservation,” Robert says, noting that his parents who had lived through The Great Depression influenced his lifestyle. “It wasn’t an overnight thing for sure. I’ve always been interested in conservation and sustainable living.”
Robert found online that the United States Department of Agriculture had the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, providing technical assistance and incentive payments to establish monarch habitat through the Monarch Butterfly Project. While watching the news, he learned more about the reasons behind the decrease in monarch butterflies due to the loss of milkweeds.
Robert wanted to help and had the land to do so. Luckily, he didn’t have to take on this project without financial assistance. Being a part of the USDA Environmental Quality Incentive Program, Robert was provided with $1,000 towards his conservation project to offset the costs, with the money going toward funding for seeding and soil. However, getting into the program wasn’t easy.
“There’s a lot of paperwork; I couldn’t believe it,” Robert says. “There was 30 to 40 pages of paperwork.”
He also had to rezone the property from residential into farming. Robert was determined to get the land up and running. According to Wayne County District Conservationist John Knapp, more than 200 landowners have participated in the Environmental Quality Incentive Program since 1996. Most focused on production agricultural projects, leaving only three of those landowners to partake in the Monarch Butterfly Project.
“I think a lot of farmers don’t do this program because they are trying to make a profit from their land,” Robert explains.
Though the property is primarily managed by Robert, he made sure to work locally to learn more about monarch conservation with local business Ohio Prairie Nursery. A vital rule of the USDA Environmental Quality Incentive Program is that participants only use plants native to their area. Robert was able to work with Ohio Prairie Nursery to ensure that he used the best local seedlings for the project. Currently in its third year, the property’s seeds have survived two cold seasons, which is good for ensuring longevity of the plant. To stay in line with program requirements, Robert keeps track of the soil used, watering amounts, and seeds.
“This is an experiment, essentially,” Robert says. According to Knapp, “The Monarch Butterfly Project started out as a pilot project.” Participants would gather information by monitoring their sites and keeping detailed records of what was done. The Monarch Butterfly Project and other participants could then use this information to gauge the success of individual projects and make changes in the future.
Once spring comes, Robert’s acre of land will be a mix of yellow and purple coneflower petals shining in the sun, milkweeds fluttering in the breeze, and bird eggs nestled in trees. Monarchs and other butterflies will have started their own dance from wildflower to wildflower. Though it will take years to for Northeast Ohio to benefit from the full impact of Robert’s wildflower sanctuary, the beauty of the monarchs landing on milkweeds is worth the wait.