People from all over the country are betting the farm -- on Facebook. "FarmVille," a game where people use fake and real dollars to cultivate virtual farms, is becoming a huge success.
Shyann Krumney, 18, has lived on a real farm her whole life. She lives in Buffalo Lake, Minn. where she likes to take her pet sheep for a walk (that is, when she's not busy moving bales of hay.) Krumney says she usually plays "FarmVille" for a few minutes each day.
"I go to school in the morning and everyone's talking about the latest on 'FarmVille,'" she said. "Someone's always complaining they didn't get to adopt the 'ugly ducking' or the 'strawberry cow.'"
The game has grown in popularity quickly, according to Facebook spokesperson Malorie Lucich. "FarmVille" is the most popular application in Facebook history, with more than 60 million active users," Lucich said. Social gaming company Zynga launched "FarmVille" in June -- they say the game has averaged a million new users every week since.
According to Mark Skaggs, the creator of "FarmVille," "if you lined up all the 'FarmVille' users side-by-side, the line would reach from New York to San Francisco three and a half times."
"There's a lot of [business] potential there," he said. "In the midst of this chaotic word, there's a little piece of quiet."
That sense of calm attracted graduate student Kayla Payton to the game. Like many of her classmates, she's hooked on "FarmVille." After a long day at Arizona State University, Payton, 22, sits at her computer, harvesting virtual fields of eggplant from her apartment in Phoenix.
"It's like my little green place," Payton said. Earlier in the semester, before school became too demanding, she said she spent up to an hour a day playing the.
For Payton, it takes her "back to the basics."
"You don't have to worry about deadlines," she said. "You just harvest your crops and do your thing."
And while she loves her farm, she admits that she could probably be doing something more productive.
"It's really almost kind of embarrassing," she said. "People don't want to talk about it, but everyone does it."
"FarmVille" lets players earn virtual "coins," when they harvest their crops. They can then use the coins to buy more crops, livestock or other things for their farms like picket fences, and gazebos. Crops take different amounts of time to ripen or grow enough to be harvested. Not weeks or months as in the real world, but a couple of hours to a couple of days.
A peach tree will set you back 500 coins, while it costs 35 coins to plant a plot of wheat. Farmers can then turn around and sell the wheat they harvest for 115 coins.
Zynga Farms for Profit
Like other virtual world online games like "Second Life," "FarmVille" recently added features where users can use real dollars to purchase "coins" and "'FarmVille' money." So this catchy pastime may turn into a cash-cow for its creators.
While Zynga declined to comment on exactly how much the company made from real cash "FarmVille" sales, it recently used funds from the game to donate nearly $500,000 to a charity enhancing the welfare of children in Haiti, according to a company press release.
Beth Hoffman, 21, a senior at ASU, said she is constantly reminded by her 33-year-old sister, Jennifer Petasnick that she needs to harvest her crops, or take care of her virtual animals.
"It's pathetic," Hoffman said, laughing. "My sister with three children, looks at her watch and goes 'Oh, no I need to go harvest,' and runs upstairs to harvest her crops."
For Petasnick, a stay-at-home mom in Oswego, Ill., "FarmVille" is a nice break from her busy day. She said other mom in the neighborhood introduced her to the game.
"It's fun to conquer each level and be able to do more stuff with the farm," she said. "The other thing that keeps the interest level high is my kids love it too."
Back in Phoenix, Hoffmann visits her virtual farm every night from her kitchen table. Every chance she gets, she buys new decorations and plants with her virtual coins. For Halloween she bought a "Spooky Tree" to add charm to the landscape, and she recently added a small pond.
"You can't do anything with it, but it's (a) decoration," she said.
"FarmVille" farmers have "neighbors" who are other Facebook users that also use the game. Neighbors can help fertilize your crops, or get rid of rodents -- they can also send gifts.
When Payton travels for school events, she often comes back to find new buildings and gadgets on her farm that were added by her mom back in South Carolina.
"I now have a house and a windmill and when I went away for the weekend, I didn't have them," Payton said.
Real-Life Farmers Weigh-In on "FarmVille"
Ripend fruit, and long days on a farm are nothing unusual to Carrie Schnepf who owns and runs Schnepf's farms outside of Phoenix. She says she's way too busy running a real farm to be able to get on "FarmVille".
Running a working farm is "tons of work," she said. And besides the work, she thinks virtual farmers are missing out on the real pleasures of farming.
There's something about "the smell of the pigs; the fresh air," she said. "You can pull the vegetables from the farm; you can feel the dirt in your fingers; you can get dirty really. You can't [get] that from a virtual farm."
Justin Hudgell, 17, is a "FarmVille" user and a runs his own pumpkin stand in Cedarville, Ohio. He said his classmates are hooked, but have no idea what farming really is.
"I tell them that if they want to work on a farm they should come out to my house and I'll let them work on my farm," Hudgell said. "They always have an immediate response: 'No.'"
As for Schnepf, she just hopes the virtual farmers can get something meaningful out of the experience.
She said if she were to create a virtual farm, it would resemble one out in the Midwest.
"You know, I may get a 'FarmVille' account and see if I'm better at it online than I am in real life."