Lonely hearts find e-love on the prairie

Associated Press

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.

"I know he isn't afraid to get dirty," she says. "I'm not a prissy little girl."

She also is no wallflower. That appeals to Tom.

"I was just overwhelmed by how easy it was to talk with her," he says. "I have problems talking with people. For some reason, it really clicked with her. It's like it was meant to be."

Pap died last summer. Soon after, when the couple stopped in to check on his place, Tom had a surprise prepared: He told her it was time to bring some new happy memories to the house, then presented Sonya with a ring, got down on one knee and proposed.

She said yes.

Margaret and Al

Al Falzerano wanted a partner on the prairie. His wife of 52 years had died, and he longed for someone to take to town, to share long winter evenings on his South Dakota ranch.

When he heard a radio commercial about the matchmaking service, he decided to give it a whirl.

"I'd bought cars and trucks on the Internet," he says. "I thought . . . maybe I can get a woman too."

Al was 76, but fit enough to do ranch work.

"I wasn't done living yet -- I figured I could go on for quite a while," he says. "And I didn't want to live by myself. It's no fun being out here alone."

In his profile, he said he wanted "an honest lady who is a Christian" -- someone who can "make my life complete."

More than 1,000 miles away, near Smithville, Ohio, Margaret Hoff was also in the market for love.

She described herself as a "kind, loving and giving" Christian woman. "It would be so nice to meet someone to share my life with," she wrote.

Margaret, a widow, hadn't received any replies until Al got in touch, first by e-mail, then phone, telling her he was going to be nearby -- in Pennsylvania -- buying a car he had acquired on eBay.

He made her an offer: Help him drive back to his South Dakota ranch and check it out. If she liked it, fine. If not, he'd buy her a ticket home.

First, Margaret said no -- she was going to church camp. Then she reconsidered. She thought he looked natty in his photo, decked out in a cowboy hat and Western-style shirt.

"I was just thinking I wouldn't have another chance," she says. "I was just waiting for the Lord to dump somebody in my lap. I thought, I have to take a chance and pray about it. When I found out he went to the same kind of church [Assembly of God], everything just fell into place."

Al drove to Margaret's house and met some of her family. Three days later she packed some clothes and her accordion, and the two great-grandparents headed off in his white Lincoln.

"We drove straight through 24 hours -- no motel or anything," she says.

"We just laughed and had so much fun; even before we got to Rapid City, we were talking about marriage," she adds. So they stopped there and Al bought Margaret a silver-and-diamond ring. Then they drove another 65 miles to his ranch outside Newell.

Eight days later, on Aug. 2, 2006, they married in church with his daughter and her nephew as witnesses. They celebrated with strawberry shortcake.

Margaret, now 66, says her children wondered whether this had taken place too fast. She told them not to worry.

"We're just getting older," she says, "and I guess we knew we were made for each other."

"When you get as old as I am," chimes in Al, "you kind of know what you want."

The Falzeranos live on a remote 320-acre spread with 100 cattle. They watch TV and movies, go out to dinner, frequent farm auctions and attend Bible-study classes on Friday mornings. Margaret also likes to whip up beef and noodles, mashed potatoes and New York cheesecake.

And on Tuesday nights, they venture out to prepare for the next chapter in their lives:

They're planning to become foster parents.

Carolyn and George

Carolyn Keppel, still grieving over the suicide of her husband last spring, was looking for a friend. She was tired of chatting with women; she just wanted to talk with a man.

George Brzeczek had more serious intentions: He wanted a partner, someone with whom he could share his life. His wife of 35 years had died suddenly in the fall of 2006 and at night it didn't feel right to sit alone with his dogs. "It just wasn't working well for me being my myself," he says.

He met a few women through FarmersOnly, but nothing developed.

Then came Carolyn. They were instantly compatible: They both had spent part of their childhoods on farms (she with her grandfather in Indiana; he with his aunt and uncle in Ohio). Both had animals; both loved dogs.

George was smitten, but he didn't want to scare her away. They talked and e-mailed for several weeks, then chatted a few more. Then they decided to take the next step.

George made the three-hour drive to Huntington, Ind., from his small part-time farm near Helena, Ohio. He rumbled into her driveway with his bus-yellow Ford truck and its Marine decal. ("You can smell the testosterone," Carolyn jokes.) She stepped down from her porch and extended her hand. He had something else in mind.

"He jumped out and gave me a big kiss," she says. "He says he was finally glad to see me."

They had a picnic lunch and, after he left, Carolyn headed to her nurse's job, thinking it was the beginning of something special. So did he.

Carolyn and George began seeing each other every weekend. One night in between, Carolyn says, he called and told her he had cut hay in the moonlight, bringing back warm memories of days on her grandfather's farm.

When George decided to propose, he decided he'd take Carolyn on the tractor, they'd gaze at the harvest moon and he'd give her a ring.

But then George's sheep got sick and he needed Carolyn's help deworming them. He held the squirming animals down while she squirted the contents of a medicine-filled syringe into their mouths.

George was impressed. "Man, baby, you're good at this," he told her.

When they finished -- when they were exhausted and sweaty and as far from romance as two people can possibly be -- George turned to her.

"Would you forgive me if I just got down on my knee and proposed on the porch?" he asked.

There was little doubt of the outcome. "Here was this woman who had just dewormed 35 sheep for you," says Carolyn, 56. "You've got to know the answer is yes."

They married last November at an inn in Missouri.

These days, George, a 57-year-old maintenance planner for BP, looks forward to coming home each night to Carolyn, their five dogs and their horses, donkeys and sheep.

"It worked out real well," he says. "Real well."

A John Deere wedding

If all goes according to plan, Tom and Sonya will be married at the end of August.

She has ordered the dress; he has been measured for his Western-style tuxedo. The baskets, candles and centerpieces will be green and yellow -- John Deere colors. There will be cow and bull figurines atop their cake.

They've chosen the song that will introduce them as man and wife: Kenny Chesney's "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." After the wedding, they'll repair to their home -- Pap's house.

And they'll make the seven-mile journey by tractor.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World