Viral social media response led first-time goat owners to an unexpected business opportunity
By Amanda M. Socci, photos courtesy of Willow’s Little Goat Farm
Barely eight months into its infancy, Willow’s Little Goat Farm in Midland has emerged out of nowhere, causing a social media frenzy which astonished the owners — who had only recently acquired the goats — and eventually led them to a business opportunity. The once-private farmstead now welcomes select visitors by appointment, and gives them the opportunity to cuddle and bond with their goats. Named after the owner’s dog, Willow, the goat farm features seven goats: Annie, George, Rosemary, Oliver, Harper, Hazel, and Spirit.
How it All Started
Eight years ago, owners Mike Ellis and Stephanie Shifflett met while working in Gainesville. They dated in college and after graduating, lived in Falls Church. “We were exhausted because we were commuting and working so hard. We had to find a way to get back to the land,” stated Shifflett.
Shifflett’s family, native to Fauquier County, owned pigs, chickens, and dogs. Shifflett fondly recalled attending a farmer’s auction when she was young, bidding on pigs and buying them for her family’s farm. She was also experienced in babysitting goats.
Ellis’ family also had strong roots in farming. Holland, known for its many waterways, thriving agriculture, and vegetation, became a second home to Ellis as he traveled there frequently to visit his family, whose green pastures housed cows and sheep. Ellis was well accustomed to the serenity and comforts of farming; like Shifflett, he too yearned to return to his upbringing in farming.
Approximately a year and a half ago, the now-engaged couple decided they had outgrown their stay in the metropolis of nonstop congested traffic. The rural environment of Fauquier County beckoned them. They called it an oasis — a 180-degree difference from the concrete jungle where the couple lived and worked. At this early stage, goats were nowhere in their minds.
According to Ellis, the couple looked at only two houses before settling upon their present home, an old farmhouse built in 1904 that had been restored with piping and electricity. They completed the move into their new home which was surrounded by three acres of overrun, unkempt land in February 2019. There was a lot of physical work to be done to clear the land; Ellis and Shifflett did the hard labor on their own and hired a private company to install a fence to enclose the property. According to Shifflett, “We knew we were going to be farmers. We’re in love with pets.” But they still didn’t know that goats were in their future.
The Goats Move In!
After settling into their new home, the couple learned that a family friend was moving and had to give up their farm animals, including some goats. Ellis and Shifflett agreed to take the goats to their newly established farm and planned to keep them as pets so their former family could continue to visit them. Two pregnant female goats and one male arrived. Eventually, these three goats would become seven. Delighted, Ellis and Shifflett continued raising goats as a hobby; turning it into a business didn’t occur to them.
The Proud Goat Dad
The goats lit up their lives and filled each day with sweetness. The mixed breeds of Nigerian Dwarf and American Pygmy made it easy for the couple to keep them as companion pets. The couple relished holding the goats and snuggling with them, despite their horns and sharp two-toed hooves. Surprisingly small in height with a physical appearance like tiny giraffes, the goats received daily socialization, tenderness, and care from the couple. The goats loved the affection and returned it with a playful demeanor.
Both Ellis and Shifflett consistently referred to the goats as members of their family and even as their children, as the couple does not yet have human babies. While they share equal responsibilities in raising their goats, Ellis emerged as the proud goat dad, even going so far as referring to the goat’s first baby as their own firstborn. “They all have their own little personalities. Oliver is our firstborn, he’s the rambunctious one,” beamed Ellis.
Over the course of time, Ellis gathered as much technical information as possible to take better care of his endearing goat family. “I read lots of books and do research,” he stated. When it was time for the two females to give birth, Shifflett worked with the veterinarian on the phone while Ellis became the midwife, assisting with the physical demands of the laboring process.
Accidental Business Flourishes
Both Ellis and Shifflett agreed they never planned to do anything official or business-like with the goats once they acquired them. The only thing they really wanted to do was share the joy of their goats through photography and videos by posting them to Instagram. “We posted things for fun and for sharing. People loved it! They reached out and wanted to see the goats,” said Shifflett.
To their surprise, their Instagram account took off like a rocket with their very first post on September 5, 2019. More than 100 people liked that post. Thereafter, each subsequent post garnered more views, more likes, and they became a viral sensation almost overnight. Simultaneously, their Facebook account also gained popularity as the couple successfully reached thousands of people from all over the world who were fascinated with the goings on of their quaint family of goats.
Their popularity on social media led the couple to create Facebook events called “open houses” which allowed locals to meet and cuddle with the goats at select interval times. “It was all by accident,” insisted Shifflett, “we decided to host personal events [allowing people to meet the goats] and vetted people online.”
After the couple hosted two successful open house events in October and November of 2019, people asked them to expand their services. To satisfy a clear demand, the couple is working on the logistics to rent out their farm for private events and offer goat yoga and goat therapy. In addition, the couple has a five-year plan to create a new business: a farm and winery at a location near Charlottesville which would also serve as a wedding venue. They want to get married there and incorporate the goats as an integral part of the new business.
Both Ellis and Shifflett welcome guests at Willow’s Little Goat Farm. Since their private home also serves as the homestead for the goat farm, they offer opportunities for visits and goat joy by appointment only. Readers are encouraged to learn more by visiting their Instagram page at instagram.com/willowsgoatfarm and their website at willowslittlegoatfarm.com.