Butterfly Desert

By Published On: February 8, 2023Categories: Nature, Uncategorized
Bare agricultural field in a former prairie area.

Bare agricultural field in a former prairie area.

Prairie remnant in the Arkansas Grand Prairie in October.

Prairie remnant in the Arkansas Grand Prairie in October.

Several years ago, during October, I was working in a soybean field in Stuttgart, Arkansas. I walked along the edge of a mature planting of soybeans—some with dry, stems and papery pods, others with yellowing leaves. The plot was maybe ten acres, with many more acres of dry soybeans and rice in adjacent fields. The bordering field had just been “floated” with a laser-leveling rig to get it ready for planting winter wheat–another ten acres of absolutely, bare dirt.

Walking along the edge of the two fields, I noticed a monarch butterfly drifting lazily through the air in the sporadic, unpredictable pattern they often fly (probably driven by chemical cues). The soybeans were ready for harvest so had no flowers.

The butterfly was making its way across the barren, plowed field. A few minutes later, another Monarch floated by headed in vaguely the same southwesterly direction as the earlier one–towards Mexico, their winter destination.

It occurred to me that these pretty butterflies, seemingly nonchalant in their herky-jerky flight pattern, actually were in a desperate search for food. I don’t know how far a Monarch is able to fly without re-fueling, but these little fellows were in for some slim pickin’s for quite a spell—there was not a blooming flower for hundreds of acres, as far as the eye could see.

This agricultural land was a barren desert to them from a calorie standpoint, except for a weed here and there in a bar ditch along the section roads. The area used to be part of an expansive native prairie known as the Arkansas Grand Prairie. The county where it is located is called, Prairie County. That is why it is so productive for growing rice, wheat, and soybeans today.

A few miles to the north is a long, narrow corridor of prairie remnant that has been set aside along US Highway 70 which runs parallel to and just south of Interstate 40. The prairie reserve is about 25 miles long, but only about 30 yards wide, between the two-lane highway and an old railroad bed.

In October, the prairie remnant lights up with bright yellow blossoms of Compass Plant and Goldenrod, of Partridge Pea and Tickseed Bidens, the gray-white plumes of Boneset, and the pretty purple Ironweed. I try to imagine the sights and sounds and smells—the experience—of being in that very spot two hundred years ago. Before the European sodbusters spilled across the mighty Mississippi River from Tennessee, from Mississippi, from Alabama, to claim some of that rich prairie for themselves, plowing it under to grow cotton, the cash cow of those days.

That 30-yard-wide swath is like a small museum of what was once unbroken prairie for miles and miles in every direction. This prairie is a 30-minute drive north from those butterflies I watched—and that only if you are traveling 60 miles per hour without stopping–hardly a butterfly’s style.

On the one hand, agriculture has changed a lot of land from deep forest to open land, with flowers in the ditches and ecological “edges” that produce more flowers than you would see in the original dense forest. The winners there are butterflies and open-field birds. The losers are forest animals, like squirrels, bears, and turkeys.

With every management or environmental shift comes a whole list of winners and losers. Just like economic shifts in human ecology—recessions, war, trade battles, energy cost spikes—there are economic winners and losers in the same sort of way.

In fact, calories are to a butterfly what dollars are to a Wall Street investor. Large expanses of row crops are the caloric equivalent of an economic depression for a Monarch butterfly trying to make it to Mexico. Yes, we must grow food for us humans. But it remains true that mature crops and bare soil are a desert for a butterfly searching for sugary nectar—their fuel.

The good news is that there is a movement afoot to convert some less productive agricultural land from cultivation and back into natural habitats. Such conservation restoration projects can earn carbon credits or offsets for corporations who purchase the land and who pay to seed it in prairie grasses and forbs, or plant forest trees. We see this as a win-win situation for corporations, farmers, non-profits, and the environment. Holland Wildflower Farm is excited to be a part of this noble endeavor.

One last thought: we don’t have to convert thousands of acres of farmland to benefit pollinators like the migrating Monarch butterflies. Even small plantings of native wildflowers can be a lifeline. Have you ever driven on a highway only to look down at your gas gauge and see it dangerously low–and no gas station in sight, exit after exit? Even a small planting of natives can be that refueling station for a migrating monarch or other pollinator. That’s something nearly all of us can do.