“It started as a joke. It wasn’t actually supposed to be a thing,” said Dot McCarthy, 32, who runs the family farm, which spans two generations.
The goats drop in on otherwise mundane virtual gatherings, including seemingly serious business meetings, birthday parties, baby showers and high school math lessons. Out of nowhere, a goat will appear in the meeting with its name displayed on the screen.
It’s typically a surprise to all attendees but the organizer. The idea is that the goat “crashes” the party.
To McCarthy’s shock, this strange salve somehow took off.
At first, “it was just to give people a laugh, and I thought, maybe we’ll get a few more egg and meat sales because people are on the website,” McCarthy said. “But what actually happened was people were like, ‘Yes, I need a goat.’ ”
After sharing a post on the farm’s website explaining the idea one evening early in the pandemic, she woke up the next morning to 200 emails requesting a goat call. In the past 11 months, Cronkshaw Fold Farm has facilitated more than 10,000 five-minute video calls on conferencing platforms.
While the main idea is to get some laughs during a grim time, the goat video calls have managed to keep the 500-year-old farm afloat — and staff members employed.
For around $6 (5 euros) per visit, a goat will abruptly appear in the meeting.
“You just see people screaming and saying, ‘Why is there is a goat in here?!’ ” McCarthy said, adding that each goat is labeled with their name when entering a call because they each have a particular personality.
People like to have their pick, she said. That’s part of what makes it fun.
Seven of the farm’s 40 goats are showcased on the website, with a photo, a brief bio, as well as a “what to expect” section displayed for each.
For instance, Sebastian, or “Seb” for short, is a fan of belly rubs and carrot sticks. According to his bio, he’s somewhere at the “bottom of the social hierarchy” but he has an underrated intellect and would make a great guest for a game of Scrabble or a book club meeting.
Seb has “a genuine interest in what you have to say” and “soft, velvety ears,” the site says.
Margaret, meanwhile, is the “highest ranking” of the bunch.
“Feared by some, respected by all, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of Marge,” the website reads.
Then there’s Elizabeth — who is chocolate brown and described as “the epitome of decorum and grace.” Beware, though, she might be preoccupied: “She’s started dating the handsome Timone from the neighbouring barn and has taken up the hobby of wine tasting.”
Video chat attendees can expect “frequent bouts of the hiccups” from Elizabeth.
To accommodate for alternate time zones (many of the goat requests come from the United States, Europe, China and even Australia), “we go from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. There’s always at least one goat that’s awake,” McCarthy said.
She wants to ensure the services are available to anyone, anywhere who is in need of a pick-me-up.
“One of the best medicines at the moment is having a laugh and having some fun, even if it’s just for five minutes,” McCarthy said.
That’s precisely what Lisa Van Lenner, 37, had in mind when she booked Lisa the goat (yes, they share a name), for her Los Angeles-based company’s virtual Christmas party.
“In the middle of the Christmas party, the goat showed up,” she said, adding that the goat was especially fitting, because the company produces digital comedy videos. “Our entire team was very confused and very delighted — which was the goal. It was incredible.”
Alongside training sheepdogs and selling eggs, meat, produce and manure (for gardening purposes), the farm financially depends on hosting educational visits, weddings and other events, all of which paused during the coronavirus pandemic.
Employee wages are normally reliant on these events, McCarthy said, leaving her in a bind.
“They work so hard,” she said, explaining that she was adamant about keeping her two employees on the payroll. “I just iterated through idea after idea, asking myself what we can do to make money.”
First, manure came to mind.
“Before the Zoom calls, we were selling animal manure door-to-door,” McCarthy said. “Loads of people were gardening, so we just had this massive demand for muck.”
That started to bring some money in, she said, but it wasn’t enough.
Then, the goat idea came to her.
“A few friends who work in the tech sector were saying how bored they are with video calls, and I was like, ‘You know what would be funny? If you just had a goat appear in your call. Why not throw a goat into the mix?’ ”
Just like that, the goat video call service was born, and it proved far easier — and more lucrative — than selling fertilizer.
Harriet Ritvo, a professor at MIT who studies human-animal relations, said she’s not surprised by the service’s success.
“Goats are very charming animals. They’re intelligent and interactive, as long as they’re not eating something that you don’t want them to eat,” she said, adding that humans can feel bonded to and comforted by animals, even through a screen.
Since April, the spontaneous service has brought in around $60,000, allowing McCarthy to continue paying her staff members. Plus, additional funds go toward her long-term goal of converting the farm to renewable power.
Given the demand for goat video calls, McCarthy has diversified the options, now offering a flock of hens to join virtual hen parties, and a new “Goat With a Note” service — in which a goat will showcase a personalized message on an edible piece of paper, then eat it on a live video call — just in time for Valentine’s Day.
“Imagine you have a crush on someone, and you want to tell them. Then a goat would appear on the screen with a sign that says, ‘We have a special message,’ ” McCarthy explained. “The note is lowered into the pen and the goat eats it.”
Admittedly, “we know this is bonkers,” the farm’s website reads. But, “it’s 2021. Just Goat with the flow.”