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The California Working Lands Free Seed Program: Reflections on a Season of Growth

Oct 28, 2021


  • Conservation Stories

Update: The California Working Lands Free Seed Program is now accepting interest forms for the 2022 season. If you are a farmer or other working land manager interested in learning more and/or contacting us to participate, please visit the program page here. Technical assistance and habitat resources are also available for working land managers in the Midwest. Please learn more here.

As autumn unfolds, the Monarch Joint Venture’s California Working Lands Free Seed Program is in full swing. After spending last spring recruiting farmers, ranchers, and orchardists who wanted to create pollinator-friendly habitat on their lands, MJV California Habitat Coordinator Wynter Vaughan spent the summer partnering with them, providing technical assistance. Now, Wynter is busy delivering free narrowleaf milkweed plugs and a special More than Monarchs seed mix to working lands across Central California, with new landowners joining the program each step of the way.

As the Free Seed Program grows, we’re reflecting on the relationships that underlie its success. Program recipients represent a dizzying array of working lands, from large farms and vineyards to small urban farms, avocado and cut-flower farms, dairy farms, grass-fed beef ranches, and more. 

But why do farmers and ranchers plant pollinator habitat in the first place? “There are multiple reasons, and not everybody’s story is the same,” says Wynter. “One main reason is that they know pollinator populations are dwindling, and they want to help. They want to work with their communities and start up those conversations that they’re here to support not only the world’s food system, but also our local ecosystems and the environment.” Other reasons could be practical — a lot of farming depends on pollination, after all. For free seed recipient Ken Rapp Jr., it’s a combination of all of the above plus a personal twist.  

As an almond grower working the same land that his grandfather purchased in 1916, Ken has a unique perspective colored by his family’s long history on these particular 100 acres in the heart of the Central Valley, just outside the town of Turlock. “My grandfather started the first turkey hatchery in California on this land, and also started planting an almond orchard — one of the first in the area.”

Before becoming exclusively almond orchards, the land also briefly served as a dairy and home to alfalfa, melon, corn, and oat crops. Ken grew up in the home his grandparents built in 1942, raised his four children on the ranch, and continues to live there with his wife Karen. In 2018, the ranch was inducted into the California Agricultural Heritage Club, celebrating 100 years of service. 

“As a child I remember my mother always having many flowers growing in our back and front yards,” Ken shares. “My mother, Dorothy, took Regular 8 movies of her flowers and one particular movie has a closeup of a large yellow butterfly that we think is a swallowtail. So the opportunity to grow wildflowers and milkweed was a chance to re-create some of the beauty and color of what I remember having seen as a child." Ken and his family were able to digitize Dorothy's film footage; check out the wonderful clip from 1946 at the end of this article.

Before he ever heard of the MJV Free Seed Program, Ken had already invested in several other projects beneficial to pollinators. “Two years ago, we began experimenting with growing cover crops between the almond trees with seeds from Project Apis m.’s Seeds for Bees program. Now, we’ve expanded this program to all the orchards. And this year, we applied for and received our Bee-Friendly Farming Certification from the Pollinator Partnership.”

Last spring, the MJV connected with Ken, who already had a spot picked out for some new pollinator habitat. “This quarter acre is irrigated weekly for the shade trees but the ground was covered by natural pine needles. Wynter asked if we would be interested in planting and growing milkweed to provide habitat for monarch butterflies.” Over the following months, Wynter provided technical assistance and developed a site conservation plan for Ken and Karen, who worked on the land preparing and maintaining the site for healthy pollinator habitat.

“What was formerly just bare ground and pine needles actually provided the ideal location,” says Ken. “It is visible from the road where people driving by can see, it’s the entrance to our farm and it’s the view out our kitchen window. This last spring we had a large variety of wildflowers growing in our habitat, and a great deal of butterfly and bee activity always going on there. We did attract several large, yellow swallowtail butterflies that we hadn’t seen here before. I know my parents would be very happy to see all the flowers growing out front.

Ken’s personal connection with his mother’s flower gardens was part of the reason the Rapps decided to partner with the MJV to create their own wildflower habitat, and now the family legacy continues into the next generation: Last May, Ken and Karen’s daughter got married on the ranch, with many wedding photos taken among the blooming wildflowers. For the Rapps and many other Free Seed Program recipients, the reasons for planting the habitat represent the intersection of ecological restoration, pollinator conservation, community benefit, and personal connection. We look forward to checking back with Ken and Karen after another growing season!

The California Working Lands Free Seed Program is part of the MJV’s larger initiative to restore pollinator habitat on private working lands. Right now, we’re seeking new farmers, ranchers, and other private working land managers in both California and the Midwest in preparation for the 2022 season. Whether you're looking to restore habitat on your land, improve existing habitat, or just implement better pollinator practices like a pollinator-friendly mowing schedule, we're here to help. If you are a California working land manager interested in learning more and/or contacting us to participate, please visit the program page here. In the Midwest? Visit our technical assistance page.

We would like to acknowledge Project Apis m. for launching this program under their Seeds for Bees initiative, and for their partnership with the MJV to help it succeed. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provides support for our California Habitat Coordinator to support growers, with matching support provided by the MJV, The Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund and Keystone Policy Center. Funding for the More than Monarchs seed mix and plant materials is provided by Bayer.  

Photo credits: Wynter Vaughan & Ken Rapp; Film credit: Ken Rapp, all rights reserved.


This film footage is from 1946, taken by Ken Rapp's mother Dorothy on the same land where Ken created pollinator habitat through the MJV's California Working Lands Free Seed Program. What kind of butterfly do you think this is? 

The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners.