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Mario Bouthillier on his farm in the eastern townships. (John Morstad for the Globe and Mail/John Morstad for the Globe and Mail)
Mario Bouthillier on his farm in the eastern townships. (John Morstad for the Globe and Mail/John Morstad for the Globe and Mail)

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Heartache in Quebec's farming heartland Add to ...

He's got blue eyes and a rugged gait, steady work and a sensitive side that makes him appreciate the beauty of a big country sky. By many standards, Mario Bouthillier is a catch.

He farms two sprawling pieces of land in rural Quebec that have proven fertile soil for corn, hay and soya. But they haven't proven fruitful for producing love.

"You could be the best person in the world," the 27-year-old said on his farm recently, "but you remain a farmer. It's the best job in the world to me, but there are still prejudices."

Young singles like Mr. Bouthillier are sprouting up all along Quebec's lonely rural roads, causing not only heartache in the Quebec heartland but a threat to the survival of the province's family farms.

Only a generation ago, a farm typically had a hard-working couple and a brood of children. Now it can easily be populated by a single male like Mr. Bouthillier, who has had several girlfriends but has yet to find his lifelong companion.

In less than 40 years, the percentage of young single farmers has doubled in Quebec, leaving one in four farmers under the age of 35 unmarried, according to Statistics Canada.

"I feel I have the most beautiful life in the world, but I'm experiencing it alone," Mr. Bouthillier said as a warm wind rustled the cornstalks in his fields in Ange-Gardien, a 50-minute drive east of Montreal. "Where do you meet people? At school or on the job. In my job, I meet no one. That's the problem."

Once barely spoken about, loneliness on the farm has gained the attention of experts in Quebec and spawned at least one on-line dating site for agricultural singles. Driving the issue is the decline in the number of farms in the province, which have shrunk dramatically to only 30,000; as farms disappear, so do the old social networks and prospective partners that came with them.

Diane Parent, a professor of agricultural science at Laval University, recently surveyed 400 young farmers in Quebec and found that 43 per cent admitted to feeling solitude, sometimes acutely. She called the results "troubling."

"It's dangerous for the future of agriculture if we can't preserve a social life and love life for our young people," she said.

Women willing to sacrifice long hours to farm work are scarcer than they once were, and farming's image has suffered over the years.

"When we were a Catholic society, the image of agriculture was held in esteem," Prof. Parent said from Quebec City. "Now it's the opposite. It's one thing if you're an organic vegetable producer. Being a pig farmer is not exactly a winning formula when you show up at a bar."

Frédéric Marcoux, a single dairy farmer in Quebec's Beauce region, recalled going to a Montreal Canadiens game in Montreal and meeting a young woman. When Mr. Marcoux, 26, told her his line of work, she responded by asking why he didn't smell like a cow.

"I was able to defend myself, but that's not the case for most," Mr. Marcoux recalled.

Many of the conventional solutions for meeting other singles don't work for the agriculture set, who admit that dating often has to take a back seat to a gruelling farm schedule. Mr. Marcoux goes to bars, but is often the first to leave because he has to be up at 5:30 a.m. to milk his cows.

To break the solitude, some farmers are turning to dating sites that cater specifically to agricultural singles. Luc Gagnon, who grew up on a farm and later graduated from business school in Montreal, started Agrirencontre.com in 2001 with a few hundred members; now's it's grown to 3,500 active customers, about 60 per cent of them male. Mr. Bouthillier, using the on-line handle "Printemps," has a posting.

Mr. Gagnon said general dating sites don't work well for farmers, who find that once they reveal their profession, potential dates often break it off. "The general public isn't really interested in people who practice agriculture," he said.

Others favour even more imaginative solutions to lure potential partners to the farm. Mr. Marcoux, who heads a federation of young farmers called the Fédération de la relève agricole du Québec, recently wrote a column in a farmers' weekly in which he proposed a reality-TV show about farmers, or speed dating in the countryside.

He said it could at least break down stereotypes about farming - and maybe till the soil for romance to take root instead.

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