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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We're exploring love in the digital age this week. Over the past decade, online dating has gone from a little bit fringy to big business. Some 1,500 dating sites in the U.S. now offer to help you find your match, for a fee. These days, we don't just online date, we niche online date. Many sites target very specific groups of people - Christian Mingle, for instance, or the Jewish dating site JDate.

We'll hear an economist's take on online dating in a moment, after NPR's Elise Hu tells us a story of niche dating success.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Julie Sayles tosses around the term love a lot, to describe her life on a Michigan farm.

JULIE SAYLES: I love being able to see the new calves in the spring, you know, and be able to watch them grow.

HU: Her family's 144-acre spread sits just outside Lansing. It includes donkeys, horses, and lots of cattle.

JULIE SAYLES: It's worth busting your butt, having these calves.

HU: Julie found both family and a new farm after meeting her husband about five years ago.

RICK SAYLES: I'm Rick. I'm No. 2 in command.

HU: Like Julie, Rick Sayles grew up farming. But unless he's talking about raising hay or cattle, Rick's a quiet guy. So after a failed marriage, he gave online dating a chance. That's how Julie first found him - at least, that's what he remembers.

RICK SAYLES: I think she emailed me first.

JULIE SAYLES: As I do remember, he did contact me first. I don't think it was me contacting him.

(LAUGHTER)

JULIE SAYLES: Because I kept the email. (Laughter). And I still have it, to this day. (Laughter)

HU: No matter who started the courtship, the two of them say the most important choice they made in finding one another wasn't how they penned their profiles or listed particular preferences. The key choice was which site they signed up for. And both Rick and Julie sought out a digital dating community for farmers only.

(SOUNDBITE OF FARMERS ONLY AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We used to be lonely.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Until we met on Farmers Only.

HU: If you haven't caught the commercial before, FarmersOnly.com is a niche dating site for farmers, ranchers and, quote, "good old country folk."

(SOUNDBITE OF FARMERS ONLY AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: City folks just don't get it.

HU: City folks just don't get it - a funny slogan that makes a lot of sense, if you ask Julie.

JULIE SAYLES: Oh, I think there's a lot to that. Most of our days are - we're up at the crack of dawn. And there's many days, it's late when we get in.

RICK SAYLES: Daylight to dark.

JULIE SAYLES: I don't really think I would have met him any other way.

HU: Niche dating sites like Farmers Only narrow down dating pools to sometimes quite specific preferences. Love goths, go to GothicMatch.com. If Spock is more your style, TrekPassions is for self-proclaimed Trekkies. DateShortHairGirls.com is pretty self-explanatory.

DAN SLATER: If you name the obscure interest, there's probably a site for it.

HU: Dan Slater is author of "Love in the Time of Algorithms," a book tracing the history of online dating.

SLATER: The pie, so to speak, has never been so finely sliced.

HU: The Sayles chose niche dating because of their lifestyle. Others niche date to try out certain types.

SLATER: Niche allows for targeting. So maybe in that sense it's less random, assuming the person wouldn't be looking for that offline as well.

HU: But Slater says we did classify ourselves in the days of offline dating, too. Singles would sort themselves by using personal ads in the newspaper or going to specific bars and clubs, like biker bars.

SLATER: Now, there are kind of these online bars that make people who are like-minded people, who share special interests - to make them feel at home.

HU: For the Sayles to create a home...

JOSIE SAYLES: Isn't it fun?

HU: ...they merged their lives. Rick became a stepdad to Julie's five daughters from her previous marriage. Ten-year-old Josie Sayles is one of them.

JOSIE: It's just a lot of fun to have him, 'cause she's just happy when she's with him.

HU: Not a bad deal. Julie Sayles found a man she loves and maintained a life she loves, too; a life that will soon mean many, many newborns.

JULIE SAYLES: Now it's going to be a baby boom is right, is right.

HU: Nearly 80 of the family's cows will give birth this spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS)

HU: Elise Hu, NPR News.

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