Drivers twisting along the crooked spine of Q Street toward the Elkhorn River will start to notice the remaining clues of a deadly flood season in Nebraska from spring 2019. Dead tree limbs sleep on the shoulders of the road, repaired pockets of gravel kiss the ground, natural woods now rest, worn down by trauma.
Located at 240th Street south of West Q Road, Willow Valley Farms provides more dramatic evidence of the flooding.
“I’m glad you’ve got your boots on,” said John Carroll, hosing off his porch at the arrival of a new visitor. A peacock named Pedro unwinds on the front stoop, nibbling on nuts. Roosters and chickens squawk nearby. They are just the opening acts.
The grounds of the farm are soggy from normal seasonal conditions, and of course, still healing from previous natural disaster. However, the muddy acreage is no match for the strong, strange community under which it dwells.
Carroll and his partner, Chad Wegener, own Willow Valley Farms—and the world’s largest herd of San Clemente Island goats.
The couple own 200 San Clemente Island goats. The non-California natives live in Nebraska under the love, care, and adoration of an unlikely pair: a malpractice lawyer (Carroll) and a former pharmaceutical rep turned full-time farmer (Wegener).
“[Willow Valley] is a special place out here,” Carroll said. “And we know it.”
“We bought this place, and it was an abandoned house with nothing,” Wegener said. “We renovated everything. There was no building. No pasture, garden, flowers. The reason it’s special is because our family, our friends—us—we built this. This home was made from scratch.”
The San Clemente Island goats were once a feral group considered to be a nuisance on the U.S. Navy-owned island. In January 1985, a Navy mission to kill all the goats on San Clemente Island was stopped less than 24 hours before shooting was to begin and animal rescue workers were given nearly two months to rescue as many goats as possible. Despite this respite, thousands of goats were shot, and by the early 1990s, the goat population was effectively gone from the island. Carroll became acquainted with the breed when he lived in Los Angeles. He is one of many animal lovers who eventually saved the goats and began breeding them, bringing Wegener along for the ride.
Today, they are an endangered breed. Only a few hundred remain—the majority of them dwelling on the peaceful pasture in Gretna, Nebraska.
“You learn how smart they are, how cool they are, and how each one has its own personality. They’re like people,” Carroll said. “I love that they’re survivors. We’re survivors in many ways, and there’s a reason why they ended up on that island, and there’s a reason why they were saved, and there’s a reason why we’ve donated this huge part of our lives to keeping them from going extinct.”
It was clear: the two would never let anyone wash away what they had created together—not even Mother Nature herself.
The flood started on a regular day. Carroll headed to work in the city and Wegener tended to the goats. They had heard about flooding in nearby areas but figured their property was too high up from the river to be affected.
Before long, Wegener and a neighbor began to see a puddle developing—and breaching—on the grounds.
“Within 15, 20 minutes it was all happening,” Wegener said.
Carroll came home, they posted an SOS on Facebook, and the community rushed in as quickly as the water.
“There were tons of volunteers,” Wegener said. “To this day, we still don’t know who some of them are. We didn’t get many of their names.”
This was a mission of biblical proportions.
“We started grabbing them out of the water, goat by goat,” Carroll said. “Whatever you could get—a horn, a leg, an ear—in this maybe 30-degree water.”
The couple feared for the goats: pneumonia, extraordinary loss, perhaps extinction. Still, they put their lives on the line to save the animals. At one point, Carroll was sent into the water, tied by an extension cord, to grab at anything he could.
“Goats were literally almost ready to die,” Wegener said, choking up. “These smaller ones were just staring into the water and shaking. I just kept going back and thinking ‘oh my God, did I get them all?’”
They had gotten them all.
One of the many volunteers was Joy Bartling of Scatter Joy Acres, who came barreling in with trailers and a tug at the heart to help. She later temporarily housed many of the female goats at her farm in North Omaha. Others helped rehabilitation efforts for months to come. Some set up intensive care units for injured and sick goats at their own farms and stables.
“Humans are inherently kind,” Carroll said. “When the rubber meets the road, I believe in humans. I believe in generosity, kindness, faith. Through this process, we bore witness to every good thing you can ever imagine. It’s not that we needed to ‘restore’ that faith in humanity, but we got to see it. You do see the best and the worst, and even though nature was at its worst, we got to see the best of Nebraskans.”
Later on, with the help of veterinarians who were experts in crisis and helped countless animals in the California wildfires, the couple would put down a single, older female goat—one of their original kids.
They lost about 35 birds in the flood. They gained lots of mysterious friends. Their house still stood (“a postage stamp on an envelope,” Carroll called it, as the rest of the grounds flooded), but there was plenty of rebuilding to come.
One year after the historic flood, Carroll and Wegener have ideas for the future, born from healing
They continue to work on a disaster plan to put preventative measures in place for any future emergency, rebuild the two tiny houses on their property that will soon be available for rent on AirBnB again, work toward their dream goat dairy, and invite people from all walks of life to delight in the farm’s story of endurance.
“The goal for me is ‘when you get, give. When you learn, teach,’” Wegener said. “I’d love to somehow create a social enterprise where we can bring [children], adults, marginalized people, at-risk people to see our at-risk goats.”
The two envision a community of LGBTQ+ folks, urban dwellers, and youth who may want a different educational path to be a part of the village of preservation—of positive forward motion.
“There’s just something about being in a farm space that moves people,” Carroll said. “This is 40 acres of a diverse, loving energy space of unknown healing ability. I think it’s because of how intentional it is. Everything about [the farm] is about being positive and beautiful and part of nature.”
“Nature is fickle and powerful, but it also gives us all this beauty and joy,” Wegener said. “This is the balance we have to live with. We’re all a part of the earth. We are very symbiotic, and we want to help.”
Visit willowvalleyfarms.org for more information.
This article was printed in the March/April 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.