Farmers Look For Love On TV, And A Whole Nation Is Captivated

Two thick steaks brown on a rack the fireplace, tended to by a handsomely disheveled farmer. His rough hands pass two plates of meat to his two women perched daintily on the edge of his couch. Close up on the juicy steak and the farmer's eager face as he watches the women take their first bite. Pan to the women's tightened lips as they find out that their delicious steak is actually Bessie his prize cow, last seen mooing in pastoral bliss earlier in the segment. "He was a very nice cow," the farmer says. "I don't eat the bad ones."

This is the most viewed television program in Dutch history: a dating show about lonely farmers looking for love.

A large sheep farmer named Pieter still lived with his mother when he first appeared on Boer zoekt Vrouw ("Farmer Seeks Wife"). Sitting quietly in his yard with the show's motherly pixie of a host, his big, bumpy face crumpled up. He was lonely he said, looking out over the pasture. This wasn't the kind of self-aware crying you see on episodes of The Bachelor. Decades ago, being a farmer was a respected profession in The Netherlands. But a 2010 survey here showed that over a third of farmers felt abandoned by society. In the past several decades they have slipped into financial despair and social irrelevance with no heir to take over the family business. What is an enormous man with a gift for ruminant animals to do these days?

While the show hasn't exactly catapulted farmers into sex symbols, it at least makes them sympathetic to The Netherland's mostly urban population. "Before farmers were considered to talk funny and be uneducated," one woman told me when I cornered her at a cocktail party. "But now, they're like normal people. We understand them better" Would you date a farmer? I ask. "Well." She looks around the room. "I'd consider it now," She concludes. Henk Bleker, The Netherland's Minister of Agriculture and a former farmer, appeared on the popular talk show De Wereld Draait Door to discuss the success of the program. He believes that Boer Zoekt Vrow has helped the plight of farmers by portraying them as hard workers, whose love and dedication to their profession is something to be admired, rather than backward country folk. He says the show has also made people more aware of where their food comes from and the humane practices shown on Boer Zoekt Vrouw could benefit other small farmers as people turn away from factory farming. With 4.5 million people watching each week, if nothing else, farmers have certainly gotten a boost in morale.

The show, like many of Holland's newly fashionable traditional potato dishes, is relatively bland. It's slow and minimally edited. No one takes their top off or gets a key to the fantasy suite. No one has to compete for attention by crawling through a pile of manure or racing a tractor. There are no crass metaphors about taking a roll in the hay. There is a lot of talking about feelings and expectations in front of barns, near industrial farm equipment, and at long wooden tables, which makes the show's mass appeal seem kind of weird.

But it's earnest and the farmers with their quiet, hard-working nature, plodding steadily forward against all odds, are just as typically Dutch as legalized pot and prostitution. "It's very real," my friend Maaike says. "On most reality shows everyone is saying stupid things and running around like they need sedation. Boer zoekt Vrow is calm and honest and that is very Dutch."

In the United States, a recent study of 200 jobs ranked Dairy farmers at 199. Apparently only lumberjacks, number 200, have crappier outlook and less favorable working environment. It would be great if we could somehow use dating shows to draw attention and empathy to suffering industries. Perhaps we could have our own "Farmer searches for Wife." Or maybe a dating show about teachers.