Where the goats and llamas Zoom

Gwen Chamberlain
The Sweet Farm llama is a favorite guest to Zoom meetings these days.

Video conferencing is a new way of life with so many working remotely, and with thousands of school children using the technology for distance learning. 

It may have drawbacks, but now a Penn Yan native and her husband have come up with a unique way to add a new element to the experience — animals.

Anna Sweet and her husband, Nate Salpeter founded Sweet Farm, a farm sanctuary in the Bay area of California in 2015 to “create something that would help educate people about where their food comes from, in particular the impacts it has on the animals and the planet. Our goal is to a more compassionate and sustainable world.”

The farm is home to 135 rescued farm animals: cows, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, a very popular llama, and an elderly horse. 

A major source of donations was cut off when California’s shelter in place order went into effect, putting a halt to donations from on-site events like private tours and corporate events. During a board of directors session to brainstorm ways to compensate for the lost revenues, the idea of calling animals into Zoom meetings for a fee arose.  

Thus, the birth of Goat to Meeting.

“Since we are in the Bay Area, and a lot of us work in tech we thought we’d at least be able to get our friends to sign up. But it’s been way more popular than we ever imagined!” says Sweet, adding, “We’re using some of the revenue to provide virtual visits to public school teachers for free. We’d love to do some farm field trips for teachers in Penn Yan!”

The program really took off when it was featured on national TV in a segment on CNN and then again on the Daily Show. It has become so popular that Sweet Farm has invited six other farm sanctuaries to participate in order to meet the demand. 

A menu of options will fit almost any Zoom meeting’s needs and organization’s budget, from a 20-minute virtual private tour at $65 for up to six people to a 25 minute VIP meeting tour for unlimited guests at $750. 

The popularity of the program has created a very busy time on the farm, says Sweet. “We are booked back-to-back with video games, so the whole team has had to reconfigure our schedules to make sure the regular chores get done, in addition to speaking to people around the world virtually!”

So far, the llama is the most popular animal, but Sweet says most of the animals on the farm are social. “They love having our animal caregivers out visiting them all day. They may not understand the concept of a video call, but they love being visited in the fields,” she says.

Goat to Meeting is likely to continue past the pandemic slow-down. While there may not be as big a demand, Sweet thinks people will want to use video conferencing as a way to visit the farm and learn more about what we do. “We also plan to continue working with teachers to develop virtual field trips for the classrooms,” she adds.

Sweet is a 2000 graduate of Penn Yan Academy, and the daughter of David and Sharon Sweet. Most of her career has been in the video game industry. She has worked with Valve Software in Seattle, Wash., building the Steam PC Gaming Platform and spent time at Oculus, working on virtual reality. She is currently an executive at a video game company based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Another Penn Yan native and life-long friend of Sweet’s is a director of Sweet Farm. Catrina North,  daughter of Kevin and Cathy North, is a 2002 graduate of Penn Yan Academy and a 2006 graduate of Gettysburg College, where she earned a bachelors’ of science in biology and environmental science. Her post graduate education is in enology and viticulture from Washington State University. She is a winemaker at Jackson Family Wines, the parent company for Kendall Jackson, LeCrema, and many other labels. 

“The farm is important to me personally because my experience with agriculture is such that I saw the effects of factory farming and industrialized agriculture — and the system is flawed and leads to a good deal of unnecessary animal cruelty. I want to help by educating and empowering people to make decisions in their own lives to live more humane lives. I am especially interested in how we can use technology to improve the food system — and the farm supports several innovators in pursuit of this mission.”

For more about Sweet Farm and Goat to Meeting, visit www.sweetfarm.org.