Justin Steinmetz usually doesn’t sift through the comments that appear on his farm’s Facebook page.
But not everyone is a fan. The Pennsylvania farm was set next month to bring the goats to two festivals celebrating plant-based diets and lifestyles — until last week when a backlash began with a wave of emails, phone calls and social media comments saying the practice was exploiting the animals.
The criticism came as a surprise to Steinmetz, who said the snuggling had been well received by the farm’s customers until now.
“What we’re going for is a relaxing time,” Steinmetz, 41, said. “We love our animals.”
Steinmetz and his wife, Lauren, started the farm in Berks County, Pa., in 2019 with a few chickens and, over three years, it grew to include pigs, goats, cows and peacocks. The two now operate a traveling petting zoo and make the farm available for party rentals.
Over the summer, the Steinmetzes were brainstorming ideas to make some extra money so they could build a new barn on their land. The couple knew the Kutztown Folk Festival, which would bring thousands of people to Pennsylvania, would be a good place to start. Justin’s first idea was to host some sort of game at the nine-day festival — probably one based in archery because he used to craft bows and arrows for work.
But when the pair pitched the idea to the festival coordinators, they discovered the event already had someone hosting archery lessons.
In a conversation afterward, Lauren wondered aloud: “Why not baby goat snuggling?”
“You’re crazy, hon,” Justin replied almost instantly. He didn’t think the idea was going to fly.
But it did — people came in droves to the farm’s pavilion for snuggles with the furry animals in July. Festival visitors were allowed to snuggle with the goats at no charge, although donations were encouraged.
After that, Justin decided to quit his job as a contractor in favor of working full time for the farm.
“You couldn’t look at this event and say, ‘Well, that’s going to be a failure,’” he said. “There was no way.”
In the months since, the Steinmetzes began to charge people $5 to snuggle with the goats at events. As requests continued flooding in, the farm began a rotation schedule for the 65 or so goats, which are under 6 months old, so as not to overwhelm them.
As word spread about the goat-snuggling events, the farm’s Facebook page added hundreds of followers each day. The Steinmetzes started posting more videos of their goats and other animals.
The farm now has about 75,000 Facebook followers, and the family eventually unlocked the social media site’s monetization features, which Justin said has been life-changing for the farm.
“Yeah, I’m trying to monetize the business, but in no way, shape or form are these animals being mistreated,” he said.
He thought the goats would be a hit at two events on the farm’s schedule in April: the Vegan Festival at the Bear Creek Mountain Resort in Macungie, Pa., and the VegFest in Allentown, Pa.
During promotion for the Vegan Festival last week, the farm’s goat snuggling had been listed as one of its highlights online, Justin said.
But just one day after the post went online, he got a call from one of the organizers saying they’d need to pull the Steinmetz Family Farm out of the lineup, citing the backlash they’d received.
“I hadn’t noticed any yet,” Justin said.
That was when he turned to the farm’s Facebook page to look carefully through the comments. He said the negative messages were from vegan “extremists.”
“I started seeing a pattern of some of the extremists come on there and be like, ‘It’s all about the money,’” Justin said. “‘You’re exploiting the animals, they don’t have a choice.’”
He started deleting those comments from the farm’s page. Shortly after, he called a coordinator for VegFest to back out of that event. The coordinator told him VegFest had also been receiving negative messages, Justin said.
The family did not want “too much drama happening” at the festivals, he said.
“In one week, we’ve had more than we’ve had all year of doing this,” he said. “And with that type of statistic, you know it’s not going to go good when you get there.”
In a Facebook post announcing the cancellations last week, Justin added: “I understand where they are coming from, and I respect their beliefs. So respectfully we have taken it off the calendar, and hopefully it will free us up for some other events that will be better received.”
Despite the backlash, Steinmetz said, the farm still plans to bring baby goats to different events this summer, including state fairs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“I know I’m doing so much good with these goats,” he said. “I know that I’m bringing people happiness and joy.”