Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Film Shows Struggle Of Farm Families

September 21, 1998

This is not a good year for farmers. There is a glut of grain and protein on the market. Prices are bad. The bottom has fallen out. Many farm couples are puzzling over the decision to stay in farming. Many are trying to figure out how to get out and keep their shirt on their back. Trying times create divisions between husband and wife about their goals - whether to keep fighting or be flexible enough to start over with a new life and new lifestyle.

Public television is presenting a documentary called, "The Farmer's Wife," on September 21, 22 and 23rd. The program documents the struggle of a Nebraska farm family between 1995 and 1997 in their heroic struggle to save their farm. The program will educate the general public on the stresses of modern day farming.

The raw drama of their lives is captured in their daily journey to cope with powerful forces. Farm women will identify with Juanita Buschkoetter's dedication to her husband Darrel and her three daughters. This is a must see for a farm family in similar circumstances.

Here are some of the dilemmas captured by the film-maker David Sutherland.

- The toll of off-farm work on both Juanita and Darrel as they alternately take off-farm employment to keep their farm afloat.

- Darrel feeling obligated to do work for his father who can't quite approve of his son's talents. The film shows the delicate relationship of a father and son who can’t quite be close despite a lifetime of farming together. The relationship between the father-in-law and daughter-in-law is strained.

The film shows the process of transferring the farm from one generation to the next. Darrel’s father has his own adjustments to make. He grudging learns to respect his son and daughter-in-law, though he can't bring himself to express it.

- Juanita is forced to take a cleaning job, get food stamps for the family and eventually goes back to college to get an A.A. degree. She gets a better job that provides more income for the family. Her guilt in leaving her daughters is palpable.

The film shows her mental and physical exhaustion in dealing with and in caring for her three daughters and her struggling husband. Juanita also deals with the pressures of the farm finances, off-farm work, and keeping up with her college classes. She pitches bales and vaccinates hogs. Darrel wants her full-time on the farm but their circumstances won't allow it. She is the heroic figure - the glue that keeps everything together in spite of incessant worry and stress.

- Juanita isn’t supported by her family who feels that farming is a mistake and encourages her to leave the farm and her husband if necessary. Their attitude isolates her from family support. Juanita's mother didn't like the marriage from the start and won’t listen to Juanita's problems.

- The cars are old, the equipment breaks down, and their clothing is second-hand. They have to scrape by.

- They have tension with their lender and have to face their creditors as they work out their debts. They face pain and humiliation.

- Darrel is insecure and lacks confidence. The hard drought years have made him bitter and angry. He scapegoats his anger on to Juanita and others. He is jealous and insecure about her mixing with others at work and school and is afraid she will reject him and their farming lifestyle.

She takes a stand and Darrel chooses counseling to preserve their marriage. Juanita is flexible enough to leave farming but is patient with Darrel’s dream. She leads his fight to keep the farm. Juanita takes over the farm finances and makes the hard decisions that keeps the family and the farm together. He appreciates her strength and love. In the end he matures and becomes strong enough either to leave or to be much happier in farming.

- The endless work day of the farm family is portrayed in its grinding detail. The conflict between Darrel and Juanita over Darrel's role with the children and the home is graphically shown. Again Darrel gradually becomes a more helpful and supportive father once he is beyond the crushing stress of debt. His future in farming is more secure.

- You can feel the joy and satisfaction of a good harvest and an upturn in their fortune. They experience the small joys of family life on a farm. You can sense the wholesomeness of it all when it works well.

- You learn of their dependence on weather and how life hangs in the balance, both in terms of economics and the tasks that have to be done.

- I admired Darrel’s general know-how in fixing things. That ability to trouble shoot problems is probably the quintessential skill in farming.

This documentary is painful yet full of hope. Their triumph is heart-warming. This will be a difficult viewing experience for farm families who are in similar precarious positions. I hope that viewers can visualize a different ending - an ending where a family in a similar situation makes a successful transition out of agriculture. That story needs to be told also.