Joe Dickenson sometimes spends up to 12 hours a day working on his farm in Oil Springs, Ont., a community of about 700, an hour northeast of Windsor. The 28-year-old lives alone and rises at dawn each day to tend to his herd of beef cattle, which can involve treating sick animals and castrating bulls. Occasionally, he’ll drive 24 kilometres to his parents’ farm to help out. “It’s a long ride on a tractor, but we can still work together once in a while,” he says.
The gruelling work schedule, not to mention the community’s remoteness and low population density, makes it difficult for Dickenson to meet new people, particularly women. He’s single — and looking. “The ag community is generally older than I am by a significant number, and also more male than female,” he says. “I’m not looking for that.”
Clearly, Dickenson sounds like a candidate for an online dating service. However, despite the popularity of that business — for both mass and niche audiences — the first Canadian service to target a national audience of farmers is rolling out only now. Findyourruraldate.com, the English-language version of Agrirencontre.com, a French-language service for Quebec farmers that debuted in 2001, is operating in beta mode, with a formal launch planned before the end of this year. Run by Luc Gagnon, a web designer based just outside Montreal, Findyourruraldate.com will compete head on with FarmersOnly.com, an American site that launched in 2005 and began serving Canadians a year later. Both cater to people who face unique challenges when it comes to finding a mate — due to the dispersal and growing scarcity of farms and farmers, as well as the reality that farm couples don’t just live together, they usually work together. In fact, according to FarmersOnly.com founder Jerry Miller, member profiles sometime read more like job descriptions than personal ads, with farmers not only looking for a compatible partner, but someone who can milk the occasional cow, drive a combine or manage a farm business.
Gagnon’s site is an underdog next to Miller’s. Agrirencontre.com has between 3,000 and 4,000 active members, with 200 more on the English beta version. FarmersOnly.com has about 100,000 members, although only about 5,000 of them are in Canada. Both sites make the bulk of their revenue through membership fees, but thus far, Gagnon says, it’s not enough for him to quit his day job.
The idea for a farmer-oriented site originally came to Gagnon through his web design work. He worked with a lot of agricultural clients and detected a common theme. “I noticed farmers had problems finding their soul mates,” he says, citing the issues Dickensonnow faces — farmers are widely scattered and tend to work from dawn to dusk, leaving little time for dating. But larger trends are at play, too. The number of farms is dropping rapidly. Canada lost more than 17,500 between 2001 and 2006, according to Statistics Canada. As farms disappear, the social networks that farmers once relied on to meet new people become frayed. Further complicating the situation for young farmers is the fact that the industry is aging. Fewer than 10% of Canadian farm operators are under the age of 35.
Modern farming is also a tough business — and that keeps people away, even potential romantic partners. But that also could be a key to success for Gagnon and Miller. Their sites attract individuals who are more likely to understand the business and appreciate rural lifestyle. And that is important — not just for the farmers, but for the future of the rural economy. “My dad’s farm has been in the family for three generations,” Dickenson says. “That’s a pretty heavy weight to carry around when you’re saying, ‘I don’t have anyone to pass it on to.