Baby goats and sunflower selfies are a boon for these farmers. Just look at the lines at the Pa. Farm Show
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS) January 15, 2024
The selfie station by the giant pyramid of potatoes sat empty Jan. 10 at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, but around the corner, the bleat of baby goats had already drawn hundreds of paying customers.
That’s the fickle nature of social media in the farming world, where folks will pay money to cuddle with dairy cows or propose on bended knee in a field of sunflowers. Some call it agrotourism, people visiting farms as tourists, or even agritainment. Lauren Steinmetz, of Steinmetz Family Farm in Berks County, Pa., calls it a lifeline.
“It got to the point where we had to start making money with these animals or we had to get rid of them,” Steinmetz said while cradling a baby goat. “I told my husband I had an idea and he said that was crazy, but here we are.”
Last year, Steinmetz brought about 40 goats, all of them 2 to 6 months old, to the “snuggling station” and lines were long. This year she brought 87.
“And you can see, it’s doing well,” she said, motioning to the line.
Nature plays a part in what animals become social media stars or not. Steinmetz said goats don’t bite and don’t mind being handled.
“I mean, they nibble,” she said. “We obviously couldn’t do this with dogs.”
Harold Harpster, 87, of Boalsburg, Centre County, Pa., has lived on a dairy farm his entire life, raising and milking Jerseys. Few people wanted to cuddle cows for most of his decades in dairy, but it’s a difficult profession, so he understands the appeal from a farmer’s perspective.
Still, he worries about the liabilities.
“I get it, but I’m not sure I would recommend it,” he said. “They’re big animals and they can kick.”
Bob Sneed, of Harrisburg, Pa., and his donkey, Edward, were popular at the show but the duo haven’t quite locked in the social media game. Edward is friendly enough, Sneed said, though he’s been known to stomp on a coyote or two.
“Donkeys are actually very smart,” Sneed said, “but most people don’t have the intelligence to understand that.”
Alpacas sport the same shaggy haircut millions of suburban teens have and, even better, they don’t bite. One downside: they spit.
“Spitting is their way of protecting themselves,” Angie Grove, an alpaca farmer from Carlisle, Pa., said at the show. “It’s better to take a shower, though, than get stitches.”
Grove’s two alpacas, Lilo and Alice, don’t often pose for selfies, but they do go out and visit senior citizen centers.
Sunflower fields have become social media darlings in recent years, backdrops for millions of Instagram stories and TikTok views. Along with being used for mazes, festivals and photo opportunities, Penn State Extension said sunflowers “can provide a nice link between the farm community and the general public.”
Linking the public to the farmers is part of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) approach that Jen Brodsky, owner of Pie Bird Farms in Ottsville, Bucks County, Pa., adheres to. Her farm, founded in the 1860s, sat fallow for decades. She and her husband figured sunflowers would make a good first impression and they’re relatively easy to grow.
“We planted 50,000 and not one germinated,” she said at the farm show, Jan. 10.
After fine-tuning the process, Brodsky said her farm became a model for CSA. She doesn’t charge specifically for sunflower selfies but does have pick-your-own flower events.
“So if you think about it, you plant all of those sunflowers and you don’t have to harvest them and you’re making money off of the experience,” she said. “That is extremely valuable for farmers in terms of different avenues for revenue, particularly profitable revenue.”
Lavender and canola are also popular social media backdrops, Brodsky said. In South Jersey, one tulip farm became so popular that local officials asked its owners to cut back on drive-thru tours during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Too much of anything can prove problematic, particularly on social media. Not every farmer wants teens traipsing through their flowers or hugging their Scottish highland cow, no matter how adorable they are. In Wyoming, officials have warned people to stop trespassing on sunflower farms. In Tasmania, some farmers fear lavender fields are being “loved to death.”
Steinmetz and her stable of baby goats even came under fire, last year, after two vegetarian festivals in Pennsylvania accused the farm of exploiting their animals and canceled the yoga and cuddling events they had planned with the farm.
On Jan. 10, as a line of eager goat cuddlers snaked through a maze of palleted walls, Steinmetz said the proof was in the petting.
“We’re doing very well,” she said. “Most people come through, stay about five minutes, and say it was the best part of the show for them.”