Pesky plant to cash crop

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ALBURG, Vt. When Vermont farmer Roger Rainville first heard about Quebec farmers growing milkweed, he thought the idea was crazy!

On many farms in Vermont, a milkweed plant would definitely be about of place.

But now, Rainville added 250 acres of milkweed to the Borderview Research Farm in Alburg.

"My father is literally rolling over in his grave knowing that his farmer's son went over the hill and started growing all these weeds, but I think he'd be proud of what we're doing," Rainville said.

Here, milkweed is the crop.

"We'll harvest the seed and the silk," Rainville said.

It's the silk fibers that Rainville said can replace down in clothing.

He said the Quebec Coast Guard has incorporated the fibers in its gear because the fibers are good insulators. Plus, they float.

Milkweed is the sole source of food for Monarch butterflies, but UVM soil and plant expert Heather Darby said that's not all.

"They also produce these beautiful, fragrant and also tasty flowers for many pollinators as well. Especially bumble bees and bees are active out here when our crop is flowering," Darby said.

But milkweed isn't as easy to grow as one may think. Rainville said unless you belong to a cooperative, it could cost 120 dollars a pound.

"And we're putting around four pounds to the acre. So just the seed cost is high," Rainville said.

"It's actually pretty difficult to establish from seed. And so, most crops we know the planning date, the seeding rate. We know how to grow them," Darby said.

Darby said they're still experimenting how to grow milkweed as a crop.

They know it takes three years for milkweed to mature enough to harvest, and there is potential for production issues.

"Diseases tend to come in when you have larger populations of plants like this," Darby said.

Rainville, who serves as director of the Monark cooperative, said his group of farmers is still trying to develop a processing facility in the United States.

They're also trying to develop tools to harvest the crop.

"They're growing pains. I mean, we just, any industry when they're trying to get it going," Rainville said.

Rainville said Quebec farmers are seeing profits between $500 to $100 an acre.

So investing in this once, pesky plant could be worth it.

"Who would have thunk it?!" Rainville said.