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Online dating for lonely farmers

Last updated: 29 September, 2011
Maia De La Baume, NYT 21:20 IST

Patrick Maignan, a robust gray-haired farmer, lives alone on his farm, surrounded only by the freshly plowed wheat fields of this lonely corner of northern France.

Far from tourist routes and cellphone coverage, he works seven days a week, milking his 40 cows twice a day, sometimes breaking with routine by taking classes in traditional Breton dances or chatting with women on the Internet.

Divorced in 1996, Maignan, 51, had given up hopes of finding another mate. “When women knew I was a farmer,” he said, “they fled.” The loneliness of the farming life is a major issue for France, whose inhabitants worship the land but prefer to live in the city. But then Maignan found Claire Chollet, a 49-year-old director of human resources, on atraverschamps.com, or “acrossthefields.com,” an online dating site reserved for farmers like himself.

Maignan said he now plans to marry Chollet, a divorced Parisian mother of two, and buy a house together in the village nearby. Atraverschamps.com is one of a handful of online dating sites devoted to “rural people,” farmers and others who live in the countryside or wish to find their soul mates there. Luc Gagnon, who founded atraverschamps.com in 2001, said that it nearly doubled its number of subscribers in the past year to 17,287, while other sites like vachement.fr have had an average of 1,200 hits a day in the past year.

Acute loneliness
According to the Agriculture Ministry, about 30 percent of male French farmers did not have a partner in 2009. Loneliness is particularly acute among male farmers between 18 and 35, especially cattle farmers, who generally spend more time working than other farmers.

The problem is worsening, said Francois Purseigle, an agriculture professor and expert in rural sociology. The expansion of online dating for farmers fills a need, he said. “French farmers have more difficulties than others in coping with single life,” Purseigle said, citing the values of the countryside, which is relatively conservative, often deeply religious and attached to traditional values like family and land. Until World War II, French farmers were considered the foundation of the French republic.

The state celebrated and protected them, and unmarried farmers were supported by their families and fully integrated in the life of their village. But with extensive industrialisation, farmers have been more marginalised and the career is less attractive, even with extensive French and European Union subsidies.

According to a report issued by the Agriculture Ministry in 2010, French farmers, who now represent less than 4 percent of the working population, have become entrepreneurs, working 54 hours a week (more than national average), in farms that have grown bigger, but with fewer workers and little time off.

Michel Lebot, who takes care of 45 dairy cows on 178 acres of land in southwest France, said that most of his colleagues were single. “If you don’t socialise, nobody will come to you,” he said.

After his divorce three years ago, Lebot, 49, was left alone with five children. He recently joined “atraverschamps.com” to find a “soul mate” before turning 50. Though he hasn’t found anyone yet, online dating has opened new possibilities.

Bruno Montourcy, a farmer from Aveyron, a district in southern France known for Roquefort cheese, founded agri-dating.fr, a site also intended to promote rural life and publicise the difficulties of farmers, especially their social isolation.

In September, in his village of Laissac, Montourcy will bring hundreds of farmers of both sexes together with people from all over the country for a day of rural fun – with hiking, canoeing, paintball and cooking classes, among other activities. Dating sites like atraverschamps.com are increasingly popular with female urbanites attracted to country life. For Gagnon of atraverschamps.com, women see an authenticity in rural life and often praise farmers for their genuineness.

Chollet, Maignan’s fiancee, said she joined atraverschamps.com to meet “real people.” In cities, she said, “everyone is obsessed with image and big cars.” Chollet, who spent most of her childhood vacations in the countryside, said she was “moved” by Maignan’s “sincerity” and felt nostalgia for the rural life. “I haven’t just fallen in love with Patrick,” she said. “I fell in love with the area, the countryside, and each time I come, it feels like home.”

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