A random pairing, some small talk, then, "Rotate!" But instead of sitting at tables, these daters crouched over rows of red onions. Rather than fiddling with drinks, they yanked up weeds. In place of low lighting, a waning sun.

Meet speed dating's hippie sister -- weed dating.

A few farms across the country are organizing events for singles looking to escape the formula of online dating or the convention of the bar scene for something a bit more ... organic. Participants rotate from person to person, from chard to cherry tomatoes. It's "like speed dating," a Boise farm advertises on its website, "but much more badass."

On Tuesday, a dozen 20-somethings gathered at the Cornercopia Student Organic Farm on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus for what might have been the state's first weed dating meet-up. Compared to others in the news, it was casual, in a college kind of way. No name tags, few formal introductions, no split between men and women. Most participants were friends.

"I was just coming to spend some time on the farm," said Maria Paschke, 22. "I wasn't particularly hoping to meet someone." She laughed and added: "But it would be a perk."

The trend has captured national attention and amused farm types. There are jokes about ending up in a (vegetable) bed on the first date.

On its Facebook page, the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis promised that their "'crop mobs' are not a cover for weed dating. But if you happen to make a new friend at the farm, all the better, right?"

It's all in good fun, said Tracy Singleton, the cafe's owner. "There are a heckuva lot worse ways to meet people."

Weeding to do

The events cater to people who, like Singleton, care about where their food comes from. Those at the student-run farm in St. Paul had majored in subjects such as sustainability, environmental studies and horticulture. Jace Crowe, 22, grew up in Bemidji and recently graduated from the University of Minnesota.

"I'm a single guy, and it'd be nice to meet as many people as I can in the city," he said. "People who are like me, who are passionate about being good civic members of society."

A few weeks back, a friend sent Sarah Halvorson-Fried, a GreenCorps member who works with the farm, an article about weed dating.

"I just thought it would be a good idea," she said, "since we have a lot of weeding to do."

So she set up a Facebook invite. "Looking for love?" it said. "Yes or no, come hang out and weed with us!" On Tuesday, she waited for attendees beneath the shade of a ginkgo tree, offering them toothpicks laden with cherry tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella. The group was quiet, sweaty and slow in the heat.

"Should we start?"

An hour into the 10-minute rotations, Halvorson-Fried paused to consider the event's success. A few more friends had joined in, adding energy to the evening. "Pesto is totally a sauce," one woman was arguing.

"It's going well, I think," Halvorson-Fried said, eyeing the newly weeded rows. "We've gotten a lot done!"

But there are disadvantages to newbies tending to your crops. Paschke accidentally uprooted yet another shallot, flung it into a growing pile and sighed.

"I feel like so far I've done more harm than good."

A cool idea, but ...

A few farms in Vermont made national news in 2010 for pioneering weed dating. The nights attracted a dozen people, then just five, due to rain, then seven. But things fizzled.

"It was a very exciting idea for the media, but the daters themselves weren't all that excited about it," said Barbara Richardson, office manager of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. "It sounds like a really cool idea, but it didn't pan out."

In fact, at one event, more reporters showed up than participants. Those daters ranged from age 18 to 60, "and there were far more women than men, of course," she said. So it made for an uncomfortable evening, made more awkward by TV cameras.

Richardson still believes that, if cultivated correctly, weed dating could bring together people with similar values.

"People do meet the loves of their lives at our events," she said, "but not so far at weed dating."

The St. Paul farm is planning a second weed dating night, and Joseph Hartmann, who attended Tuesday, plans to go. The 22-year-old recently graduated from the U's campus in Morris, where he focused on environmental studies. He is now back in Roseville, living with his parents, applying for jobs.

Hartmann called the event "a great introduction to the Twin Cities" and "a chance to meet some really nice people." He's never done speed dating, much less weed dating, and while he likes the idea, he's spotted a problem: the time limit.

"It's hard to gauge" whether you'd be compatible with someone, he said, "off of a 5-minute conversation in a field somewhere in St. Paul."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168