Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter married thirteen years ago; he was twenty-five
years old, she was eighteen. Together, they shared a dream: she would be a
stay-at-home mom, raising the six children they hoped to have. Darrel would
farm their land and eventually take over his father's operation. Juanita,
daughter of the local school superintendent, had no experience managing a farm;
Darrel had grown up in that way of life, he had no formal training in the
skills needed to run a small business. Over the years, they had three
daughters. Then, through a combination of drought, falling farm prices, and
inexperience, their dream threatened to turn into a nightmare. On the verge of
losing it all--their life on the farm and their marriage--they were forced to
draw on inner strengths to grow individually and together.
"The Farmer's Wife" not only addresses the difficulties faced by farm families
in America today, but also sheds light on the challenges of small businesses
and young families. It is the hopeful story of a couple who come through hard
times: in scene after scene, Juanita and Darrel encounter seemingly
insurmountable obstacles--struggling with the soil, with the weather, with
their creditors, with the government, and with each other. Their story unfolds before our eyes, as it is
happening. Darrel and Juanita tell their own story, in their own words, without
the intrusion of a narrator. What emerges is an epic story of faith,
perseverance, and triumph, and an indelible portrait of a real American family's struggle to hold on to their dreams and to
How The Program Came About
The idea of producing an in-depth portrait set against the backdrop of family
farming had been germinating for award-winning producer/director David Sutherland since the early 1970s, when he had a job
selling tires for farm equipment by telephone, spending long hours talking to
farmers across the country.
In search of a family to film, Sutherland met a representative of Interchurch
Ministries of Nebraska who suggested he speak with a young woman named Juanita
Buschkoetter. Recalls Sutherland, "After just a few minutes on the phone, I
knew that I had found the right person."
At first the Buschkoetters were hesitant about having their lives revealed so
intensely and publicly (and receiving no compensation for their participation).
But, Juanita recalls, "The more I thought about it, we didn't have a whole lot
of privacy left anyway. After we got the loan at the FmHA, it seemed like every
aspect of our life was looked at and judged by loan officers and county
committees." She also felt that the project would be worthwhile "if we could
help somebody else out by showing them what we've gone through-that there can
be hope when everything seems the very worst it could ever be. I want people to
know that if we can make it, they can make it. And, after we've gone through
everything, I can say that I'm glad that we stuck it out."
Sutherland gained extraordinary access to the Buschkoetters' daily lives and
filmed them intermittently over three and a half years (1994-98), often staying
at a nearby motel for more than two months at a stretch. Gleaned from more than
400 hours of film shot on location, "The Farmer's Wife" is a cinema
verité portrait allowing the viewer to respond directly to Juanita and
Darrel without outside editorializing. "My goal," says Sutherland, "is to make
you feel that you're living in their skin.
"I wanted to explore not only the value of a dream, but the cost of that dream.
I guess, for me, that's what the film is really about," says Sutherland. "I
always like to confront the contradictions. I wanted to ask what are we willing
to go through and what are we willing to put the people we love through in
order not to give up on a dream? I wasn't interested in making a valentine or
an exposé. I wasn't looking for a hero--but I ended up with two."
About The Title
As he spent time with the Buschkoetters, David Sutherland came to appreciate
the pivotal and changing role of the wife in today's farm family. We watch
Juanita working in the fields, caring for animals, keeping the books,
negotiating with creditors, seeking sources of technical help--all while
maintaining a job, attending school, growing a garden, and caring for her
family. Without question, her skills and labor are necessary for their survival
on the farm.
Most farms in America today are family-run businesses where the wife is equally
responsible with her husband for all aspects of the operation, including debts.
Yet they have traditionally been viewed as wives and mothers, while their farm
labor and contributions to the viability of the farm often go unrecognized.
Viewers will rethink the use of the common and traditional title "farmer's
wife" as they watch Darrel and Juanita mature together and gain respect for the
other's role in the family and the farm operation.
The Farm Crisis
Is it any wonder that Darrel Buschkoetter grew up wanting to be a farmer? Born
the eldest son of seven children to a Nebraska farm family in 1960, he grew up
during up some of the best times in American agriculture. He recalls that as a
child he fashioned hog self-feeders from empty bandage boxes, fenced in his toy
animals with fencing poles made of twigs and string. What he loved most of all
was playing with his collection of red International Harvester toy tractors and
In school, Darrel learned that the American farmer led the world in food
exports. Demand was high and prices were good. Land values were skyrocketing
with no end in sight; farmers found easy credit to buy more land and upgrade
equipment and operations. Darrel devoted his time to helping out on his
family's farm and continued to do so even as he leased ground and began farming
on his own in 1981.
Since 1819, crashes in the American agricultural economy occurred in historic
20-year cycles, marked by periods of prolonged inflation followed by rapid
deflation. The New Deal system of allotments and subsidies, which had buffered
these `booms and busts,' had been legislated away in the 1970s.
The tailspin began in 1980, when record production collided with the loss of
export markets (including the White House-imposed Soviet grain embargo),
causing commodity prices and land values to plummet. By 1982, net farm income
adjusted for inflation was lower than during the Great Depression. Late in 1984, CBS aired an interview with
Father Ron Battiato, a Nebraska Roman Catholic priest who had started a food
pantry to help struggling dairy farmers in his area. Farmers needing help from
a food pantry? The thought shocked many Americans.
After saying their vows, Darrel and Juanita walked out of church into farming
under the cloud of the worst agricultural crisis since the 1930s. Nationwide, some 14 percent of farms--a total of
315,000--went out of business between 1982 and 1992, according to the U.S.
Census of Agriculture. Banks closed and foreclosed, small town businesses
boarded up their storefronts, and farm machinery manufacturing plants closed.
Rising production costs, drops in land value, stagnant prices, and staggering
debt put the Buschkoetters and hundreds of thousands of others at risk.
National farm policies and legislation attempted to address problems, but did
little to prevent them and in some cases made them worse. Legislation gave the
breaks to big farms, leaving the smaller family farms on the edge.
"Today we have 300,000 fewer farmers than in 1979, and farmers are receiving 13
percent less for every consumer dollar," says a USDA National Commission on
Small Farms report released just this year. The agricultural market is now
concentrated in corporate holdings: "Four firms now control over 80 percent of
the beef market. About 94% of all the nation's farms are small farms, but they
receive only 41% of all farm receipts." In
addition, four companies control 85% of the cereal market, four companies control 45% of the poultry industry, and 2% of producers now account for 37% of all
In 1979, Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland ordered a study of U.S.
agriculture and the family farm. The report, "A Time to Choose," warned,
"Unless present policies and programs are changed so that they counter, instead
of reinforce or accelerate the trends towards ever-larger farming operations,
the result will be a few large farms controlling food production in only a few
The 1998 USDA report, "A Time to Act," finds that, "Looking back now nearly two
decades later, it is evident that this warning was not heeded, but instead,
policy choices made since then perpetuated the structural bias toward greater
concentration of assets and wealth in fewer and larger farms and fewer and
larger agribusiness firms. Federal farm programs have historically benefited
large farms the most. Tax policies give large farmers greater incentives for
capital purchases to expand their operations. Large farms that depend on hired
farmworkers receive exemptions from Federal labor laws allowing them the
advantage of low-wage labor costs." The
report concluded with 142 recommendations for changes to current policy.
The farm crisis is not over:
Every week, 500 farms go out of business.
For many families including the Buschkoetters, farm crisis hotlines, rural food
pantries, ag debt mediation services, legal and financial assistance clinics,
free counseling programs, and church programs such as Marriage Encounter have
offered a lifeline. Farmers who had learned how to restructure the debt load on
their own farms became valuable resources for struggling neighbors; farm credit
experts emerged from kitchen table hotlines to help create community service
organizations. Farm and rural advocacy groups have sprung up, with
"tractorcades," lawsuits, and other community organizing helping to bring about
credit legislation to stem the tide of farm foreclosures and bankruptcies.
However, some of the financing options available in 1995 to the Buschkoetters
were rolled back in 1996 through the Federal Agricultural Improvement Act
(FAIR), so advocacy continues.
For every farmer under the age of 35, there are two farmers over the age of
Two thirds of farmers work jobs off the farm just to make ends meet.
Farmers are twice as likely to live in poverty as members of the general
Today the Buschkoetters' dream is still intact. Darrel and Juanita agreed to
allow their story to be told in "The Farmer's Wife" because they believe it
holds valuable lessons for other families struggling to hold onto their farms.
They hope that by sharing their experiences, people isolated from support and
critical information will realize that they are not alone--that there are
resources and support systems available to them. They also hope American
viewers will share their concern about the future of the family farm in this
"A Time to Act, A Report of the USDA National Commission on Small Farms" (U.S.
Dept. of Agriculture, 1998)
"A Time to Choose, Summary Report on the Structure of Agriculture"
(U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1981)
"Born in the Country: A History of Rural America" by David B. Danbom (Johns
Hopkins Univ., 1995)
"Broken Heartland: The Rise of America's Rural Ghetto" by Osha Grey Davidson
(Iowa State Univ., 1996)
"Caretakers of Creation: Farmers' Reflections on Their Faith and Work" by
Patrick Slattery (Augsburg, 1991)
"Family Farming: A New Economic Vision" by Marty Strange
(Inst. for Food & Development Policy, 1988)
"Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer" by Richard Rhodes
(Simon & Schuster, 1989)
"Farming is in Our Blood: Farm Families in Economic Crisis" by Paul C.
Rosenblatt (Iowa State Univ., 1990)
"Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City is Only the Beginning" by Joel Dyer
"Lone Tree: A True Story of Murder in America's Heartland" by Bruce Brown
"Prairie Patrimony: Farming, Family and Community in the Midwest" by Sonya
Solamon (Univ. of North Carolina, 1992)
"The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture" by Wendell Berry (Sierra
"The Burning Barrel," documenting the rise and fall of a small rural community
and the personal costs of consumerism. New Day Films, (201) 652-6590.
"My Father's Garden," about the use and misuse of technology on the American
farm, focusing on organic farmer Fred Kirschenmann. Bullfrog Films, (800)
"Troublesome Creek" A Midwestern, an Iowa farm family's struggle to stave off
foreclosure. PBS Video, (800) 828-4727.
(202) 720-2908 www.4-h.org
4-H provides local educational clubs to prepare and support rural youth for
careers, builds awareness and develops leadership for the food, fiber and
Children's Defense Fund/Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
(202) 662-3653 www.childrensdefense.org
CDF educates the nation about the needs of children; CDF provides referrals for
the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), serving uninsured children in
low-wage, working families.
Coalition of Agriculture Mediation Programs (402) 471-2341
CAMP provides a presence and voice for the use of mediation in rural disputes.
(617) 354-2922 or (800) FARM AID
Established in 1985 by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Farm Aid
has granted over $14 million to more than 100 farm organizations, churches and
agencies in 44 states, helping thousands of struggling farm families to stay on
Farmers' Legal Action Group
(612) 223-5400 www.flaginc.org
A nonprofit law center dedicated to keeping family farmers on the land, FLAG
provides legal services to financially distressed farmers and their advocates
and attorneys nationwide.
(317) 802-6060 www.ffa.org
FFA is dedicated to promoting the intelligent choice and establishment of an
agricultural career; developing competent and assertive agricultural
leadership; and encouraging wise management of economic, environmental and
human resources of the community.
National Catholic Rural Life Conference
As an educator in the faith, the NCRLC seeks to relate religion to the rural
world; develops support services for rural pastoral ministers, serves as a
prophetic voice and as a catalyst and convener for social change.
National Family Farm Coalition
(202) 543-5675 www.nffc.net
Comprising farm, resource conservation and rural advocacy groups from 33
states, NFFC organizes national projects focused on preserving and
strengthening family farms. NFFC's Credit Task Force works with family farmers
to gain access to USDA programs and to promote fairer credit policies at the
National Farmers Union
(303) 337-5500 or (800) 347-1961 www.nfu.org
With a membership of 300,000 representing every state and every commodity and
type of agricultural production, NFU's activities include educational programs,
legislative activities, and providing know-how for the formation and
furtherance of member-owned and -operated cooperatives.
Women Involved in Farm Economics
A women's agricultural organization, WIFE works to promote economic prosperity
in agriculture, raise the standard of living in rural America, and preserve the
family farm through educational, legislative, communicative and cooperative
USDA Economic Research Service
 "A Time to Act, A Report of the USDA
National Commission on Small Farms" (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1998)
Prudential Securities as cited by A.V. Krebs,
PrairieFire Rural Action, "US Corporate Agriculture Facts," February 1995
"Feedstuffs," Annual Reference Issue, 1996
 USDA Economic Research Service "Agricultural
Outlook," March 1995
 "A Time to Choose, Summary Report on the
Structure of Agriculture" (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1981)
"A Time to Act" p. 13
 "Farm Numbers and Land in Farms" USDA
National Agricultural Statistics Service, 1994
 USDA Economic Research Service 1995
 USDA Economic Research Service