the farmer's wife

Summary of Series for Study Planning

Night One

Part One of "The Farmer's Wife" introduces us to the Buschkoetters in the spring of 1995 at a low point in their story. Juanita and Darrel are on the edge, facing disaster and the loss of everything they hold dear to them--their farm, their possessions, their self-respect, their marriage. The survival of their farm hangs on the tenuous thread of a government loan approval, and Darrel's lifelong hope of taking over his father's nearby farm seems increasingly remote.

Their marriage is under obvious strain. Juanita is upset that Darrel spends all of his time worrying that he may have to give up his dream of farming and resents that he no longer finds satisfaction in the simple pleasures of family life. "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," says Juanita. "And I know most of it's not his fault, but I don't know how to get over that."

One of things that drew Juanita to Darrel was his extraordinary passion for farming, and she is driven to help him achieve his dream so he can once again be the man she fell in love with. "Darrel lives and breathes...farming," says Juanita. "There's a connection to the land that I know that most people don't understand. If somebody like that has to quit farming and do something else...there's a love that's no longer there. And, to me...a part of the identity of America is to have somebody so much in love with what they do...that they're willing to do so much for it."

In 1991, the bank sent the Buschkoetters a letter saying they were ready to liquidate their farm, and Juanita and Darrel were forced to take jobs in town to keep food on the table. Juanita cleans houses for well-to-do families. For Darrel, devoted to farming with an almost religious zeal, working off the farm feels like a self-imposed exile from paradise. Reluctantly, he takes a job at a factory that makes irrigation systems, doing backbreaking, mind-numbing work. After an endless day of pushing steel, he returns home exhausted, covered in oil, his clothes torn. Somehow, he finds the strength to do his own farm work at night.

"If I could make a living out here on the farm," says Darrel, "I wouldn't have to be in town during the day trying to bring home enough income to buy groceries. So naturally I could do a better job at farming, and I could be a better father, I could be a better husband. It's just been hell."

"The last three years he's aged so much," Juanita says of her husband. "I look at pictures from three years ago and he's so much an older man. And sometimes I feel...he's had to do so much physical work that he's not able to take control of our financial situation or even understand it."

In the early days of their marriage, Darrel ran things on the farm, and an admiring Juanita followed his lead, but their economic hardships have left him desperate, exhausted, and emotionally ill-equipped to deal with an agricultural world run by bankers and bureaucrats.

In 1992, without telling Darrel, Juanita wrote a letter to Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey asking him to intercede on their behalf with the government lender of last resort, the FmHA. It was a turning point for Juanita, who began to take over the family's finances. "In the beginning when I first started dealing with the bank and anybody with our financial situation...I had to talk to Darrel first and...over time I just started making decisions on my own," she says.

Darrel grows more and more dependent on his increasingly sophisticated and self-reliant wife. He says he welcomes Juanita's growing competence, but it is clear that his ego is badly bruised. "When we first met, I did everything for her. She depended on me for everything," he says. "But now, she actually has just as much or more control over things than I do, you know, that probably eats on a guy a little bit."

In the midst of the couple's troubles, at a time when Darrel and Juanita can barely speak to one another, Darrel tells filmmaker David Sutherland, with surprising candor: "I think...with the financial problems that we have, she blames me a lot for them. That's where she has a lot of the bitterness towards me. 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."

Juanita too struggles with the changes in her new marital role, although she is undeniably proud of her growing independence. The realization that the husband she once idolized is powerless to make a move without consulting her, coupled with the intense financial pressure, puts increasing strain on a marriage already stretched to the breaking point.

When the FmHA loan is finally approved, the Buschkoetters have enough money to plant, but the rain won't let up so that they can get the crop in the ground. Juanita has the children praying that the rain will stop. And when it does, Darrel gets the crop planted with barely enough growing time to have a respectable harvest. He is an optimistic that it will be "hell of a crop" if they don't have an early frost, which will convince the FmHA to finance them for another year. Juanita is not so sure.

Without the time or money to take courses at the college, Juanita works at home to get a college degree so she can get a job and "make a decent living." Darrel worries that she'll find something off the farm that she likes better. Juanita grapples with her desire to be a stay-at-home mother, but derives unmistakable satisfaction from her work. Unlike her husband, who is ill at ease off the farm, she thrives in her dealings with the outside world: "I have a dream," she says, "of making a difference in farmers' lives." But even with two outside jobs, money is exceedingly tight--a mere $11,000 a year for a family of five.

"I'm so tired of scratching, but you try to make meals and you try to hide the fact that there's no meat in the meals...because when there's no money, you can't buy groceries," says Juanita. "It's so hard for me to see that times will ever get better. I can't ever imagine having money again to buy the groceries. I can't even imagine it."

In summer 1995, with only twenty dollars a month for groceries, Juanita is forced to apply for food stamps. "I never want to do it again," says Juanita. "And I rightfully don't feel like we deserve the food stamps...why should somebody else pay for our groceries because of some of the mistakes we made in farming, but what else do you do? When you have three kids to feed you have to feed `em somehow."

Part One of "The Farmer's Wife" begins the journey to the core of Darrel and Juanita's emotional struggles: how Darrel must deal with Juanita's family, who disapprove of the way he takes care of his family; Juanita's stormy relationship with Darrel's father, who blames her for Darrel's having to work away from the farm; Darrel's suspicions that Juanita has been unfaithful; and her feelings that Darrel is a better son to his parents than a husband to her. Their marriage is pushed to the brink.

Night Two I

In Part Two of "The Farmer's Wife," filmmaker David Sutherland's camera focuses on the rhythms of everyday life during the tense fall of 1995 in the Buschkoetter family.

In September, an early frost destroys thirty per cent of their crops--dashing their hopes for a bountiful harvest that could ensure they could continue farming. Scratching to feed and clothe a family of five on $11,000 a year erodes their hopes and all but eradicates their dreams. No one believes in them. Juanita's family continues to pressure her and Darrel to give up farming and find real jobs in town. Juanita says, "In order for me to quit farming, you know, I'd have to leave Darrel `cause he'll never quit until he has to, so I'll fight it out just as long as Darrel can."

Meanwhile, Juanita, who has only a high school diploma, is taking classes from the local community college, determined to get a degree that will lead to a good job. One of her brothers went to Harvard and a sister went to Wellesley, and she yearns to make a difference in something, not to be "just a dumb farm wife that has no voice." Darrel is wary of Juanita's drive for an education, afraid she will prefer the outside world rather than their life together on the farm.

"Darrel says I'm just gonna go ahead and get my education, then I'll be too good for him and leave him," says Juanita. "But you know, that's just his insecurity." This tension plays out in a dramatic episode in October when Juanita wants to attend her sister's bridal shower in Kansas City, three hundred miles away, and Darrel doesn't want her to go. He says he is afraid of what could happen. "There's always people that are unhappy with who they're married with, and they're always...looking for a good time with somebody else," he says. "It's always a worry."

"I think that fear is in Darrel all the time, he thinks...I'd leave, and I try to tell him that all the time I know I never would. I've always thought divorce is sad, but I think it's even sadder when there's, you know, really bad marriages," says Juanita.

While she is away, the camera tracks Darrel's growing anxiety as he worries aloud with his parents, struggles to take care of his daughters, and spends a lonely night at home. Juanita will be gone less than twenty-four hours. To Darrel, it seems like a week.

In late October, with his disappointing harvest finally over, Darrel has to go back to working off-farm to make extra money. But he is hopeful. This year he has quit the job he hated at the irrigation plant and has found work with another farmer at $7 an hour. It's less money than his old job, but at least it will be work he enjoys.

Part Two of "The Farmer's Wife" watches Darrel's hopes for his new job turn sour. He comes home each night with hours of work on his own farm still facing him. His schedule is grueling and night after night, his exhaustion grows. "Trying to farm during the night and work all day for somebody else, it's worse than a living hell," he says. "Your body just feels like hell all the time."

On Halloween, Juanita throws a party for her daughters and their friends. It is a heartwarming scene of musical chairs and apple bobbing that feels like a moment from another time in American life. Darrel arrives home that night exhausted, unable to eat his dinner and collapses in front of the television, half-listening to a news report about the soldier in Fort Bragg who shot seventeen of his comrades. "Sometimes a guy can only take so much," he sighs.

Juanita is still cleaning houses, but there are times when there isn't enough cash, and she is forced to go to a food bank for groceries.

Meanwhile, the FmHA tells them their farm loan is in jeopardy, unless they can convince all their creditors to agree to wait another two years to be paid in full. Juanita is now fully in charge of the couple's finances and so the onerous task of telling each of the creditors they won't be paid this year falls to her. Darrel's temper and anger at the creditors' attempts to collect makes it too dangerous to send him on this delicate task, and while he seethes at home, Juanita ventures out night after night to beg for more time.

By Christmas 1995, as Part Two ends, the FmHA loan is approved--they will be farming for another year, but right now, the Buschkoetters are dead broke. At night, Juanita dreams she has no money to buy the girls anything for Christmas.

"I can see why people end up getting divorced," she says. "You really have to really dig deep and look and know what you want and...how much you're committed," says Juanita. "Hopefully, we're gonna come out on top with...our marriage and the farm."

Night Three

In the concluding episode of "The Farmer's Wife," the tense struggle between the Buschkoetters' dreams and the pressures that threaten their farm and their marriage moves toward a dramatic and surprising resolution.

By the spring of 1996, Darrel's dream of farming full time, working his own land and his father's land is now within his grasp. "I worked with Dad for years hoping for this moment...for when he retired that I could take over his operation and make one decent size operation so a family of five could at least maybe make a living on it," says Darrel.

But this dream is shadowed by a lifetime of unspoken resentments between Darrel and his father, Leroy Buschkoetter--over Leroy's inability to praise Darrel, over years of working for his father without pay, over fears Leroy will not really allow Darrel to run the new combined farm.

"Juanita thinks Darrel should take a firmer stance with Leroy and maybe put his foot down," says family mediator Shari Miller, "but Darrel feels a great obligation and responsibility to his parents, and so he is having a very difficult time separating from them and devoting himself to his own family." "When I ask Darrel to stand up to his family," says Juanita, "he says what do you want me to do, tell them to go to hell? And I said no... just take a stand for me and our girls and us."

In the summer of 1996, Darrel's hopes for a bumper crop are growing, and more family tensions surface when Juanita's mother, Kathy Plas, comes to the farm for a visit. Mrs. Plas had tried to talk Juanita out of marrying Darrel a decade earlier, and she has remained Darrel's toughest critic, believing he has put his love of farming ahead of his duty to provide for Juanita and their three daughters. Her effusive praise of her other children sparks a kitchen table argument between Juanita and her mother: "I don't want to start an argument, Mom," says Juanita, "But I already told you Leroy's been knocking Darrel so badly lately, it doesn't make him feel any better when you go on and on about how better everybody else is doing, like we're doing so awful. He feels like dirt enough."

As the summer lingers, filmmaker David Sutherland's camera also focuses on the pulse of everyday living on the Buschkoetter farm and touching scenes of their daughters Audrey, Abby, and Whitney. The two oldest girls join 4-H and Audrey, now nine, spends much of the summer trying to train her calf to be led by a halter so she can show him at the county fair. At summer's end, Juanita takes her youngest daughter, Whitney, to her first day of kindergarten in a bittersweet and wistful scene of a young child discovering her world is widening, and a mother's recognition that a chapter in her life has closed.

In fall 1996, the Buschkoetters finally have the bumper crop that Darrel has been waiting for. He is overjoyed. "I'm thirty-six years old, and for thirty-six years I've been waiting for this year. And it finally happened. All my life everybody's all pessimistic saying we couldn't do it, and finally this year we raised better crops than I've ever, ever seen in my life," says Darrel. "We'd finally show everybody that we could do it."

But even in Darrel's moment of success, Darrel's father can not praise his son. "It just ain't Darrel's farming different, it's just better moisture," says Leroy. "More moisture this year than we ever had, that's what's doing it."

And the bumper crop has not eased the tensions between Darrel and Juanita. "It just makes me mad," says Juanita. "The threat of losing the farm isn't as big an issue as it has been in the past, but we still have some problems between us that are getting worse...the priest told him one time that he has to quit telling me my feelings are stupid and ignore what I'm feeling, but it doesn't sink in with him."

And Darrel's frustrations are growing too. The day after he finishes harvesting the bumper crop, he has to go to work for another farmer for wages, because all of their farm profits must go to pay off creditors, and the family still needs outside income to live. "As good as the harvest was, I think I finally just about cracked up," says Darrel, "Most farmers...throw their hands down and kinda relax, but with me having to have an off-farm job, it built up a lot of anger inside me because any human being alive can only take so much stress." Shortly before Christmas, he exploded at Juanita. "I think it just made me just go crazy," he says about the stress. "I never hit her, didn't beat her up or nothing. I'd lose my temper and I'd yell at Juanita, and I'd call her an ugly bitch or something. There was rumors that I was beating the hell out of her."

Frightened, Juanita leaves Darrel. "She left for a week and there was a letter on the table saying either you learn how to handle your frustration or she wasn't gonna come back," says Darrel. "Whatever it takes to make things work between us, I'm willing to do anything, but she won't give me the benefit of the doubt for nothing."

Despair haunts the Buschkoetters' Christmas. They may have saved their farm, but can they save their marriage? "This is the first time in our married life we ever prayed together, so you realize how much more important this is than the financial problems," sobs Juanita.

Two months later, in March 1997, filmmaker Sutherland returned to the Buschkoetter farm. He could not have been more surprised at what he found. The marriage that had seemed almost doomed at Christmas had been miraculously transformed.

"We kind of reversed the roles," says Darrel. He is now home full time, taking care of the kids and much of the housework, dealing with the Farmer's Home Administration and the banks, while continuing to farm. Juanita is now working full time in town for a crop insurance company. They both seem confident and happy with their new roles. "It means a lot to me to see him happy," says Juanita. "Now, when he has so much more passion for what he's doing and has so much more energy, that's the Darrel I fell in love with."

Darrel explains what happened in December: "Juanita and the kids was gone for a whole week, I never seen my kids for a week and that was enough to realize I wasn't only going to lose her if I didn't change some things, I was gonna lose my whole family...I finally realized I didn't care if I lost the farm and everything, cause I didn't have nothing left if she and the kids left."

At Juanita's urging, Darrel voluntarily joined an anger counseling group. The changes were stunning. "He's almost back to the same man he used to be," says Juanita, "And I'm glad he's been as willing as he has going to counseling, and that he admits there's problems, both things are much better between us now because of it all, and now I guess whenever I tell him I love him, I really mean it. "

In May, on Juanita's thirtieth birthday, Darrel writes a letter to his wife: "You held us together through thick and thin...You proved to me that you are the strength and backbone of our family...Someday I hope we can look back on the past and prove to everyone that it was our love for each other that pulled us through. It makes me so proud to know that I chose a bright and talented person to share my life with. I love you and want to prove that to you each and every day. Love, Darrel."

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co-production of David Sutherland Productions,Inc. and FRONTLINE in association
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