OKEMAH — There’s money to be made in butterfly farming.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized the potential for jobs in the industry and awarded a $500,000 grant to the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town in Oklahoma. The grant will support the Natives Raising Natives project, a partnership between the tribe and the Euchee Butterfly Farm that will enable tribal members to raise and sell butterflies.
The money is coming from the USDA’s Rural Business Enterprise Grant program, which promotes the development of small and emerging businesses in rural areas. The Thlopthlocco grant is the largest awarded this year by the program, which also awarded grants to Native American communities in 17 other states.
“What attracted the most attention was the amount of jobs this could create,” said Brian Wiles, the business and energy program director at the USDA’s Oklahoma Rural Development office.
About 50 people are signed up for the program, and many have received starter kits. The grant is expected to help 100 to 300 people begin raising butterflies.
Wiles said the program seeks to achieve three objectives: provide rural employment for tribal members; promote science education among Native Americans, who are underrepresented in science fields; and promote environmental conservation, through raising natural pollinators.
The idea is the brainchild of Jane Breckinridge and David Bohlken, who own and operate the Euchee Butterfly Farm and The Butterfly House.
The husband and wife team has been in the butterfly business for more than 20 years.
Breckinridge said she and her husband first began raising butterflies for fun, and then saw that the industry was starting to blossom. Now, they travel the country with their butterfly exhibits.
“Butterflies are like dinosaurs, all kids love them,” she said.
And it’s not just kids who love butterflies. Museums, research institutions and those in the wedding industry are among others who purchase butterflies regularly, Bohlken said.
Most of these places, including Bohlken’s and Breckinridge’s business, import butterflies from out of the country.
“After a while, we started thinking, it would be really nice to get these jobs here,” Breckinridge said.
So Bohlken got in touch with an acquaintance who started a successful butterfly farming program in Costa Rica as a Peace Corps project, and the couple modeled Natives Raising Natives after it.
The project kicked off after Millie Wind, the environmental specialist for the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, attended a presentation by Breckinridge about the idea.
Wind brought the idea back to the tribe council, which jumped on board. She said the tribe was interested in the conservation aspect of the project, as well as the potential for jobs.
“It also gets kids excited about the sciences,” she said.
Butterfly farming seemed like a perfect job for anybody.
“It’s something the elders can do, the young can do and those with full-time jobs can also do it,” Wind said.
Through the partnership, the Euchee Butterfly Farm provides tribe members with the starter kits to begin raising butterflies.
“To get one person really rocking and rolling, it’s about $150,” Bohlken said.
The grant money will allow for each participant to receive the starting materials for free.
“We didn’t want anyone to fear failing,” Bohlken said.
Milkweed seeds, trays for the plants and dirt are provided to the farmers, followed by eggs and what’s called a butterfly castle. The plant trays are placed inside the castles, which are large netted cages, and caterpillar eggs are sprinkled on top of them.
When the chrysalides are formed, the farmer collects and inspects them, and provides them to the Euchee Butterfly Farm for selling. The cycle takes about 30 days.
Breckinridge said having a co-op of farmers that produces a lot of butterflies means that the farm will be able to land contracts to sell them in bulk.
A particularly efficient farmer can produce up to 10,000 butterflies a year, and Bohlken said some farmers will be able to make $15,000 to $20,000.
Wind said some tribal members were skeptical about the project originally, but the grant helped eliminate that.
Vicky Curry, a participant in the program, said she was on board from the beginning.
Curry said she grew up in a rural area, and remembers seeing the monarch migration every year.
“I don’t see that anymore,” she said. She’s happy to be able to participate in a program that she says will help conserve the dwindling butterfly species.
Breckinridge said in the wild, butterflies have a 5 percent survival rate from egg to adult. In captivity, the survival rate is 95 percent.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” she said of the project.
Grant money also will go toward operating a vehicle to pick up butterflies from farmers’ homes, as well as toward a learning center that will be built on tribal land in southeast Tulsa County. The learning center will house some of the butterflies raised by the farmers.