the farmer's wife

Viewers' Guide: About the Program

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; although

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 each other.

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 implements.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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."[3] In addition, four companies control 85% of the cereal market,[4] four companies control 45% of the poultry industry,[5] and 2% of producers now account for 37% of all hog production.[6]

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 years."[7]

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."[8] 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.[9]

For every farmer under the age of 35, there are two farmers over the age of 65.[10]

Two thirds of farmers work jobs off the farm just to make ends meet.[11]

Farmers are twice as likely to live in poverty as members of the general population.[12]

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.

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 country.

Publications

"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 (Westview, 1997)

"Lone Tree: A True Story of Murder in America's Heartland" by Bruce Brown (Crown, 1989)

"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 Club, 1996)

Films/Videos

"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) 543-FROG.

"Troublesome Creek" A Midwestern, an Iowa farm family's struggle to stave off foreclosure. PBS Video, (800) 828-4727.

Organizations

4-H    (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 natural resource systems.

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.

Farm Aid   

(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 service agencies in 44 states, helping thousands of struggling farm families to stay on the land.

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.

FFA   

(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

(515) 270-2634

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 federal level.

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   

(505) 548-2705

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 efforts.

[1]USDA Economic Research Service

[2] "A Time to Act, A Report of the USDA National Commission on Small Farms" (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1998)

[3] Ibid.

[4]Prudential Securities as cited by A.V. Krebs, PrairieFire Rural Action, "US Corporate Agriculture Facts," February 1995

[5]"Feedstuffs," Annual Reference Issue, 1996

[6] USDA Economic Research Service "Agricultural Outlook," March 1995

[7] "A Time to Choose, Summary Report on the Structure of Agriculture" (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1981)

[8]"A Time to Act" p. 13

[9] "Farm Numbers and Land in Farms" USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, 1994

[10] USDA Economic Research Service 1995

[11] USDA Economic Research Service

[12] Ibid.

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This guide was created for use with the program "The Farmer's Wife," a
co-production of David Sutherland Productions,Inc. and FRONTLINE in association
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