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Lonely hearts find e-love on the prairie

An online matchmaking service is resulting in trips to the altar for men and women with rural interests in common.

February 10, 2008|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press

CARLISLE, PA. — Sonya Rinker was looking for a guy: someone who was kind, respectful and had a special place in his heart -- for tractors.

She wanted a man who could share the thrill of a good tractor-pull show, who could see beauty in a shiny row of green-and-yellow John Deeres.

She didn't know that somewhere along these rolling Pennsylvania hills, there was such a man, a shy guy named Tom with two vintage Deere tractors. He had been looking for a gal, someone who'd put up with his milking cows at 3 a.m. and his six-day work weeks.

Sonya Rinker and Tom Henisee lived 57 miles apart when they both signed up for an online matchmaking service designed to link up people just like them -- farmers and others who know their way around a barn and a milking machine.

Playing the dating game isn't easy in rural America: Tens of thousands of twentysomethings have moved out in recent decades; small towns have shrunk; younger farmers have become a dwindling commodity. Or to put it another way, there's a lot of land and not that many people.

Sonya was just 24, but already worried. She was eager to find a mate.

"I was dead set on it," she says. "I was getting a farmer or someone who had the same interests as me, and I couldn't find any around here. I was getting tired of being by myself."

Tom had been searching for someone on the matchmaking service for eight months, without much luck. He was ready to call it quits.

But when they saw each other's profiles online, they began e-mailing. He was 2JD (John Deere) Tractors. She was Cowgirlup1582 (for her birthday.)

For seven months, they exchanged e-mails -- first names only.

Then they traded phone numbers, and talked for 13 days in a row.

Finally, it was time to meet.

Finding connections

Rural America is peaceful and bucolic. But it also can be lonely and isolating.

The nearest neighbor might be two miles away. Work often starts before dawn and ends after sunset. And knowing everyone in town is great -- unless you're looking for someone new to date.

Jerry Miller, an Ohio publicist whose clients include alpaca breeders, began thinking about all this after he spoke with a divorced farmer who said she was scared she'd never meet anyone else. She worked long hours, didn't have time to socialize, and already knew everybody at church.

Miller sensed a void -- and a business opportunity. He founded an on-line matchmaking service, FarmersOnly -- which, despite its name, is not limited to those who plant corn and till the soil.

Since it began in late 2005, this entry in the e-love business has attracted more than 85,000 people from across the nation, Miller says. Many are farmers or connected to agriculture or rural life. But there are also wannabes who yearn to chuck it all and move to the country.

A modest fee of $30 for three months buys a profile and a photo posted to an online site.

It's like any other dating service -- almost.

"Sometimes the farmers will be a little direct," Miller says. "A lot of the [matchmaking] sites will say something about romance and smoochy talk. But some guys will say, 'You have to be able to milk a cow and bale hay.' I've talked to a few and said, "You know, this isn't a help-wanted.' "

In more than two years, Miller says the online matchmaker has attracted a wide range of would-be romantics, including a young Iowa man who bemoaned the lack of marriage prospects -- he knew of only 10 single people younger than 25 in a 10-mile radius -- and a 90-plus woman who said she wanted a "real man."

So far, more than 40 couples have married, Miller says. They have been young, middle-age and elderly, first-timers, divorced people and widows.

These "successes" have no pattern. Sometimes two people just click.

This is how it happens.

Sonya and Tom

On their first date, it was Sonya and Tom. And Pap.

Sonya's grandfather was the chaperon, sitting quietly in the back of her Jeep until they reached the Bonanza steakhouse, where the retired farmer chatted with Tom. About tractors, of course.

"He just took to Tom right away," Sonya remembers. "They just hit it off. He thought Tom was a good kid."

Tom didn't mind Pap's presence. "It's all about trust," he says. "Her mother didn't want her to go by herself and I understood that."

The two had already exchanged photos. Early on, when Tom sent her a full-bearded shot, Sonya told him he looked like a mountain man and urged him to shave. He did, sending her a clean-cut image: She pasted before-and-after pictures in a photo album chronicling their courtship.

But photos capture only so much, and when the two met, there were surprises.

Sonya's first impression: "He was too short."

Tom's: "She was a big girl. Are you sure you want to date her?"

But they had much in common: close families, a love of the land and of animals. As teens, both had shown animals at 4-H fairs (cows for him; cows, pigs, goats and sheep for her.)

Though Sonya works in an insurance office, she has 11 goats, several chickens and a heifer named Katrina. She also helps Tom with milking on weekends.

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