Jo Ann Goldenburg switched from a 25-year television industry career in Atlanta to living as a butterfly farmer in Dahlonega.
“It’s a big lifestyle change, but this is something I’ve wanted to do since childhood,” Goldenburg said. “I’ve always been an outdoor person, and I wanted to do something to protect the environment and teach about the importance of pollinators.”
After months of clearing out trees, growing butterfly-friendly plants and designing sustainable structures, Goldenburg opened Dahlonega Butterfly Farm on Saturday, June 1.
The nearly 8-acre land includes a visitor center with a gift shop inside, outdoor plants for caterpillars and an 800-square-foot butterfly conservatory.
Walking in a butterfly wonderland
Before people enter the conservatory, they’re asked to refrain from grabbing the butterflies, not jump and walk with caution. Since butterflies enjoy soaking up the sun on the ground, Goldenburg reminds people to watch their step.
Once people enter the mostly transparent building, they’ll find nearly 200 butterflies fluttering through the air and perching on nectar-producing plants.
Since all of the butterflies are imported from a butterfly dealer in Florida, all of them must remain in the conservatory under the United States Department of Agriculture’s regulations.
Goldenburg has 12 different species, including exotics like orange sulfurs and native butterflies like black swallowtails.
“They’re just beautiful,” Goldenburg said while butterflies fluttered around her. “They help pollinate herbs, trees and our vegetables, so we can eat.”
None of the butterflies lay eggs in the conservatory because of Goldenburg’s careful selection of plants.
The messy side of butterfly farms
Goldenburg receives her caterpillars in the chrysalid form and raises them until they complete their metamorphosis inside a containment room. Goldenburg said this isolation from the conservatory is a necessary precaution to insure parasites and viruses from the imported caterpillars don’t infect other butterflies.
She keeps a close watch on the chrysalid forms, removing them if they show undesirable signs. Goldenburg said 10% of each batch of 100 don’t make it.
“It’s a messy process,’ she said.
Raised beds cover the land near the entrance of the farm. The sections contain a plant that provides food for a specific caterpillar.
“Every type of species of caterpillar eats a different type of plant, and each one of these is pollinated by butterflies,” Goldenburg said. “When they emerge from the eggs, they eat the leaves. This whole caterpillar habitat is meant to be eaten up.”
The parsley attracts black swallowtail caterpillars, cabbage draws in cabbage white caterpillars and milkweed feeds monarch caterpillars.
Building the dream from the ground up
Goldenburg considers herself a “one-woman band.”
She invested $250,000 into the farm, which involved purchasing the land and constructing the $50,000 butterfly conservatory.
The designer responsible for the butterfly house at the Pittsburgh Zoo composed the layout for Goldenburg’s structure.
Butterflies also don’t come at a cheap price.
Each butterfly costs $3 to $5, and they typically live up to three weeks. Goldenburg purchases around 80 caterpillars per week. For the first month in business, she spent $900 on butterflies.
Before opening the farm to the public, Goldenburg had to receive a USDA permit. She wrote a 19-page operating procedure report and had to show all of her butterfly care methods.
The farm currently acts as an LLC, since Goldenburg personally funded the business. By next year, she hopes to transform it into a nonprofit.
“I would love to do research here with UNG (University of North Georgia), work with Botanical Gardens or Chattahoochee Nature Center,” she said. “Since it’s the first year my main goal for now is operations.”
Once schools start up in August, Goldenburg plans to host field trips on the farm. She also intends to coordinate tours with assisted living homes.
A team of butterfly protectors
Build it and they will come — that’s exactly what happened to Goldenburg. Before seeking out new hires, people popped up asking for jobs.
She has a team of three, including a visitor center manager, tour guide and conservatory rule enforcer, also known as the “butterfly bouncer.”
Henry Rives, who studies biology at the University of North Georgia, said joining the staff was right up his alley. He said he’s excited to guide the tours and help with the farm’s upkeep.
“I’m looking forward to getting to see people’s reactions and informing them about the conservation and education of butterflies,” Rives said.
When people leave the Dahlonega Butterfly Farm, Goldenburg said she hopes people feel empowered to spend more time in nature and to protect the environment.
“If I can just inspire one person or five people to do something different to help the environment, that would be my goal,” she said.
As for the farm’s future, she aims to expand it into a botanical garden. For now, she encourages people to relish in Dahlonega’s first butterfly farm.
“It’s absolutely beautiful and it will continue to get better and better everyday,” Rives said. “People should come check it out. It’s a wonderful place to be and work.”
General admission for Dahlonega Butterfly Farm is $8 for adults and $5 for children ages 12 and under. Hours of operation are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. People can find the farm at 427 Castleberry Bridge Road in Dahlonega.For more information visit dahlonegabutterfly.com or call 678-665-2263.
Dahlonega Butterfly Farm
What: Farm dedicated to the education and conservation of butterflies
Where: 427 Castleberry Bridge Road, Dahlonega
Admission: $8 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under
More info: dahlonegabutterfly.com or 678-665-2263.