the farmer's wife

Frequently Asked Questions

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.[1] Economists expect the loss of family farms to accelerate in the next decade.[2] 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[3]--in other words, family farmers just like Darrel and Juanita Buschkoetter.

Farmers raise food; why would any farmer have to resort to using food stamps?

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 farm?

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.[4] 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 conservation techniques.[5]

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 choice.

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."

[1] "U.S. Farm Ownership Drops," St. Paul Pioneer Press, 11/10/94

[2] Fred Gale, "Farm Numbers Continue to Drop," Agricultural Outlook, Jan/Feb 1995

[3] 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)

[4] Northwest Area Foundation, "A Better Row To Hoe: The Economic, Environmental and Social Impact of Sustainable Agriculture" pp. 10, 20-24 (1994)

[5] Paul B. Thompson, "The Varieties of Sustainability," Agric. & Human Values vol. 11 (1992); National Research Council, Alternative Agriculture (1989)


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
with the Independent Television Service (ITVS).

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