As The Monarch Challenge enters our eighth year, we pause to reflect on all the remarkable progress that has been made during this journey, and to express our gratitude to all those who have supported us on this important mission. Even with the success we have made, we recognize that we are far from being out of the woods. In fact, these upcoming years are without question our most critical.
A Fight for a Healthy Planet
Today we are in a fight for our planet and life as we know it. Recent studies conducted in Europe have revealed alarming data, indicating that since the year 2000, 80% of the European Union’s insect biomass has disappeared and with it, 50% of the bird populations. Scientists suggest that these numbers are reflective of the global state of insect and avian populations. Along with this insect and avian apocalypse research shows that 40% of our planet’s pollinators are under threat of extinction and to make matters worse, the past eight years have been our planet’s warmest on record. This demonstrates the fierce headwinds pushing against humanity and life as we know it, making our mission more important than ever.
As a refresher, the Monarch Challenge is a movement I helped found back in 2016 with fellow winemakers, nature lovers, and activists to create awareness surrounding the dangerous chemicals in agriculture, namely herbicides. The challenge is named after the beautiful monarch butterflies who have seen a massive 99% disappearance since the 1980s. Essentially, this means that if you are my age, this collapse has happened in our lifetime. This alarming population decline inversely follows the increased uptake of pesticides in agriculture over the past few decades and now the fate of the monarch butterflies as well the fragile future of our planet’s biodiversity rests in our hands.
Monarchs play key roles within their ecosystem and are one of the many indicator species like the polar bears of the north, wolves of Yellowstone, or Pacific salmon of our oceans and coastal rivers. By protecting our planet’s indicator species and others like them, we actively contribute to the preservation of entire ecosystems that thrive in their presence.
To meet the challenge, we’ve laid out two goals that will help reverse this collapse.
Goal 1.0 of the Monarch Challenge
Our first objective, which seems simple, is to help our sacred farming communities to migrate away from herbicides by offering affective alternative tools and practices to address these challenges without going into the chemical realm. Mowing for example, offers a 100% reduction as an alternative to herbicides.
Today, herbicides make up 5 billion pounds (about 2, 267,960,000 kg) of the 9 billion pounds (about 4,082,328,000 kg) of pesticides sprayed into our food ecosystem. We want to reverse that number by 5 billion pounds, which will not only save farmers in the magnitude of hundreds of billions of dollars but also protect farmers, our soil, waterways, and food quality.
Although removing herbicides from farming at the surface level seems very easy, it does not come without its challenges. One such challenge is the financial aspect. For example, prior to Monarch Tractor, using herbicides for most farmers cost much less than mowing. The choices farmers have for managing the growth of grasses involved either applying herbicides on your field once a year and be done, or mowing after each rain event sprouted new grasses, which could be often depending on the growing season. Driving your tractor after each rain costs more in time commitment from the team and more in diesel fuel which is not ideal from a carbon footprint perspective.
Despite the potential savings on not having to buy expensive herbicides, the combined cost of fuel plus the extra labor cost to drive the tractors outweighed the cost savings of going herbicide-free. Bridging these divides was the challenge we faced to make this work for both the farmers and monarchs.
Since talking with many farmers, we learned that for the Monarch Challenge to succeed we would need to make what is best for our planet also what is best for a farmer’s profit. We learned that in the USA only 43% of farms are profitable, leaving a significant 57% of them struggling. Agriculture is a sacred endeavor and farmers are among the hardest workers who are paid much less than almost any other industry. As a result, we have been using more chemicals to minimize our labor needs, which in turn, helps cut overall costs. These short-term monetary savings come at the expense of the quality of our soils, waterways, food, farm biology, farmer health, and the overall biodiversity of our planet.
Having become aware of the immense challenges confronting farmers, the monarch butterflies, and life as we know it, I have dedicated myself to finding solutions to address these significant concerns.
Gaining Momentum in 2023
A Few Big Steps Made in 2023 Supporting Our Movement
1. Monarch Tractor’s MK-V (100% electric, smart, autonomous and drivable) is now commercially available and scaling fast. This year alone, Monarch Tractor customers will migrate 25,000+ acres of land (a little less than the size of two Manhattan Islands) away from fossil fuel farming and into zero emissions farming, helping address our carbon footprint in agriculture. In doing so we estimate this fleet will help offset roughly 56,000 tons of co2e each year going forward. Another note is that assuming all farms were conventional before buying a Monarch Tractor and they leverage autonomous mowing going forward, the autonomy stack in a Monarch MK-V will help save farmers between $12.5 - $50 million dollars on herbicides. The impact this will have is going to scale quickly as Monarch begins to ramp up production to meet orders.
2. Governments are becoming enlightened, interested, and activated about agriculture’s central role in a clean and healthy planet. This was demonstrated at COP28 (2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference) where discussions surrounding farming took a more central stage for the first time ever.
3. Another positive note is that farmers around the world are stepping up and leading the charge in building a cleaner, healthier food ecosystem and planet. I have never seen so many fellow farmers so excited about the future.
4. The climate venture investment community and AgTech investment communities are more focused than ever to divest from dirty technologies and invest into technologies that support a clean, healthy future for our planet. Many of these funds are acknowledging that hardware innovation is needed to accomplish this and making investments to support this.
Despite the significant progress made in the past 12 months, it still feels insufficient when considering the data presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These independent studies indicating that we are on track to surpass the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold before 2030 is terrifying, and the studies highlighting the collapse of our planet's biodiversity add to the alarming picture.
Even amidst these sobering data points, this past year we saw a shift in consciousness and a growing awareness within our farming communities. The urgency of the situation is being heard, and the energy we are seeing from farming families - the most important job on earth - is precisely why we are not giving up.
How Can You Help the Monarch Challenge if You're Not A Farmer?
The first and crucial step is to help us create awareness about this biodiversity loss within your circles of colleagues, neighbors, and friends. I have found that using the monarch butterflies as a conversation opener proves affective since many individuals, especially those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s remember their distinctive, beautiful patterns and most can also remember the abundance we once enjoyed chasing around the garden in spring. The idea is to create awareness of these beautiful butterflies, the challenges facing them, and the small things we can do that we can protect them. Through this awareness we can foster a much deeper understanding of the significance of biodiversity preservation and inspire collective action to protect and conserve our sacred and precious natural ecosystems.
To address this issue, it is crucial for us to acknowledge and take responsibility for the challenging reality we face. It is disheartening to admit that the primary reasons behind the loss of biodiversity are our own human activities, specifically the use of pesticides in agriculture and the impact of climate change. However, there is a silver lining in this realization. Because we understand the activities that have caused this decline, we have the opportunity to come together and transform it from a mass extinction event into one of the most remarkable recoveries our planet has ever witnessed.
Education and action are paramount to the survival of these endangered species and our own long-term health and survival. By raising awareness, fostering understanding, and inspiring proactive measures, we can contribute to the preservation and restoration of biodiversity. I believe it is our collective duty to actively implement sustainable practices, advocate for environmental protection, and embrace actions that mitigate the negative impacts of our actions. Through concerted efforts, we possess the power to reverse the current trajectory and pave the way for a future where both our planet and its diverse ecosystems thrive together.
“To restore stability to our planet, therefore, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing we have removed. It is the only way out of this crisis that we ourselves have created. We must rewild the world!”
― David Attenborough
Goal 2.0 of the Monarch Challenge
Now that we have the knowledge, it’s time to take action. For our planet’s biodiversity and humanity to flourish together we must achieve these four points:
1. Work towards achieving climate stability by transitioning away from a fossil fuel-powered planet and invest in a future powered by renewable energy sources. Consider switching to an electric vehicle (EV) for your commute or daily transportation. Even if charged with 100% coal power, an EV is still cleaner than a combustion engine. Over time, coal will also be replaced by renewable or clean energy sources, further increasing your positive impact. If you are a farmer, explore the benefits of a Monarch Tractor MK-V, which allows for a shift away from fossil fuel dependency. By bridging away from fossil fuel, we as humanity are becoming 300 million years more efficient, after all fossil fuel is simply 300-million-year-old sunlight captured by earth, grown by its properties then buried by time. By embracing renewable energy, we enhance efficiency, profitability, sustainability, and independence as we harness the energy of sunlight directly. This shift allows us to power our future without burning hydrocarbons and inflicting harm on our climate.
2. Address the 9 billion pounds of pesticides sprayed into our planet’s food ecosystem. Of the 9 billion pounds of pesticides, 5 billion are herbicides. This is where Monarch tractor’s autonomy stack coupled with appropriate implements, can provide a 100% reduction of this costly input. Eliminating herbicides will save California farmers well over a billion dollars each year alone. On a global scale, the savings farmers could experience by removing herbicides is over 200 billion dollars each year. On the flip side the benefits of a herbicides-free landscape to our soils, waterways, air, farmer health, consumer health and environmental health is immeasurable.
3. Rewild our planet. As agriculture occupies approximately half of our planet's inhabitable land, we can help rewild our farms. To do this, I recommend following what the scientists at the Xerces Society recommends, which is to dedicate 25% of your land to a wildlife preserve to encourage pollinator habitat to grow and life to thrive. Fence lines and open spaces for instance, provide ideal locations for such initiatives while note taking away from your farming goals.
4. Depoliticize the conversation surrounding environmental conservation and vote into office leaders who put climate change and the protection of our planet as a matter of national and global security. This should be universally embraced by all, regardless of political affiliation. Investing in leaders who dismiss climate change as inconsequential, regardless of their political leanings, is far too risky given what the science says is at stake. We must promote those who believe the issue of climate change is a matter of national and planetary security, transcending political affiliations. True leadership lies in recognizing the urgency of the situation and taking proactive steps to secure a sustainable future for all.
A Silver Lining Out of the Tragic War in Ukraine
Another significant event that occurred this year, which propelled us towards a renewably powered planet was the tragic war in Ukraine. The invasion by Russia caused a staggering 250% increase in the price of pesticides and fertilizers. This steep price hike can be attributed to the fact that 99% of the 9 billion pounds of pesticides and the 100 million tons of fertilizers produced globally are derived from fossil fuels. As the cost of fossil fuels rises, so does the price of conventional herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and fertilizers. Consequently, the increased cost of herbicides has made mowing, for the first time since the inception of the Monarch Challenge, a cost-equivalent alternative to spraying the herbicide glyphosate.
On top of this, many European countries, heavily reliant on Russia for energy, have decided to expedite their investments in energy independence through the adoption of renewable and clean energy resources. These national investments in clean technologies and renewable energy sources might be a silver lining of this tragic war in Ukraine. These investments will enable nations and farmers to achieve energy independence, enhancing their resilience and financial autonomy, while also aligning their interests with the well-being of our planet.
Closing Statements: The Impossible is Possible
In closing, I want to thank you all for your support. Back when we founded the Monarch Challenge, we were told this would be impossible. This was before the human health related Monsanto lawsuits and during a time when farmers were being told that you can drink glyphosate.
To make the impossible possible, we founded Monarch Tractor and again, people told us building what we have built was impossible, that there was no way we could do it. Here we are today, and I just want to say this is only possible because of the incredible support from our farming partners and from you all. None of this happens without your support. Thank you.
This year ahead of us is a very important year as we can finally start realizing the true impact of Monarch Tractor.
I am also grateful to know that because of technologies like Monarch Tractor and innovations being developed in all industries, we can address climate change and the dangerous activities threatening our planet’s biodiversity. I am even more encouraged today that this rebound is going to happen than I was back when this movement was founded in 2016.
That said, I anticipate that elements tied to nature, climate change, and our planet's biodiversity are going to worsen before they get better. We have dug a deep hole that is going to take a lot of hard work and dedication over the next 10 - 20 years to climb out of. However, as I look around our factory of brilliant engineers at Monarch Tractor, see the support of our Monarch Challenge, and talk with fellow activists, I remain optimistic that we will get there and that one day this report will talk about the populations of Monarch butterflies increasing year over year. In the meantime, if you are feeling down, keep your head up as I know we will get there, and I hope you find a reason to share that optimism and stay on the course. The insects, birds, mammals, plants and trees, and all our planet’s stunning and diverse array of life are depending on it.
With gratitude and hope,
Chief Farming Officer and Co-founder, Monarch Tractor
I’m a farmer and a winemaker, not a businessman. I founded my Sonoma Coast winery, RAEN, in 2013 with my brother, Dante. Our hands and heart are in the soil, vines, and environment where our wines grow. Like all farmers, we are hyper-focused on the relationships between weather, ecosystem health, and high-quality crops. Shortly after starting RAEN, I launched The Monarch Challenge: a movement advocating awareness to protect and nourish our farm biology via our planet’s soils, waterways, our farm teams, and the interconnected web of biodiversity. These efforts led to the co-founding of Monarch Tractor in 2018. All farmers care deeply for their land and will do anything to protect the value it holds.