Ron Norris's family eked out a living as sharecroppers in Scotch Ridge, Iowa. They lived simply, decades behind progress, tilling the fields with draft horses and drawing water with a hand pump. On Saturday evenings they'd sit around the battery-powered radio and listen to the tinny strains of Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubbs on "The Old Hay Wagon" show, coming to them all the way from Des Moines.
Norris eventually went to college, became an accountant and moved to Colorado, bringing with him romanticized memories of farm life. And when, a few years ago, he found himself single again, he knew he wanted to find a woman who enjoyed the same modest pleasures that he did. He wanted a woman who liked to ride horses, who liked to hike in the mountains.
He wanted a woman who could polka.
And so Norris surrendered to the entreaties of a friend in Texas who was trying to revive the Colorado chapter of Singles in Agriculture, a group whose aim is "to promote educational, recreational and social opportunities" for unmarried folks with a background in agriculture or agribiz. SIA is designed for lonely farmers and ranchers, former farmers and ranchers, John Deere tractor salesmen and people who share, as one local member puts it, "the overall appeal of the rural lifestyle."
"It's hard for farm and ranch people who live way out to take part in social activities," explains Nancy Hazlett, an SIA member and agriculture appraiser from Fowler. "They're all out scattered through the sticks; it's not like they can go to a hot spot on a Saturday night. We like to go dancing or socialize in a group. I don't know anyone who hangs out at a bar and waits to meet somebody. It's a different thing to be single these days."
And even if they did decide to hang out at what Hazlett reluctantly calls "a meat market," chances are the country folks wouldn't find what they were looking for at some urban honky-tonk. "People who are city folks don't really enjoy us," she says. "I think a lot of our group members want to set and visit about how their farm is going this year. Some people can't relate to that."
"The people in Singles in Agriculture, I guess, are more down-home, genuine people," Norris says. "It sounds bad, but they're not as pretentious as some singles groups. It seemed to me that people I met, you could ask the ladies to go ride in the mountains on the weekend or go do something else, and it wasn't assumed you were in a dating relationship. You were just friends."
SIA, which is based in Pearl City, Illinois, grew out of a letter to the editor of Farm Journal magazine back in 1984. A single farmer wrote in, describing the trouble he was having meeting women interested in rural life. A Journal staffer subsequently wrote several articles on the social life of farm singles, ending the series with an offer to help people get together. Send in your name, address, age and a fifty-word biography, she told them, and she'd compile the list and mail it to everyone who'd written in.
She received close to 3,000 responses.
Two years later, 23 of those people founded Singles in Agriculture, a group that has since expanded to include about 1,600 members and eleven state chapters. The national office publishes a quarterly newsletter and sponsors three national events each year: a convention in February, an anniversary event -- this year's will take place in Colorado Springs June 8-11 -- and a campout in August. At the convention in Lincoln, Nebraska, earlier this year, SIA members toured the Quilt Research Institute and the country's only tractor-testing laboratory.
The state chapters meet monthly, usually for dinner, dancing and a tour. In February, for example, the Illinois chapter held a Valentine's dance and banquet and toured an Alexis fire equipment company. Iowa, with roughly 300 members, is the largest chapter. Colorado now has about 70, after a low of about a half-dozen in the mid-'90s, which is when Norris got involved.
With prodding from his friend, who sits on the SIA board, Norris decided to round up potential members. "I'd been living alone about four years then," Norris says. "They have some kind of social event once a month that usually involves a meal of some kind, and I am partial to eating.
"It just seemed like a fun thing to do, to get to know people around the state, and it was something I could go to on a regular basis. Certainly you can go bowling or to a movie by yourself, but it's not near as much fun as if you go with someone."
At the first organizational meeting, about 25 people showed up. Norris brought three friends. Nancy Hazlett, already a member, was there. Also in attendance was a man who'd been raised on a farm near Longmont but was living in Wheatland, Wyoming. "He wanted to be a part of our chapter," Norris says, "so we decided to include Wyoming and Colorado and make it the Rocky Mountain Chapter."
Like other chapters, the Rocky Mountain group planned monthly social meetings featuring dinner and an educational tour. Members visited a llama farm and a ranch, where horse-drawn wagons took them to a mountaintop for a barbecue dinner. And always, there was dancing. "We have a good time when we all get together," Hazlett says. "It's a dancing bunch, that's for sure."
When SIA members from around the country descend on Colorado's Black Forest next week, there'll be three nights of dancing over a four-day stretch. "It's all country-Western, of course," says Hazlett, who's helping handle promotions for the anniversary event. "We want to zero in on the pretty things here that tourists enjoy, the fact that America the Beautiful' was inspired by the peaks and plains of Colorado."
Members will be able to ride the cog railway up Pikes Peak or check out the Anasazi cliff dwellings in Manitou Springs or take a field trip to the state-owned Chico Basin Ranch. "All the activities have to be educational and social," Hazlett says.
"It's not a dating service," stresses Mary Boyd, a onetime Illinois farm girl who now makes her home in Littleton. "We've had members marry, but that's not the purpose. I have made a lot of lady friends. Or men make men friends. Basically, our real love is the country, that way of life."
"The biggest part of the people hope to find someone," admits Hazlett. "But some of us just aren't looking very hard."
In September 1997, however, Norris found what he'd been looking for at an SIA meeting at a VFW hall in Platteville. "I can't remember the tour we went on that day," he says. "At the end of the day, there was a big potluck and a dance. I really enjoy a polka, and it was fairly well into the dance time, and I was asking different ladies if they knew how to polka. And this lady said, I'd love to polka with you.'"
The lady's name was Almeda, but she goes by "Al." Born and raised on a farm in St. Francis, Kansas, she'd married a boy from a neighboring farm and spent the next twenty years moving from western town to western town. They eventually divorced, and she moved to Loveland to be closer to her parents and grown daughter. She'd gone to that SIA meeting with her best friend, at the urging of the same man who'd goosed Norris into starting up the Colorado chapter.
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The next get-together was the Halloween meeting. "At the dance that evening, I danced more with Al than anyone else," Norris says. "I think at the end of November, I actually called and asked her for a date."
One year later, on November 6, 1998, they were married.
Their wedded state means they're no longer eligible for membership in the group that brought them together. "You can't belong to the regular part of Singles in Agriculture when you're married," Norris explains. "You can go to parties and dance, but you can't hold office."
Fortunately, the newlyweds have another choice, a growing SIA offshoot for former members: Singles No More.