tampabay.com

Corralling a sweetheart

It can be hard for rural singles to find their true love. Some are turning to the Web.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
Published June 18, 2007


Bullboy is 24 and looking for company between rodeos.

Strawman is a "down to earth cowpoke in search of a like-minded individual."

"Critters and horse mom" insists you must be an animal lover "to get near my barn."

Members of FarmersOnly.com say they want more than the proverbial roll in the hay. They want that special someone who won't be jealous of a field of cattle or expect vacations during harvest.

If Harley drivers, Jewish singles, Democrats, Republicans and born-again Christians can have their own online dating services, why not farmers?

Founder Jerry Miller, an Ohio ad representative, pondered that question after hearing the same song from his rural clients.

"Guys were saying that they went to big cities' single dances trying to meet someone, and the girls would find out they were farmers and act like there was something wrong with them, " Miller said. "They would treat them like dirt. It was terrible."

Miller, 54, interviewed farmers, ranchers and rural residents across the country before launching the site 18 months ago. Whether they worked with crops, cattle, organic farms, horses or at the town store, the answers were the same.

"They already know everybody, so the dating pool is very small. So what do you do?" he said. "Hang out in the next town at the feed store hoping your mate walks through the door?"

Despite the site's credo that "City folks just don't get it," FarmersOnly has pulled in a number of urban types, and they aren't stuffy women from the city bars. The city slickers practically apologize and claim a burning desire to ditch the rat race.

Miller believes he has landed in the middle of a great national divide -- one based not on race, class or ethnicity, but urban vs. rural identity.

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For Susan Hobbs, there are plenty of jerks in both worlds. She's met them.

The feisty 44-year-old redhead from west-central Florida is a FarmersOnly member and former Tampa resident. She now lives on a farm with horses, goats, dogs and chickens.

Sure, there are men on FarmersOnly who speak of God and want a family, she says. But there are others who crave the same thing men elsewhere want: sex.

Hobbs grew up in rural eastern Hillsborough County and then rebelled. She moved to Tampa, meshed her identity with trendy clothes and trendy people.

Ten years ago, she met a "real redneck boy" from Pasco County and discovered why she was so unhappy in the city. Helping on his farm made her realize where she belonged.

The relationship didn't last, but it reawakened her love for the farming life. Now if only she could find someone to share it.

She's met several men on FarmersOnly who have exaggerated their knowledge of horses. One man visited and within minutes became nervous around them.

"Usually city guys can't handle me. They don't want all the work with the animals," she said. "I tell them, 'I don't need your help. I need your companionship.' "

They don't understand why she can't pick up and leave her animals on a whim, or why she's in the barn until 10 at night.

But she's had no more luck with real farmers, either.

Some are like the rodeo guy she drove down to meet near Fort Myers. He hadn't even cleaned up from a day of bull riding before he spoke his mind: If she wanted a life with him, she'd have to sell everything and move to his farm.

"I was like, 'Let's have a date first,' " she said.

Many farmers she's met on the site are in the middle of a divorce because their wives are tired of the farming life, she said.

Women think that cowboys are sexy, she said, and that country living is laid-back and simple. But then they bolt when they realize how tough it can be.

"You may go months and not make a dime," she said. "It's a hard way of life, and a very rewarding way of life. But you have to have the passion for it."

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The Web site, which now claims 50,000 members nationwide and takes credit for 30 marriages, puts it this way:

"There are basically two groups in America. Group one: Their lives revolve around four dollar cups of coffee, taxi cabs, blue suits, high heels, conference rooms and getting ahead at all costs in the corporate world.

"Group two," it continues, "they enjoy blue skies, wide open spaces, raising animals, appreciating nature . ... This group makes up America's Heartland. This is not a geographic area. This is a slice of America with good old fashioned traditional values."

This Web site is for the latter.

The real heartland is losing its people, said Marty Newell, vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Lexington, Ky.

Farms are bigger, rural regions industrialized. Cowboys and mine workers head to the city for work, leaving behind slim pickings on the dating front, he said.

When they get to the city, they find two competing myths about the country, he said.

One goes that country life is slower, the air is cleaner, the people are friendlier and the residents choose to be there, he said. The other holds that country equals backward.

Neither is particularly accurate, he added.

But most Americans, even those three generations removed from the farm, identify with agrarian life, he said. Yet only 20 percent of the nation lives there.

He disputes the stark contrast between rural and urban people.

"You are just as likely to find those differences in rural areas as anywhere else. Some people in small towns don't want to muck stalls," he said.

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For Linda Kocur, the difference is real.

She's 56 and divorced, a city dweller who wants to return to the country, misses the helping hand of neighbors, even if they live a few miles down the road.

She has tried other dating services but sees something special about FarmersOnly.

"People on FarmersOnly are more genuine than these other people on other sites, where everybody wants a Barbie doll, " she said. "I think it's more that they want an average person."

Kocur, who lives south of the Tampa Bay area, hasn't made any love connections yet.

She realizes a serious relationship with a farmer might entail moving, since it would be easier for her to sell her house than for him to sell his farm.

The 16 years she worked with herding dogs and sheep, she said, were some of the best times in her life.

She's not kidding herself about the hard work of country living. When she lived in rural eastern Florida, cutting the grass took six hours with a push mower.

"As long as I could have my sheep, I wouldn't care," she said. "I'm a real greenhorn on the ag part, but learning is what life is all about."

If she met that special someone and left the city behind, she doesn't think she'd look back.

"I wouldn't miss it."

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 813 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.