On Jan. 3, ESPN business reporter Darren Rovell tweeted that the "Cleveland-based dating site" FarmersOnly.com had joined Excedrin as a sponsor for the "perfect season" Browns parade.
"You don't have to be 0-16 to join FarmersOnly.com," read an ad included in the tweet. "Cleveland fans do get it."
Observant Twitter users might have jolted, initially, at the sight of Rovell's offhanded "Cleveland-based." They might have struggled to square this new intel with perceptions of the oft-parodied site and its oft-parodied jingle and its oft-parodied commercials as something remote and maybe Iowan. This was a site, after all, launched in 2005 as a hub for "farmers and ranchers to meet like-minded people." (Italics added.)
Those Twitter users might be stunned to learn that the guy who launched FarmersOnly.com does indeed live in Cleveland's eastern suburbs. He's a former marketing executive who was and is deeply troubled by the plight of loneliness and lovelessness in America. He's a sentimental golf pro who's been happily married for 40 years. He is an unrelenting promoter of his online products and an unrepentant teller of bad jokes. His name is Jerry Miller.
"There are maybe a million farmers in the United States, and half of them are married," Miller told Scene by phone, two days before the Browns parade. We'd contacted FarmersOnly.com after Rovell's tweet in an effort to confirm the site's location and were surprised to be put in touch, almost immediately, with the site's founder.
"The other half have never been on a computer," he said.
Nevertheless, FarmersOnly.com currently has an estimated six million users and continues to grow. (The site surpassed 200,000 users in 2012 and one million in 2014.)
So why, we wondered, given the site's success, would FarmersOnly bother to sponsor the parade? Why associate with the Cleveland Browns?
"Chris McNeil is a guy like me," Miller said, speaking of the parade's organizer and teeing up a line he'd use more than once in our subsequent conversations. "He thinks outside the barn."
Miller said he was entirely on board with the premise and spirit of the parade. He thought it was an effective way to communicate to the Browns' ownership and front office that fans were concerned. But it wasn't (and shouldn't be construed as) a "protest," a word that Miller knew from his marketing experience had negative connotations. If anything, it should be seen as a reminder to players that the true fans were still behind them, 100 percent.
Plus, it was for a good cause. FarmersOnly agreed to donate $8,000 to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, a donation that Miller presented in person via giant check later in January. That donation will eventually translate to 32,000 meals for hungry families in Northeast Ohio.
And beyond that, the parade sponsorship was a valuable marketing opportunity. While FarmersOnly had received significant media coverage years back, there weren't many fresh angles these days. Its most recent mention was in an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians in which Kim and Khloe sign Kourtney up on the site as a joke. Miller himself did appear on ABC's To Tell the Truth last year; and only TV's Sherri Shepherd correctly picked Miller as the site's founder, he said.
But Miller was eager to promote another site, CurvesConnect.com, one which he'd "soft-launched" in 2016 using FarmersOnly servers and tech and which was now "really getting going," he said.
CurvesConnect.com was designed, in Miller's words "for people with a few extra curves," a phrase he'd later illustrate by jiggling his own gut.
In fact, Miller was pleased to reveal by phone a promotion that he and his marketing team had cooked up in the last hour. The gimmick was, if you could prove that you attended a Browns game in 2017 — maybe a photo of your ticket? — you'd get a free six-month membership to FarmersOnly or CurvesConnect.
"It's going to be a technical nightmare. But look," Miller said, summing up his thoughts, "we just want to give back to Cleveland and have some fun."
On the polar-vortexian day of the parade, Miller could be spotted in a FarmersOnly hoodie. He later said that he wore it over two layers of alpaca, a fabric he swears by in cold weather. Next to a truck looping FarmersOnly commercials on its huge digital display, Miller was passing out promo cards for CurvesConnect.com: "We often hear 'don't judge a book by its cover,' but 99% of online daters do just that! ... Now real people can be accepted just the way they are," the cards read.
He passed out the cards until his fingers froze, an interval he pegged at "less than 60 seconds" after he made the mistake of taking off his gloves. Then he hopped into the truck to warm his fingers on the defroster. The wind chill, he swore, had to be 20 below.
"Look, if we get one new member to FarmersOnly today I'll be happy," Miller said. "But there's a bigger need for CurvesConnect." He gestured vaguely to the rabid Browns fans who'd assembled for the event, about 3,000 total, according to police estimates. "Half of Cleveland should be on CurvesConnect.com."
Outside, two grown men in snowsuits hoisted their anti-Jimmy-Haslam signs aloft and bounced with recognition when they spied the passing truck. Impromptu and off-key, they belted out the jingle that they both knew by heart: "You don't have to be lonely, at FarmersOnly.com."
To say that FarmersOnly.com is Cleveland-based is a little misleading, because only Jerry Miller is based in Northeast Ohio. He used to have an office on Chagrin Boulevard, from which he ran another marketing outfit, but these days he oversees his scattered FarmersOnly employees digitally.
"There's no giant FarmersOnly building," Miller confirmed over coffee a week after the parade. "We're all over the country, people handling the servers and tech and stuff like that."
Along with its active membership, the company has grown. It wasn't until a few years after the site launched that it started getting serious traction in the press. But once the media recognized that a niche dating site geared toward country folk made good copy, it became an instant darling both locally and nationally. The Plain Dealer and Newsweek published feature stories on consecutive days, Miller said. A Yahoo news writer as tanned and maned as Fabio flew from L.A. to interview him. Miller appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, the Today Show.
"It was the most insane thing. It was like the O.J. Simpson trial," Miller said. "I had network TV trucks lined up outside the office building. Then the print publications. I'm not exaggerating when I say it was almost any magazine that you could possibly name: People, National Enquirer, everything. Money magazines, Playboy! And then — I'm most proud of this — the Old Farmer's Almanac. It was wild. Then I started getting calls from overseas ... ."
The coverage presaged an overwhelming growth in visitors and members. Miller said that the Yahoo news story — which was published before Google occupied its current position as search engine monolith and overlord — literally broke their servers.
"They called me the 'Country Cupid,'" Miller said, recalling the story. "I think it was 1 p.m. when it went live. I remember my staff said, 'Hey the story's up!' And by the time I walked down the hallway, they said, 'The site's down!' We had something like 250,000 visitors in 30 seconds."
The story Miller told Yahoo about how he started the site is the same story he has told many other print and TV journalists. It's the same one he told Scene. And it goes like this:
Miller was doing agricultural marketing nationwide in the early aughts. By his own estimate, his livestock-farming clients numbered 5,000. One of them was a divorced woman who opened up to Miller, one day, about how meeting someone new was going to be a massive headache. She lived in the middle of nowhere, and was busy on her farm all day, every day. How was she supposed to find love? While Miller tried to soothe her — "She was such a nice person!" — the woman insisted. She lived in a small town. She knew everyone from church. And she just wasn't compatible with them. She said she was going to try online dating.
A month later, Miller checked in on her. Any luck?
The woman responded with frustration: "These city boys don't have a clue," she said, (a phrase which Miller later co-opted and modified for the site's memorable tagline, "City folks just don't get it.") "They want to meet me at Starbucks at eight o'clock at night. First of all, there's no Starbucks anywhere near me. Second of all, I go to bed at eight. I've got to be up at 4:30 to take care of the animals." This was conveyed to Miller in the style of a horror story.
And it piqued his interest. He assumed there was a dating site for everyone and assured his client that he'd find her an appropriate one. But extensive Googling yielded no helpful results. When he stumbled on dating ads that seemed more specifically tailored to certain demographics (online dating for dentists!), he found that he was merely funneled back to the major national sites.
And so he started asking his other clients similar questions — Are you married? How'd you meet your spouse? — and found similar stories all across the country. Married farmers were by and large from small rural communities and hitched to their high school sweethearts. A small minority had met their partners at agriculture school.
"But there were a lot — and I mean a lot — who'd been single forever and just couldn't find anybody," Miller said. "I said to myself, 'I know nothing about online dating, but I'm gonna start a dating site for farmers.' I started it because there was a serious need."
On-brand indeed, Jerry Miller moved to Cleveland for love. But he's not, nor has he ever been, a farmer himself. He did grow up in exurban Cincinnati, near both Indiana and Kentucky, in a house built by his father next to a dairy farm and a horse farm.
"When I was asked on the Today Show what I meant by the slogan, 'city folks just don't get it,' I asked them if they knew what a volunteer fire department was," Miller joked. "That's what we had. You could be in a dentist's chair and an alarm would go off, and the dentist would say, 'I'll be right back!' Does that happen in New York City?"
Jerry Miller believes in fate, and he interprets online dating not as an insult to or abrogation of fate, but merely as another platform upon which fate can work its magic. He acknowledged that "meeting online" may once have been disparaged as a less authentic or less romantic relationship origin story, but he said he thinks those days are gone.
"So many people have met online, it's crazy," Miller said. "Even my mailman."
That said, Miller did not hesitate to express revulsion for newer trends in online dating, especially those sites and apps that facilitate hookups based on split-second physical attraction as opposed to those, like his, that are aimed at long-term companionship.
"I find Tinder totally disgusting," he said. "It's a real shame. People have gotten to the point where they look at someone's photo for one second and make a decision. They go, 'No. No. No. No. No. Oh, she's hot! Swipe to the right!'"
In fact, Miller said, CurvesConnect was conceived, in part, as an antidote to the judging-books-by-covers extreme that Tinder represents. He said that Hollywood has brainwashed all of us into thinking that beauty (for women) means being leggy and anorexic, but that most people don't look anything like what Hollywood says we're supposed to.
"Curves," Miller said, is a word that women respond to. For men, he says the site is for people with a few extra "pounds."
Like FarmersOnly, CurvesConnect enjoys an almost perfect 50-50 male/female split. Miller said he was surprised that for several years on FarmersOnly, the ratio actually skewed female, something like 60-40. He'd assumed that the site would attract far more males than females. (It's worth noting here that, in terms of modern graphic design on the internet, both sites are severely wanting.)
CurvesConnect's new commercials, part of the marketing push, amplify Miller's anti-Hollywood message. In them, a woman standing behind a cardboard image of her body addresses the camera. She asks viewers if they're frustrated with online dating. If they are, she says, it's because Hollywood has taught us that we're all supposed to look a certain way.
The cardboard is removed, and the woman's true body is revealed. It is ... totally average-sized. "The reality is, most of us have a few extra curves," she says.
(Miller is proud of his commercials, for both CurvesConnect and FarmersOnly. He said that he's involved in almost every aspect of production. Some he writes, shoots and edits locally. Others are produced out in L.A. A recent spot, which will likely remain a YouTube exclusive, was the first Miller ever made without a script, he said. It's reportedly going viral in the horse community.)
In some ways, the thesis that underpins CurvesConnect.com — you don't necessarily have to be overweight; you just have to value the idea that people should be accepted for who they are — is the same sort of thesis that led to FarmersOnly's massive success. Miller's marketing strategy has been to make the site a destination for people with "country values" — even if they're not actually farmers.
It turns out Scene's prompt connection to Miller himself was not unusual. Miller said that for years, he had his personal cell phone number directly on the FarmersOnly site, which allowed for direct engagement with his customers. (He now extends the same courtesy to CurvesConnect users.) Miller viewed those frequent interactions not only as market research, but as continual opportunities for education and growth. They also made for great stories.
In one of his favorites, a 65-year-old woman called him, desperate to set up her profile. Her name was Martha.
"She said, 'I'm looking at my picture here in my hand, and I'm looking at these pictures on the computer. How do I get mine up there? Is there a slot?'" Miller told her to mail her photo to him. He'd scan it and put it on the site for her.
A week after he'd done it, he got a call from Martha. She was overjoyed to tell him that she'd just gotten married.
Miller thought he'd misheard. Married? To someone she met on the site? How was that even possible?
It turned out a 72-year-old rancher from North Dakota named Al had seen her profile shortly after she'd put it up and happened to be heading to Ohio to pick up a trailer. He asked to meet, and she agreed. They had such a lovely time that Al invited Martha to drive back with him to North Dakota. He'd pay for her to get back to Ohio, but he'd sure love the company. By the time they arrived in North Dakota, 20 hours later, they realized they were meant for each other. They tracked down a preacher, who found the situation unusual, but ultimately didn't object. 'At your age, I think you know what you're doing,' he said.
Miller said he knew many people have found love on his sites — people like Rachel and Paul, from Oklahoma and Missouri, respectively, who just celebrated their one-year anniversary — but he wouldn't hazard a guess as to an official "success rate."
He said he was at a farm-equipment convention in Kentucky a few years back, and 20 people came up to him individually to thank him. They'd all met their partner on FarmersOnly. Miller asked each of them if they'd let FarmersOnly know about the wedding. Only two had notified the site.
"If I go to CVS for Advil, I don't run back the next day to let them know it cured my headache," he said. That's why he's skeptical of sites that brag about the percentage of their memberships that result in "successful marriages."
But he's less concerned with the number of marriages than he is with people finding happiness. Loneliness, he said repeatedly, is a serious problem, and he's just trying to do what he can to keep it at bay.
"Look," he said, fishing out his phone to reveal a message he'd received earlier that day. It was an email, to the FarmersOnly site, in all caps: "I FOUND SOMEONE SPECIAL."
Miller smiled. He didn't know who on earth this person was. He didn't know if this person had found their special someone on FarmersOnly, CurvesConnect or out in the real world. And honestly, he didn't care.