When I first saw commercials for FarmersOnly.com, I had two questions: Was this a joke? And, if not, could there possibly be enough lonely farmers to make it work?
It's not a joke. And as FarmersOnly.com celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, its membership has grown to more than 3.5 million. There are "well over 150,000 members" in Colorado, according to a spokesman.
The seed for FarmersOnly.com was planted when Jerry Miller, whose career was in agricultural marketing, met "this farm girl" who was recently divorced. She told Miller of her fear that she never would find love again; she worked long hours on the farm and already knew everyone in her small community.
Miller suggested she try online dating. When he checked in on her a month or so later, she was still discouraged; she had tried one of the bigger sites but was not impressed with the guys she was meeting. They were from the city and didn't understand a farmer's life - like how she couldn't meet them in the late evening because she had to get up early the next day for chores.
Surely, Miller thought, there was a site for country folk. But he found none. And as he discovered similar lonely hearts in his travels, he decided there was a need for such a site - and he would be the one to start it.
"Everybody thought I was crazy," he says. But he was convinced there was a need.
"It's really gotten to me a number of times talking to people in isolated areas how long they've been lonely," Miller says.
Not that it was easy at first. One big challenge: A decade ago, many rural communities lacked high-speed Internet access.
These days, mobile technology has changed the online landscape. Miller says he has received emails from people saying they were plowing their field and looking for a date at the same time.
Early on, most members came from "what you would picture as the heartland," Miller says. But now members are scattered across the nation.
Despite the site's name, those members are not only farmers, but also people from smaller communities or even people from the city who once lived in the country or simply long for small-town values, says Miller, who lives in Ohio.
He remembers an email from one member who lived in the city but whose grandparents had a farm. "Every once in a while she'd just go drive in the country, grab a handful of dirt and smell it," he says.
The site's slogan: City folks just don't get it. Miller was questioned about that when appearing on NBC's "Today" show.
When you're in New York, he explained, "you're listening to taxi cabs blow their horns. In the country, you listen to birds sing. That's the difference."
People can sign up for free and peruse profiles, but full membership - "to be able to communicate and get really serious," Miller says - costs $21.95 a month, with discounts if you pay for multiple months in advance. Not all on the site are looking for romance, Miller says. Sometimes "it's just people chatting with each other, asking about weather and crops. 'Are you going to the horse show or the tractor pull?' It's a really nice community of people."
Among those who are seeking love, Miller says thousands of marriages have resulted from people meeting on the site. Hearing of the first marriages was exciting, he says, but it was even more exciting to hear from a couple a year or two later that they were having their first child.
"They go thank you so much. It really does get to you," he says.