Saturday, September 17, 2005

Illinois’ first commercial milkweed field harvested



A snap bean picker, donated for use by Hartung Brothers of Wisconsin, proves to by the best way to harvest milkweeds at the Western Illinois University Agricultural Field Lab near Macomb. Five acres of milkweed were harvested recently. Once the pods are dried, the material will be transported to Natural Fibers Corp. in Nebraska. The floss will be used as non-allergenic fill for pillows and comforters.

MACOMB, Ill. – Anyone who has set foot in a soybean field with hoe in hand has tangled with a milkweed. The sticky, tough to remove plant can be among the nuisances of grain production.
However, as the saying goes, one person’s junk is another’s treasure. The same can be noted for the milkweed.
Researchers at Western Illinois University are looking at milkweed as an alternate crop and recently held the first harvest on a five-acre plot.
Under the direction of associate agriculture professor Win Phippen, this was the first commercial milkweed field harvested in Illinois.
A snap bean picker, donated for use by Hartung Brothers of Wisconsin, and a corn husker were each used to determine the best way to harvest the crop. A former WIU student suggested the snap bean picker, and the tip proved to be successful.
“The snap bean picker is more costly, but cleans fields better than a corn picker,” Phippen said.
The milkweed is being raised for Natural Fibers Corp., a Nebraska company that uses the weed’s floss to manufacture hypoallergenic fill for pillows and comforters.
Natural Fibers is a nationwide distributor to specialty stores. Although not used in this project thus far, the seed oil is rich in Vitamin E and used by the cosmetics industry.
Phippen said in a good year milkweeds produce 700 to 900 pounds per acre of floss, which sells for about $3 to $5 per pound. He added he hopes the project will pay for itself and help fund further research.
Since 2001, Phippen has been working with Natural Fibers to provide the company with milkweed floss.
In past practice, the company paid high school students to comb the countryside for milkweeds and collect its fluff. The process is slow going, and that’s where Phippen’s commercial scale production of milkweed comes in.
“What we are trying to do is to establish a uniform crop. We want to get a crop we can harvest like cotton. What we’re doing is attempting to grow milkweed initially as a row crop and then determine how to harvest it,” he stated.
As weeds go, the crop held up fairly well to this year’s drought.
“Typically they’ll run six to seven feet tall, but it is shorter this year because of the drought. It has a deep root system and can handle droughts very well,” Phippen said, adding there was some insect damage due to the drought.
The crop has 60 percent to 70 percent moisture when harvested.
“We’ll use air dry for now,” Phippen continued, in hopes of keeping costs down.
He explained the agriculture department has a program on grain drying, so students are using this as a project to determine proper drying methods. It is important that the floss is kept clean and white during the drying process.
Once the pods are dried, they will be trucked directly to the Nebraska facility for use.
“This is ideal for small farmers,” Phippen stated, noting the field needs to be near a water source and a wooded area to attract insects, as pollination is the key to the milkweed’s success.
A five-year rotation of five off and five on is recommended
“This is an exciting project and filled with pitfalls too,” he said.
Seed money for the research was provided through Gov. Rod Blagoevich’s Opportunity Returns economic development plan in the form of a $30,000 grant received in 2004 to boost milkweed research.
Phippen is the only researcher in the country working on milkweed as a crop and has been working for nearly four years creating a domesticated milkweed plant as an alternate crop for Illinois producers.
The grant was used to grow 150,000 plants in a local greenhouse and then transplant the milkweeds on five acres of land belonging to a local producer who agreed to grow it as a crop.
The plants were transplanted – 28,000 plants per acre — at the end of May 2004. Phippen and his students provided guidance to the producer who already has a direct contract with Natural Fibers for floss.



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