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Crazy Business Ideas That Actually Worked: FarmVille


The world was waiting for an excuse to milk virtual cows and till virtual soil, but why?


Farming is hard work.

The hours are long, market prices for crops fluctuate wildly, and a couple of bad storms can ruin your season.

So, why would anyone in their right mind pretend to do actual farm work -- with all of the hassles and headaches -- without actually cultivating anything tangible?

Zynga, the social gaming behemoth behind FarmVille, an online game played on Facebook, likely doesn't care why people are doing it -- as long as people continue to do it. With more than 60 million people registered and more than 20 million logging on at least once a day, Zynga may just be the epitome of the crazy idea that worked.

Imagine scheduling your life around tending and harvesting virtual crops, milking virtual cows, upgrading virtual farm equipment, and spending actual money to buy virtual currency for a new virtual barn -- which is one way Zynga generates revenue from the "farmers" that till FarmVille's virtual soil.

For many millions of people, the idea isn't unusual at all. In fact, many users just can't seem to get enough of the game, and may be toying with an addiction. A New York Times article quoted a woman who felt her husband had become too attached to his FarmVille hobby. The anonymous blogger, who said she was pregnant, said: "I was starving ... and he told me I'd have to wait a few more minutes so he could HARVEST HIS RASPBERRIES! I waited ... in the car and waited for his stupid raspberries to be harvested."

And Jil Wrinkle, a 40-year-old medical transcriber in the Philippines, described setting his alarm clock for 1:30 a.m. each day so he could harvest his blueberries.

"I keep my laptop next to my bed," Wrinkle explained. "The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is harvest, then I harvest again at 10 in the morning, then again in midafternoon, then in the evening, and then again right before going to bed."

It may sound like insanity, but it makes for good business.

Last week, TechCrunch reported that: "Google (GOOG) has quietly (secretly, one might say) invested somewhere between $100 million and $200 million in…Zynga, we've confirmed from multiple sources. The company has raised somewhere around half a billion dollars."

So, what's behind the massive appeal that FarmVille holds for the better part of 100 million people?

"The whole concept of 'I'm sick of this modern, urban lifestyle, I wish I could just grow plants and vegetables and watch them grow,' there is something very therapeutic about that," Philip Tan, director of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, a joint venture between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the government of Singapore to develop digital games, told the Times.

And Arizona State University graduate student Kayla Payton said, "It's like my little green place. You just harvest your crops and do your thing."

However, "just harvesting your crops" and "doing your thing" is far from what modern farming is all about. FarmVille, in fact, has almost nothing in common with agriculture today. If FarmVille were a realistic depiction, players would spend the bulk of their time and money lobbying Washington for favorable treatment in the form of protectionist tariffs, competing against multinationals like ADM (ADM) and ConAgra (CAG) for corporate welfare dollars artfully referred to as "subsidies," and letting taxpayers fund programs that reward agribusiness for not farming their arable land.

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of and, points out that "agricultural subsidies were put in place in the 1930s during the Great Depression, when 25% of Americans lived on farms. At the time, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace called them 'a temporary solution to deal with an emergency.' Those programs are still in place today, even though less than 1% of Americans currently live on farms that are larger, more efficient, and more productive than ever before."

Gillespie continues:

Consider these facts. Ninety percent of all subsidies go to just five crops: corn, rice, cotton, wheat, and soybeans. Two-thirds of all farm products -- including perishable fruits and vegetables -- receive almost no subsidies. And just 10% of recipients receive 75% of all subsidies. A program intended to be a "temporary solution" has become one of our government's most glaring examples of corporate welfare.

US taxpayers aren't the only ones who pay the price. Cotton subsidies, for example, encourage overproduction, which lowers the world price of cotton. That's great for people who buy cotton, but it's disastrous for already-impoverished cotton farmers in places such as West Africa.

US farm programs cost taxpayers billions each year, significantly raise the price of commodities such as sugar (which is protected from competition from other producers in other countries), undermine world trade agreements, and contribute to the suffering of poor farmers around the world. It's bad public policy, especially in these troubled economic times.

And here's what a real -- not virtual -- farmer has to say about it:

FarmVille has been a success in the face of what most would see as a failure waiting to happen. But, it says something about today's agricultural policy when pretending to farm abides by conventional logic while actual farming does anything but.

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