the farmer's wife

maggie scarf on the Farmer's Wife

In the deepening twilight, the Nebraska sky is becoming a vast palette of lavenders, soft purples and then darker, more majestic purplish blacks. The broad swaths of color have an otherworldly air, and seem to confer upon the small farmhouse far below them a regal, if lonely kind of splendor. Seen only in silhouette against the oncoming darkness are Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter's three young daughters, racing around wildly, giggling and shrieking. They're immersed in a game they're playing with the family cat--one which involves "losing" their pet, running through the grass, then "finding" the cat again, and collapsing into peals of hysterical laughter.

As this remarkable documentary account of a farm and a marriage gets underway, Juanita Buschkoetter is clearly struggling with a serious depression. She's feeling that no matter how hard she tries, everything she does seems to be wrong. She's exhausted and overwhelmed, working hard not to pin the blame on Darrel for the desperate circumstances in which they've found themselves. It's an ordinary scene of family life, and yet its idyllic quality packs a wallop. It's as if the entire universe belongs to these children; and you can't help but wonder (not without a sense of yearning and regret) what it might have been like to have grown up in the secure embrace of this self-contained little rural world. Watching these merry sisters at play I have the thought that they'll surely stay closely bonded throughout the course of their lifetimes (as my own older sisters and I are not).

Of course sunsets, particularly glorious purple sunsets, tend to soften hard truths and to romanticize reality. In fact, the next morning's sunrise reveals a different, much grimmer version of the Buschkoetter family's truth. In the unforgiving daylight, the farmhouse looks as if it's flaking into nakedness, desperately in need of a paint job. And everywhere on the surrounding property are mute testaments to what's collapsed and been abandoned--a decaying, unused old outbuilding; rotting pieces of machinery; a discarded vehicle that's settled into the grass all the way up to its bent and twisted license plate. These objects seem in the process of being reclaimed by the implacable soil.

And in fact, as we viewers have already learned, the Buschkoetter's entire farming operation is in present danger of collapsing and being liquidated by the bank. Despite years of backbreaking effort to turn their modest grain and cattle farm into an economically viable undertaking, Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter have been faced with a series of small catastrophes (drought, falling farm prices, some unwise business decisions) and are now facing the biggest catastrophe possible.

For the farm is invested with so many symbolic meanings: When the Buschkoetters married, living on a farm and raising a family was the bucolic dream of the future they shared. Juanita was going to stay at home and take care of the six children the couple planned to have; Darrel would farm the land and support them. At first, much of the acreage that he farmed would be rented land, but Darrel's long-range plan was to take over his dad's nearby farming operation when his father retired. Years of economic strain and frustration have, however, left both members of the couple feeling humiliated and demoralized.

Before her marriage , Juanita Plas Buschkoetter was a "city girl," in Nebraska terms; that is, she was the daughter of the superintendent of schools in the town of Lawrence, Nebraska, whose population numbers 350. She was 18 years old and Darrel (who'd been raised on a nearby farm) was 24 when they wed, in the face of strong parental opposition. Juanita's folks didn't want to see her marry so young, nor did they want her marrying a farmer. (Since that time, it should be said, Juanita's father and mother have divorced; and you can't help but wonder if rising tensions in the Plas household led their daughter to flee to an early marriage at that point.).

Darrel's parents weren't happy about the couple's marriage either. They didn't think a city girl would make a good farmer's wife, and in fact their acknowledgment of Juanita's vital contributions to the eventual survival of the farm seems (to me) muted and grudging at best. For it is Juanita who eventually figures out how to "work the system" in an agricultural world dominated by bankers and government bureaucrats, and it is she who becomes the very efficient financial administrator of the entire farming operation.

Whatever his parents' opinion of his marital choice however, Juanita Plas was in Darrel's eyes "everything I was ever looking for. She was good looking. She was kind of daring like I am. If you wanted the perfect farm wife and the perfect mother, you could see it when she was in high school. You don't see that combination in somebody very often. She's my everything," he states frankly, staring directly into the camera.

Darrel's passionate, possessive, almost childlike love of Juanita is a love tainted by deep anxieties, fears that his incredible good fortune--she's chosen him--may not hold out indefinitely. It was Darrel who insisted on their marrying immediately when Juanita was debating whether or not she should go to college first and get her degree; she was interested in studying veterinary medicine. (Actually, I think it very possible that she wouldn't have married him if she'd gone away at that time). But now, after almost a decade of marriage, when his wife is so clearly committed to him, to her children and to the farm, letting her out of his sight is something that doesn't come to Darrel easily.

He's so fearful that she may one day think better of her choice and abandon him. As Juanita sees it, her husband's worries about her getting "too educated and getting too good for him" are baseless, simply fueled by his own insecurities. Despite his objections, she is taking classes at a local community college, determined to get a degree that will lead to a good job.

Besides, says Juanita, she's the only one of her siblings who didn't graduate from college--one brother went to Harvard, and one of her sisters went to Wellesley. She herself has been forced to go to work in town, cleaning houses for well-to-do folk in order to put basic foodstuffs on the family's table.

The need to bring in cash has forced Darrel to seek work off the farm too. He's gotten a job (which he hates) at a factory that makes irrigation systems. It's hard, heavy work, that leaves him filthy, covered with oil, exhausted; and when he gets home at night, he has to go right out and do all the farm work that's been waiting for him.

"It's just been hell," he says dejectedly. He's got no time for being a father or for being a husband; and his opting out of the family is making Juanita absolutely furious. And ahead of the Buschkoetters rides the true nightmare threat of being liquidated by the bank and having everything they still possess sold off to satisfy their creditors. If a government (FMHA) loan doesn't come through in time--and there's little assurance that it will--the pair are going to come face to face with economic and emotional disaster.

As this remarkable documentary account of a farm and a marriage gets underway, Juanita Buschkoetter is clearly struggling with a serious depression. She's feeling that no matter how hard she tries, everything she does seems to be wrong. She's exhausted and overwhelmed, working hard not to pin the blame on Darrel for the desperate circumstances in which they've found themselves.

But she's bubbling with unexpressed resentments. "I know I deny it a lot of times, but the only thing I can think of is that I must, deep down, be holding it against Darrel, you know, the situation we're in right now. And I know most of it's not his fault, but I don't know how to get over that," she admits. She's struggling hard to manage her loving and her angry, resentful feelings, and in my own view, she's doing a pretty good job of containing these ambivalent emotions.

Nevertheless, Darrel's painfully aware of all the things she isn't saying. "I think," he says, "(that) with the financial problems we have, she blames me for a lot of them. She won't say she does, but I think she does. And I don't like that part about her, because I feel like a bomb's gonna go off if something don't get said."

The "Farmer's Wife" is by no means an airbrushed documentary. It's a gritty, very real portrait of a couple living through a long period of painful economic adversity. It's a story, too, of a couple faced with the need to make radical adaptations, for in the course of time the Buschkoetters switch from a traditional stay-at-home-Mom kind of arrangement to one in which Darrel has taken over many of the household's domestic responsibilities (much to his own father's dismay). But to me the most remarkable aspect of this film is the way in which the members of the couple manage to hold on to their basic love for one-another other despite the acute, prolonged stress and perilousness of their situation.

There are so many poignant scenes of family affection throughout! Juanita and Darrel are such tender lovers and such tender parents, as well. Taken all for all, the Buschkoetters are wonderful, admirable people -- people of true integrity, who work hard to empathize with each other's experiences, to stay connected, to persevere through the hard times. I felt enhanced by having lived with them for awhile.

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