Melissa Karnowski, owner and founder of Mini Friends Farm, uses animals as a way to help people with autism or mental health conditions.

By Ava Benedict

Nestled among the roads of Valrico is an expansive 4.3-acre property that is home not just to the Karnowski family, but also their farm full of miniature animal friends.

“I hope that it just brings joy in sometimes a sad world,” said Melissa Karnowski, founder of Mini Friends Farm.

The farm aims to provide a place of peace for people with autism and mental health conditions.

“Our goal is to equip all children with the knowledge, skills and confidence needed to overcome their challenges,” the Mini Friends Farm mission statement reads.

Melissa views the farm as a place to disconnect from the rest of the world and embrace the quiet of the outdoors. She and her husband, Tom, were inspired to create the farm after their son, Brandon, started showing pigs through his school’s FFA program.

Brandon was diagnosed with autism and used showing pigs as an outlet to express himself. Melissa described how his entire demeanor seemed to shift when he was around animals, and she wants to give other kids with autism the opportunity to experience the same happiness. Currently, several people with autism visit the farm every one to two weeks to brush and feed the animals.

Melissa’s ultimate goal is to have even more children with autism visit and experience the farm. She said the animals have a healing touch, and spending time with them is extremely calming for everyone who visits. The farm is home to a variety of animals, including alpacas, miniature donkeys and a pony. Each animal is named after a celebrity or pop culture figure, including donkeys Snoop Donk and Martha Stewart and a pony named Dolly Parton. Although these animals are super lovable, it takes a huge amount of work to maintain the farm and cover the costs of providing for them.

To raise money for feed, farm supplies and animal surgeries, Mini Friends Farm hosts birthday parties and other special events on the property. One of these special events includes an annual Open Farm Day, where the public has the opportunity to learn how to brush, feed and take care of the animals on the farm. The last Open Farm Day attracted a crowd of over 70 people, so booking ahead is a must for those wishing to participate. Mini Friends Farm also gives people the opportunity to book experiences with the animals, such as walking the donkeys and animal-assisted therapy.

To learn more about Mini Friends Farm and how to donate, visit its website at

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