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
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
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
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
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.