the farmer's wife

Kathleen Norris on The Farmer's Wife

"The Farmer's Wife" is about a hidden America, one that I know well, having lived for the past twenty-five years in South Dakota. But in an increasingly urbanized society, rural people have become increasingly invisible. Rancher friends have told me that a niece who was raised in the urban East, and had traveled widely in Europe, once commented that western South Dakota was the most foreign place she had ever been. It is a relief for me to see a television show depicting people like the ones I live among, for whom religious faith is a bulwark in hard times, and whose love for the land often means that they must struggle to keep their small family farms afloat. This film also demonstrates how it is that farm families learn to cope with tensions that are all too familiar to many Americans: how to help a marriage survive when it's stressed to the breaking point by financial pressures and overwork, how to deal with aging parents and in-laws over the touchy details of inheritance.

Why is it that people can make (or lose) great fortunes trading in the commodities markets, but the farmers who plant and harvest those commodities can seldom receive a price that exceeds their cost of production? The American media generally pays attention to America's heartland only when there is a "newsworthy" crisis, such as the stand-off in Montana between FBI agents and self-styled Freemen. What was not adequately covered in the nation's news was the long buildup to that crisis, a lengthy drought coupled with a severe economic downturn that began to hit farm country in the early 1980's and caused many rural countries to lose 20-30 percent of their population by the end of the decade. Most who left were farmers and ranchers forced off the land. And what the media missed entirely, what perhaps only a rural denizen could have understood, was that the Freeman debacle had begun with classic intergenerational tensions over a family ranch, not unlike those felt by Darrel Buschkoetter and his wife Juanita as they arranged to take over the land that his father had farmed for many years. In Montana, unfortunately, the family tensions were fueled by an injection of the radical ideology of tax protesting, with tragic results. In Nebraska, the Buschkoetters, as documented by this remarkable film, are managing to work things out amongst themselves.

To me, this film is true "reality television," in that it makes visible the realities of rural life, slaughtering in the process any romantic notion of farms and small towns as placid, idyllic places. And even the most urban of viewers might begin to comprehend that while the landscapes of marriage and relations with one's relatives are tough for anyone to navigate, when a third generation family farm is involved, with a string of drought years wiping away most cash income, people can feel trapped, and hopelessly overburdened. I came to feel trapped, for a time, along with the Buschkoetters, as they fretted over a broken down washing machine and aging pick-up truck, an emptying pantry and an increasing debt load for animal feed, for tractor fuel, for the seed necessary to plant another crop.

There is no narrator to smooth things over, to summarize what the Buschkoetters might be feeling. At first I resented this, as it would have made things easier on me as the viewer. But as I stayed with the film, I grew increasingly grateful that the filmmakers had asked me to witness the day in, day out hardships of life on an apparently marginal dry land farm. I came to see that the farm is not marginal to the people who live there, but is worth fighting for. A line that I might have skipped over in a newspaper article, a statistic about how farmers have become increasingly dependent on off-farm income, became uncomfortably real to me as I watch Darrel Buschkoetter try to maintain both a grueling factory job and full-time farming. And I watched with burgeoning hope as Juanita Buschkoetter began to realize her potential as a farm manager, taking on the difficult task of financial planning, dealing with bankers and FMHA loan agents to see if there was any hope of the farm remaining viable. The fact that it took six months for her to receive an answer about a loan will not surprise anyone who has ever dealt with the entrenched bureaucracy of the federal agriculture programs.

My grandfather practiced medicine for fifty-five years in an isolated town in northwestern South Dakota. Whenever he would bring in a partner, usually younger physicians, my grandmother always used to say that it was the wives who would determine whether or not they would stay. Rural life asks a great deal of women, and its rewards are not always evident to outsiders. Juanita Buschkoetter's own family clearly wanted "better things" for her, and fail to comprehend why she would stay on the land, unable to enjoy the comforts that middle-class Americans take for granted: an automatic dishwasher, new clothes instead of used, an occasional candy bar for one's children. I winced at the brutality of the remark addressed to her at the local grain elevator, when a man sneered at her pregnant body, and said: "Don't you think that two children are enough?" But I also recognized it as the sort of indignity any woman on a struggling farm might encounter in the nearest market town.

One of the great strengths of this documentary is that it tells the truth about what it takes to make a marriage. When the going gets rough, the Buschkoetters are smart enough to realize that they need help, and turn to their priest and, briefly, a marriage counselor. One of the most moving revelations to unfold in the film is the way in which Darrel and Juanita also come to recognize that ultimately, the marriage is up to them. They are only two people who can make it work. And like the farm, their marriage is worth fighting for, even if it means change, even if it means discarding the old idol of "the way we've always done it," or "the way our parents did it." I was also struck by Juanita's profound observation that as bad as their financial crisis had been, it was of little significance compared to the crisis in their marriage. That's a family value I can live with, knowing that people always matter more than money.

When rural women decide to pursue an education and career training they often face terrific obstacles from the people closest to them. A mother-in-law might make pointed remarks about attempting to reach above one's proper station in life, a husband might feel so threatened as to resort to violent means of keeping her a wife at home. It is a joy to watch Juanita Buschkoetter becoming more her own person, even as she becomes more fiercely committed to her marriage and the family farm. Her graduation ceremony at a community college was for me the highlight of the film, not only because I had come to see how hard-won her accomplishment was, but because her husband and children were all so visibly proud of her.

Darrel Buschkoetter, like many farmers and ranchers, is accomplished enough as a mechanic (and/or welder, electrician, veterinarian, etc.) that he might easily trade the great gamble of farming for a better wage. The viewers of "The Farmer's Wife" owe it to Darrel, and to themselves, to ask why it is that family farmers are effectively penalized in the American economy for attempting to grow the food that we eat. Why should people as hard-working as the Buschkoetters have to turn to a charity in order to afford a $39.00 doctor visit for their youngest child? Why is it that people can make (or lose) great fortunes trading in the commodities markets, but the farmers who plant and harvest those commodities can seldom receive a price that exceeds their cost of production? Why is it that in 1998 farmers must sell their grain at 1940's prices, and bread in the store costs sixteen times more than it did fifty years ago? These questions nag at me. I hope the will nag at the viewer as well.


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