Profitable Prairies: Saving Monarch Butterfly Habitat through Market Based Conservation

Using the renewable resource of milkweed, the monarch butterfly's host plant, protects biodiverse habitat and strengthens rural communities.

Photo of Debbie Dekleva
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Eligibility Criteria

  • I confirm that I am fully aware of the eligibility criteria and terms of the Act for Biodiversity Challenge and that I am eligible to apply.
  • I am 18 years old or older.

Initiative's representative name

Debbie Dekleva

Initiative's representative date of birth


Initiative's representative gender

  • Woman

Headquarters location: country

  • United States

Headquarters location: city

North Platte, Nebraska, United States

Where are you making a difference?

United States, Nebraska, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Montana, New York; Canada, Quebec; Mexico, Michoacan

Website or social media url(s)

Date Started

October 1987

Project Stage

  • Established (successfully passed early phases, have a plan going forward)

Yearly Budget : What is your current yearly budget for the initiative?

  • €50k - €100k

Organization Type

  • Hybrid

1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this project to succeed.

Herb Knudsen was Vice President of New Ventures for Standard Oil of Ohio (SOHIO) in the 1980's. At the time, they were trying to create a biofuel out of milkweed, which is possible, but not economical. SOHIO investigated the other uses of milkweed and created a lot of prototypes with Kimberly Clark; they evaluated everything from personal insulation materials to paper products. In 1986, British Petroleum purchased controlling interest in SOHIO and eliminated all projects that did not focus on petroleum. The "Milkweed Project" was abandoned. As a patent attorney, and seeing great possibilities, Herb Knudsen purchased the "Milkweed Project" from SOHIO. Through the years, we've observed that biodiversity actually enhances milkweed production.

2. The problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

The monarch migration is in peril. Monarchs fly from Mexico to Canada and back every summer. Along the Flyway, monarchs need an abundance of milkweed and nectar sources. The monarch population plummeted by 90% recently due to habitat loss. Placing a value on milkweed pods protects the biodiversity and monarch habitat from development and traditional agricultural practices. We also want to break the poverty cycle of under employment associated with rural communities through economic development.

3. Your solution: How are you working to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

We work through market based conservation by creating products out of milkweed materials and purchasing pods from rural communities. Through the years, the demand for milkweed pods has been highly variable. We are working to create a consistent demand for milkweed pods so we can protect monarch habitat from other land uses. In order to do this, we need to attract larger commercial partners willing to champion higher volume products to market. We are able to get the supply for milkweed, but if we do not have a buyer, we are unable to protect the identified areas that are critical habitat for monarchs and other species. The monarch butterfly is considered an "umbrella species" so the protection and economic use of these areas protect all wildlife. We founded Sustainable Monarch to educate people, communities, and businesses on how to integrate monarch habitat into their landscapes, but also, how milkweed can be used in various applications and bolster rural economic development. Our goal is to have a network of milkweed businesses throughout the Flyway that protects local habitats and creates a revenue stream for communities willing to protect biodiversity.

4. Innovation: How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solve the problem?

We have been working with milkweed for over 30 years. The idea of using milkweed in products, while a very old concept to us, is an avant garde concept to most product development managers. In addition, our low-tech approach is difficult for businesses to understand, especially in North America. Our goal is to protect monarch habitat and help rural communities. In order to do that, we give people a reason to come together, get outside and experience nature first hand while getting an economic benefit. The people picking milkweed understand the monarch life cycle, are able to identify plants and animals and get exercise while spending time with family and friends.

5. Collaboration: How does your initiative seek to bring key players together to preserve biodiversity?

Monarch Flyway is part of the Monarch Joint Venture, which is a group of nonprofits, government agencies, educators, and a few companies interested in monarch research and conservation. We are in discussions with some larger companies that could market milkweed materials on a bigger scale. With the variety of uses available, our collaboration targets are companies that focus on product development, marketing, and sales of larger volume, but high value products like cosmetics and fashion. We want to work with large landowners like ranchers, but we need to secure markets for larger scale uses of milkweed materials. Typically, livestock like dairy cows, cattle and bison will not eat milkweed, so agricultural producers could use milkweed as a companion crop to their grazing activities. Well managed grasslands are critical habitat for migrating monarchs. As part of our educational mission, we hope to partner with Historical Museums on the importance of milkweed during World War II.

6. Impact: how has your project made a difference so far — in terms of both business outputs and social impact? How do you plan on measuring progress?

Monarch Flyway is a milkweed business incubator. The goal is to increase demand for using the renewable resource of milkweed materials. We measure progress by the amount of milkweed pods produced from natural ecosystems in rural communities. The initiative protects habitat and helps communities bring in more income from outside sources. When demand was high, we protected approximately 1,600 acres in 7 different communities through commerce. Whole families picked milkweed to help make ends meet. Some families did it for extras like piano lessons, others paid electricity bills and put food on the table, another family was able to put all new windows in their house solely from collecting milkweed pods. The extra income people were able to generate for their families ranged from $20 to $6,000. The milkweed pod picking season is 4-6 weeks based on weather and demand.

7. Growth strategies: what are your main strategies for scaling your impact?

Our goal is to create 20 diverse, independently operated businesses in the communities in which habitat is protected through commerce by 2050. Since each company would have a different product, the network of licensed/franchised businesses could share the raw materials for production: milkweed floss, seed, seed oil, biomass, and seed meal being put to work in different communities to create larger economic impacts in rural areas. In the future, we envision development of manufacturing facilities in urban areas as well.

8. Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for society? Or different stakeholders?

Our mission is to deliver innovative products that help people and protect monarch habitat full of biodiversity. Milkweed pod collections have boosted rural incomes and have been used as fundraisers for improvement projects and schools. The environmental services of prairies are highly valuable. Using the natural ecosystem as a production field uses no additional water, no fertilizers, no tilling of the ground, improves soil health and sequesters carbon. Our system can also be used in combination with grazing animals who avoid milkweed plants, bringing extra income to ranchers. As uses are identified and implemented, the system can be replicated on a large scale across North America.

9. Financial sustainability plan: can you tell us about your plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?

Currently, our project is propelled by sales of milkweed materials to brand partners and a product development grant issued to us by Nebraska Department of Economic Development. Mid-range goals include partnering with or developing a cosmetic line that would increase the demand for milkweed seed oil. As we increase usage of materials, the investments in product development will be more available. Long term, we plan to have robust partnerships that employ various product applications with consistent and growing demand that will fuel growth and enable us to expand operations significantly.

10. Team: what is the current composition of your current team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

Herb Knudsen - Founder and President - has over 40 years working with milkweed as a chemist and patent attorney. Part Time Debbie Dekleva - General Manager - is second generation of the family business and has worked in marketing, sales, and product development 29 years. Full Time Misty Wettergren - Community Organizer - has helped communities host successful collection efforts for 10 years. PT Steve Young - Adviser - Has a B.S. in Horticulture, M.S. in Plant Science and PhD. in Soil Science

11. How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Social media
  • Recommended by others

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Debbie Dekleva

Benfang Li thank you for your kind words.
We were disappointed not to make it into the next round, but appreciate your feedback.
I noticed when I did evaluations of other proposals that you could not submit results without written comments to the writer of the proposal. As of yet, I have not received any feedback from fellow entrants in the contest. Will we be getting the feedback?
Thanks again for your efforts and encouragement.
Warm regards,