`Love Train' Brings Single Women to Lonely New Zealand Farmers
May 4 (Bloomberg) -- New Zealand's ``Love Train'' was filled last month with 300 single women in $300 gowns heading to a muddy field in Middlemarch, a hamlet of sheep, cattle and lonely farmers.
The train left the southern city of Dunedin for a party to introduce the bachelorettes to rural bachelors. Social change during the past 50 years has seen more New Zealand women migrate to cities for education and careers, and men now account for 80 percent of the population in some remote areas.
``The first year we did it, the poor local lads took to the hills. They were a bit spooked,'' said Marilyn Anderson, who organizes the Love Train for the Dunedin council. ``Now we've got them coming in droves.''
The train ride, started in 2001 and held every other year, is one of several private initiatives -- including a singles ball and dating service -- aiming to revitalize agricultural communities in a nation where farm produce accounts for two- thirds of annual export earnings.
Just 14 of every 100 New Zealand females live in farming towns, according to the Ministry of Women's Affairs. The portion of the nation's women living in such settlements decreased to 1.9 percent from 2.2 percent in the decade through 2001.
New Zealand's population is 4.1 million, according to Bloomberg data.
``All people expect to have some sort of career now,'' said Jacqueline Rowarth, director of agriculture at Massey University in Palmerston North. ``We have closed down the rural hospitals and rural schools, so those jobs that you could do while you were producing children no longer exist.''
`Get in First'
The Love Train has become so popular that some farmers go to Dunedin to hop aboard, getting a 2 1/2-hour head start on rivals waiting in a marquee, or large tent, in Middlemarch.
Grant Craig said he met his wife, Christine, when he was a train guard for the 2001 party.
``If you're on the train, you get in first because you meet them on the way up,'' said Craig, 45, operations manager in Dunedin for Taieri Gorge Railway, which transports partygoers.
Middlemarch marks the end of the rail line from Dunedin. Most its 300 residents farm sheep and cattle, and the nearest post office and bank are a 20-minute drive away.
Passengers pay NZ$70 ($52) for a round trip on the train, which arrives at 7:30 p.m. and returns at midnight. The fare includes a supper in Middlemarch of spit-roasted pork, lamb, beef, venison, chicken and vegetables. Drinks are extra.
Gowns and Gumboots
``There's a big marquee, but it's in a paddock,'' Anderson said. ``There's lovely ladies running around in beautiful dresses, but they are all wearing gumboots.''
Those are knee-high rubber boots worn on wet ground. The women spend NZ$300-NZ$400 on what they call their ``hunting dresses,'' Anderson said.
Anderson hasn't tracked the nuptial success rate, though she said this year's train returned with 30 extra people.
New Zealand matchmakers took their lead from Australia, where so-called Bachelor and Spinster balls originally served as events for isolated farming daughters to make their social debuts.
These days, women are more likely to turn up in jeans with a carload of friends. Web sites track ball dates, review events and host chat rooms for organizing transportation.
New Zealand's rural communities are catching up fast. Stewart Island, a remote southern isle with fish farms, started an annual singles ball last year in an attempt to balance its ratio of 60 men for every 40 women.
In southern Owaka town, where men outnumber women 5-to-1, a local publican encouraged a Dunedin dating service to bus in 18 females for a weekend in March.
The women met 18 men in a speed-dating format and then had drinks in the pub, organizer Jane Metcalfe said. The visitors stayed the night in a former maternity hospital.
Three romances started that night and another three are ``on the go,'' Metcalfe said. She now organizes events for other rural destinations.
``It was just a fantastic night out,'' Metcalfe said. ``Everyone in Owaka is still talking about the night the ladies came to town.''
`Nothing to Lose'
Some lonely farmers are taking matters into their own hands. John Edwards, a dairyman from northern Te Kuiti town, said he succumbed to lobbying from his mother and aunt in 2004 and entered a ``Find a Farmer a Wife'' contest in a local magazine.
``I was starting to think I might not meet anyone,'' said Edwards, 39, who received responses from around the country, including the cities of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
He chose Jane Strahan, 39, a clerical worker from Wellington. They have a 3-month-old daughter, Sinead.
Strahan was born in a village 20 kilometers (12 miles) from where she now lives, though she left at age 21 to seek better job opportunities, she said.
Since marriage was not on her immediate horizon, Strahan said she had ``nothing to lose'' by responding to Edwards's plea.
``When I got here I felt a little bit isolated,'' Strahan said. ``But it's worked out really well.''