A television series on a farm family in crisis--why now?
The dispossession of the family farmer in America continues. More than 30,000
farms are lost each year in the United States. This pace of dispossession--some
600 farms each week--has not noticeably slowed since the height of public
attention to the "farm crisis" in the mid-1980s. Economists expect the loss of family farms to accelerate in
the next decade. Despite the continued growth
of industrialized corporate agriculture, the vast majority--perhaps 95 percent
or more--of the two million farms in the country are operated by a family, are
of a modest size, and rely on family rather than paid labor--in other words, family farmers just like Darrel and
Farmers raise food; why would any farmer have to resort to using food
The fundamental mission of the Food Stamp Program is to help low-income people
buy food to improve their diets. A related purpose of the program is to
increase the number of agricultural products which are purchased by providing
those without adequate income the means to do so. In some cases, it is a good
business decision for a qualified farm family to use food stamps. The Food
Stamp Program is administered by the USDA--the same agency that holds the
Buschkoetters' FmHA operating loan. The extra income that food stamp benefits
add to a farm's "family living" category in the farm business plan on their
loan application may tip the lender's scale in favor of the farmer when making
the decision whether or not to grant a loan.
Although the Buschkoetter family of five falls well below the federal
poverty guidelines, Juanita says that they only qualify for food stamps for
part of the year. Why?
Ironically, the FmHA operating loan the Buschkoetters receive is counted as
income on their food stamp application; even though they are not able to use
these funds to purchase food, the amount is high enough to disqualify their
household from receiving food stamp benefits for part of the year. Farm
families can sometimes also be denied benefits based on the valuation of their
farm assets such as tractors and other equipment.
I raise a garden; why can't farmers grow all the food they need?
In midwestern states like Nebraska, farmers are very efficient at raising food
for cows. The grain sorghum, called milo, that Darrel raises, one of the four
primary crops grown in Nebraska, is a major feed grain for livestock.
Farm family gardens are common, yet very labor intensive. How much time can a
farm family reasonably spend on a garden when their entire livelihood is
dependent on the farm operation? Gardens are subject to all of the risks of
bugs, drought and often short growing seasons. One summer during filming,
Juanita discovered an additional peril of a farm garden: cows got loose and
trampled her lovingly tended vegetables. Fortunately, a generous neighbor
brought over his extra tomatoes and Juanita was able to can a year's supply of
tomato sauce in her "spare time."
Why don't farmers butcher the livestock they raise?
When possible they do--sometimes putting the farm family in the position of
having a freezer full of meat, but little else to eat. Sometimes it is not
legally permitted: in the process of getting a loan, the farmer is likely to
pledge the farm products such as crops and livestock as collateral. Thereafter,
the farmer cannot sell or use these commodities without a release from the
creditor. To do otherwise is to risk criminal charges on charges of "conversion
of assets." Even if a release is granted, the family's cash flow may not allow
for the cost of processing the meat.
Do the Buschkoetters employ "sustainable agriculture" practices on their
In some respects traceable to the once-tiny organic farm movement, sustainable
agriculture is now on the verge of gaining mainstream acceptability and may
offer some assistance in preserving family farming and rural communities. The definition of sustainable agriculture is
hotly contested, but most proponents agree that it involves the use of fewer
chemical fertilizers, pesticides and drug treatments for livestock. In
practical terms, this tends to mean using more crop rotation to fight the
effects of weeds and insects; fertilizing the soil from on-farm sources such as
small groups of unconfined livestock and nitrogen-fixing legumes; using
biological practices and integrated pest management; and using careful
The Buschkoetters make good use of terracing and windbreaks to prevent soil
erosion. Planting the same crop in a field year after year depletes soil
fertility and multiplies insect and weed problems, requiring the use of
additional fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides. Darrel and Juanita have
learned the wisdom of rotating their crops: for instance, the field they use
one year to grow milo, a grain sorghum, will be planted with alfalfa, a legume,
the next. The alfalfa will fix nitrogen in the soil for the following year's
crop of wheat. As an alternative to using chemicals, they hand-cut the weed
"cane" (shattercane) from their milo, preventing its seeds from lowering the
value of the crop.
Although Darrel earns off-farm income working at a local irrigation equipment
manufacturing plant, he himself chooses to be a "dry land" farmer. He can avoid
the high cost--and debt-load--that comes with purchasing and maintaining
irrigation equipment by planting drought-tolerant crops, an ecological
The Buschkoetters' hogs are raised in small numbers in unconfined areas, unlike
the "factory farm" hog confinement operations which, although very
controversial, now threaten to dominate the entire industry."
 "U.S. Farm Ownership Drops," St. Paul
Pioneer Press, 11/10/94
 Fred Gale, "Farm Numbers Continue to Drop,"
Agricultural Outlook, Jan/Feb 1995
 Over 60 percent of all farmers hire no wage
labor at all, and less than 2 percent of all farms account for over half of all
agricultural labor hired.
USDA Economic Research Service, "Characteristics of Large-Scale Farms 1987," p.
11 (1993: Agricultural Economic Report #668)
 Northwest Area Foundation, "A Better Row To
Hoe: The Economic, Environmental and Social Impact of Sustainable Agriculture"
pp. 10, 20-24 (1994)
 Paul B. Thompson, "The Varieties of
Sustainability," Agric. & Human Values vol. 11 (1992); National Research
Council, Alternative Agriculture (1989)