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Butterfly Farms in Encinitas will carry on, despite co-founder’s death

Tom Merriman, photographed in 2013, was the co-founder and president of The Butterfly Farms in Encinitas.
(U-T File)

Solana Beach resident Tom Merriman’s body was found Jan. 1; 37-year-old woman has been arrested on suspicion of murder

Monday, Jan. 4, would have been Tom Merriman’s first day back at work at Butterfly Farms. Instead, the nearly 8-year-old education and research nonprofit in Encinitas is preparing to move forward without its co-founder and president.

Merriman, 64, was found dead on Jan. 1 inside the Solana Beach home of Jade Sasha Janks, 37, who has been jailed on suspicion of murder. Deputies had gone to the address on Nardo Avenue to check on a man’s welfare. Because of the circumstances in which they found Merriman’s body, the case is being investigated as a homicide. Janks’ arraignment date has not been announced.

Butterfly Farms CEO Pat Flanagan said he was stunned by the news, which he learned in a phone call from one of Merriman’s brothers. Flanagan said he had been exchanging texts and emails last week with Merriman about his plan to return to work this week, after taking time off to recuperate from injuries he suffered after eye surgery in December.

“I was thinking how nice it would be to have him back when I got the news. It’s such a shock,” said Flanagan, who co-founded the half-acre farm project with Merriman in spring 2013. “But we will move forward. Tom and I talked about how we wanted this to be a legacy program. The work we do is important and it grows more important every year. So we will carry on. That’s what Tom would want. It would be a huge insult to Tom not to do that.”

Butterfly Farms co-founders Tom Merriman, left, and Pat Flanagan, in 2013
Tom Merriman, left, and Pat Flanagan, photographed in 2013 at the original Vista location for The Butterfly Farms.
(U-T File)

Flanagan said he met Merriman in 2011 when they both leased nursery space on the same property in Vista and they decided to combine their businesses. At first, they were growing and selling palm trees but found it unfulfilling. Then, over beers by a campfire one night, they hatched the idea of instead building a butterfly vivarium and selling the pollinator plants that attract butterflies.

To learn about the flying creatures, the men recruited Vista lepidopterist David Marriott, who founded the Monarch Program, a nonprofit that tracked the migration of monarch butterflies and ran a vivarium in Encinitas until mid-2013. Marriott, who died a few years ago, taught Flanagan and Merriman how to build and maintain a vivarium and with his help they opened Butterfly Farms in spring 2013. Two years later, the project moved to its present location at 441 Saxony Road in Encinitas.

Flanagan said Merriman was the day-to-day operations manager of Butterfly Farms, but also its heart and soul.

“He was really good at patiently helping people,” Merriman said. “Our customers take a lot more time because they have a lot of questions and he was always willing to take however long they needed to listen and make sure they had everything they needed to start their own butterfly gardens.”

Flanagan said that during butterfly season each year — which runs from April through November — the half-acre attraction hosts a couple hundred visitors every day, most of them student groups from San Diego County schools. And during the summer months, more than 50,000 visitors toured the Butterfly Farms exhibit each year at the San Diego County Fair. The Encinitas property includes a walk-through vivarium with live butterflies and a boutique nursery that sells several pesticide-free varieties of butterfly-attracting plants, including native and tropical species of milkweed for monarchs.

Although the pandemic took a big bite out of revenues with the cancellation of all student field trips, Flanagan said he and Merriman had an unexpectedly good year in 2020. Because so many people were homebound, their interest in backyard gardening and butterfly plants exploded. The partners were also at work on plans to expand their milkweed production and to build a second vivarium project at The Farm in Poway, a recently approved housing development.

Tom Merriman at Butterfly Farms in 2019.
Tom Merriman, one of the founders of Butterfly Farms, a non-profit organization that focuses on education and conservation in Encinitas, looks at caterpillar eggs on August 13, 2019.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Flanagan said surviving a tough year and emerging with big projects ahead made it an especially heartbreaking time to lose his business partner and friend.

“It’s an exciting time,” Flanagan said. “After years of really toiling seven days a week, 365 days a year, we really came of age this year and now he’s gone.”

Because butterfly season ends in November, Merriman had arranged to take time off to undergo long-planned laser eye surgery on Dec. 1. But in the days following the surgery, Merriman told Flanagan he suffered several falls after the surgery that led to cracked ribs, two concussions and facial injuries that prolonged his time away from work. As a result, the last time Flanagan ever saw Merriman was his last day of work at the end of November.

Flanagan said he and Merriman often discussed preserving Butterfly Farms for future generations because when Marriott passed away, the Monarch Program died with him. Merriman’s son, Cash, worked summers at Butterfly Farms, and the nursery side of their operation, L&M, is named after Flanagan’s own children, Lucas and Micaela.

Flanagan said Merriman grew up in the Midwest and worked as both a landscaper and cabinet-maker in Colorado and San Diego. He also owned a wholesale palm nursery in Valley Center in the early 2000s. Merriman loved working with his hands and had a couple old cars he enjoyed tinkering with in his spare time. Merriman came from a large Catholic family with five brothers and one sister. He was the divorced father of two daughters and one son. No memorial services have been announced.

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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