How do you find love on the farm? Dating apps, long-distance drives or maybe a reality TV show
Oklahoma rancher Landon Heaton lives alone on his 700-acre ranch near a small town called Coyle, about an hour outside of Oklahoma City.
The 35-year-old said he loves caring for his animals, watching his dogs roam free and cattle thrive. But his devotion to working on the ranch took priority in his life, and he lost sight of finding a girlfriend.
“Why am I gonna go out to the bars when I gotta wake up at six in the morning and go check calves?” Heaton said. “That’s kind of the pattern I found myself in. Relationships went away, and I was here to take care of animals and farm.”
Then out of the blue Heaton got an Instagram message from a FOX producer asking him to be a part of a reality dating show “Farmer Wants A Wife.” At first, he thought it was a spam message — he had never even watched reality TV before and was hesitant to join. But after saying no “150 times,” Heaton finally agreed.
On the show, Heaton is one of four farmers from across the U.S. who is set up with a group of single women, then shows them life on the farm. For Heaton, who loves his life ranching and farming, the show made him realize the value of finding someone special.
“At the end of the day it doesn't matter what life you build for yourself,” he said. “If you don't have someone to share that with or pass that down to then what’d you build it for?”
For farmers, ranchers and other rural folks, finding love in a small town isn’t always easy. That’s partly because as more and more young people leave rural areas behind, it naturally shrinks the dating pool.
Rural farming-dependent counties, like those across the Midwest and Great Plains region, have lost about 40% of young adults between 20-29 years old each decade since the 1950s, said Kenneth Johnson, a demographer and sociologist at the University of New Hampshire.
“Farming has continued to get bigger and more mechanized, so there are fewer jobs on the farms left,” Johnson said. “And often the opportunities for higher education or going to the military draw people out of that community, and many of them who leave don't come back.”
While Johnson’s research suggests that about a third of rural counties in the U.S. experienced population growth during the pandemic’s early days, those were mostly recreational or retirement destinations.
“Rural America is a very diverse place along a lot of continuums just like urban America is,” Johnson said.
For rural farming counties, attracting and retaining young people is vital to the economic development of the communities.
“It affects things like schools and medical facilities,” Johnson said.
Obstetrics units in rural hospitals, for instance, tend to get eliminated without enough young couples around to start families.
“Or if there aren't very many young people to have children, there is not going to be a need to have as many classrooms in the local school,” he said, “and eventually, some of the local schools will have to close and merge and consolidate.”
Ways to Connect
Dating sites like FarmersOnly aim to make finding love a little easier for people living in rural areas. The niche online dating site, which connects farmers, ranchers and rural people, has attracted over 10 million members since it launched in 2005.
Despite the site’s name, Michael Gober, the company’s marketing manager, said FarmersOnly is meant to help people with similar small-town backgrounds and values find each other more easily.
“They want somebody who is accepting of their lifestyle, somebody who's accepting of their work ethic, and their work-life balance and wants to make a life together in rural America,” Gober said.
The use of other dating apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble can also help broaden the dating scene for small-town folks, but driving long distances might be necessary.
Chris Dowling is 30 years old and recently married. He said he met his wife, Kendall, on Bumble while visiting friends in Oklahoma City about 170 miles from where he was living on his family’s farm. He didn’t think twice about the three-hour drive to visit her in the city.
“Right off the bat, we connected,” Dowling said. “Her [Bumble] profile was straightforward. That she’s a teacher and likes to have fun. I wanted to talk to her about her passion for teaching, and she was gorgeous.”
Dowling said he had tended to look for relationships outside his small hometown of Alva, because he wasn’t really interested in dating women in his town he’d known since the second grade. And it allowed him to dodge the small-town gossip.
“The inability to keep a secret,” he said. “The same cafe you go to is the one your grandparents and friends go to and whether you like it or not, we’re all going to share our information.”
He also wanted to share the hometown he loves with someone new.
For right now, Dowling and his wife live in suburban Oklahoma City.
Farmland prices have also skyrocketed within recent years, making it especially difficult for young and beginning farmers to buy land and grow a business of their own, including Dowling.
But he hopes he and his wife can move back to Alva someday and raise their children on the farmland he grew up on and loves.
“Without needing to go into millions of dollars of debt, perfect would be the 160 acres across from my dad’s farm,” Dowling said. “It would be a lottery ticket of a lifetime.”
As for Heaton, he said he was glad he made the decision to go on “Farmer Wants a Wife.”
"This entire experience of this show opened my mind completely and it gave me hope again," Heaton said. "It made me realize that you don't have to be with some country girl who does this or that. At the end of the day, if they feel like home to you, then that's the most important thing."
Xcaret Nuñez interviewed Landon Heaton in April before the season finale of “Farmer Wants a Wife” aired on FOX. He did not comment on his current relationship status, instead, he simply referred Nuñez to watch the season finale.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.
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