“It makes me feel so greedy and selfish to see these people struggling, almost losing it all, over a $100 debt, and I go out and spend $100 on yarn.” — Kris, while watching The Farmer’s Wife last weekend

Since starting Get Rich Slowly, I’ve been searching for movies and television shows that highlight the financial struggles of real Americans, shows about personal finance “in the wild”. The first one that I can recommend without reservation is The Farmer’s Wife, a PBS Frontline documentary from 1998.

The film follows a couple from rural Nebraska for three years (1995-1997) as they struggle to save their farm from bankruptcy. Darrel Buschkoetter was raised a farmer; he never wanted to be anything else. Juanita grew up in town, but when she married Darrel, she became a farmer’s wife. The Buschkoetters have three young daughters. They want more children, but they can barely afford the ones they have.

I had hoped to post some film clips here, but PBS denied permission. Instead, I’ve transcribed three important passages.

Juanita walks through the stubble of the previous year’s crop on a cold late winter morning, the hood of her jacket pulled over her head, her hands tucked up into the sleeves. Cows graze lazily nearby. She speaks on voiceover.

“Mornings like this morning when you walk outside, it just kinda sweeps over you again, what you’re wanting. When we first moved onto this farm, Darrel and I were really optimistic. We were going to farm and probably take over his dad’s operation. I would be the housewife staying home with the kids.

“Then we experienced four years of drought. We didn’t raise anything. And the bank sent us a letter saying they were ready to liquidate our operation. Darrel went to work full time off the farm. And so from then on, I took it upon myself to start handling the financial matters. Now we have our three girls praying every night that dad raises crops.

[...]

“I don’t think anyone looking at us would be able to guess how tight money is for us. For a family of five right now, earning six bucks an hour just isn’t cutting it. We well fit into the poverty level, and we have a microwave and a TV. The bottom half of the TV is blue. It’s fifteen years old, and you know it’s not worth anything — you’d have to pay somebody to haul it away for us. My microwave was given to me, and my $50 washing machine we bought used and all of our clothes come from garage sales and Goodwill.”

Darrel and Juanita work hard. They dream of making their living from the farm, but the land and the elements conspire against them. They’re bleeding money. Darrel takes a job “pushing steel” at a local manufacturing facility. In the evening and on weekends, he tends the farm. Juanita cleans the homes of wealthier townsfolk. She also takes classes at a local community college, runs the house, and helps on the farm.

Poverty puts a strain on the couple’s marriage, but they persevere. When she no longer has money in the budget for groceries, Juanita seeks relief via food stamps. It tears her up inside, but she sees no other way to feed her children.

Darrel and Juanita are walking through waist-high corn, using machetes to cut down tall canes. It’s hot and muggy. It has rained recently. Their clothes are damp from rubbing against the corn.

Juanita: Only three days at T&L this week? [T&L is the shop where Darrel works for $7/hour]
Darrel: Thank God. That’s long enough. That’d be like ten days out here.
Juanita: Watch the sun come out those three days.
Darrel: I know it. That’s the trouble trying to work in town and trying to farm. Take two days off and it rains, then you go to work and it’s nice. I’ll only be another month behind. Some damn thing all the time.
Juanita: There’s one straight east of you. A cane.
Darrel: I think everybody that farms should have a job in town for one month every summer just to find out what it’s like to be behind. You know it? They could understand it a little bit.
Juanita: I know, but just think of your girls. It’s only temporary anyway.
Darrel: I hope so.

Juanita drives to town in their beat-up, trouble-prone car. She speaks on voiceover as we follow her to the grocery store. She’s holding a Mountain Dew in one hand and steering with the other.

“The month of June and July, Darrel wasn’t working at all. Planting was taking forever, and he wasn’t working off the farm. FHA wasn’t letting us have any farm money to live on. And when I clean two, two-and-a-half days a week, that tells you that by the time we pay any bills, you have maybe $20 for groceries. For the month. If you call that desperate, yeah I’d say it’s desperate.

“I know he hated even mentioning it — it took a while for me to even be able to talk him into letting me do it — but I went and applied for food stamps. We’re only eligible for food stamps for a couple of months anyway. And Darrel even hated me doing it. But yeah, after we got on them, he was happy he had food to eat.

“I got so mad at him because I had to be the one to go get groceries and use the food stamps, and I thought if he had to do it just one time, he’d get his butt back to work even if it meant working day and night. I never want to do it again. And I rightfully don’t feel we deserve to have the food stamps, you know? Because why should somebody else pay for our groceries because of some of the mistakes we made in farming, but what else do you do? When you have three kids to feed, you have to feed them somehow.

[...]

“It’s so hard for me to see that times will ever get better. I can’t ever imagine having money again to have the groceries that you want. I can’t even imagine it. As soon as I get done with school, I’m going to go get a decent job. I hate to [give up farming] — I never ever want to be in this situation again with money.”

Darrel and Juanita’s finances are complicated. They lease land for their farming operation. They’ve borrowed money from various people in town. They’ve been given an FHA farm loan, and are on some sort of supervised plan for repaying all their debt. Their troubled accounts cloud everything they do. Among other things:

  • They’re losing money on their hog operation and have to sell it.
  • They owe money all over town, but they cannot afford to pay. Every year they go around to ask for more time to pay their debts.
  • Much of what they own is beaten-up or broken-down. The harsh climate has peeled the paint from the side of the house. Their car is a lemon. The dryer breaks. The farm pickup needs constant maintenance.
  • They’re keeping all their records on paper, which is a headache. They switch over to Quicken and it makes things easier.

Watching the Buschkoetters struggle with money reminded me of my own childhood. Though the details are not the same, the broad brushstrokes are almost identical.

This was what life was like when I was a kid. These were my parents. My brothers and I were the three kids raised in the country. Our beat-up mobile home was about the size of the Buschkoetter’s house. When Dad had work, he sold staples and other industrial supplies, but he tried farming, too. I have vivid memories of riding with him in the combine as he harvested 40 acres of wheat. I remember driving the wheat to a nearby town to sell it. I remember what it was like to be poor (though I didn’t know we were poor at the time).

Mom and Dad did their best to get by, just as the Buschkoetters do. Looking back, I wonder about some of my parents’ decisions, just as I wonder about some of Darrel and Juanita’s. Where is the couple’s vegetable garden? Do they not have laying hens? We never see either, yet it’s hard to believe that a struggling family on a farm would not supplement their food somehow. It’s also easy to level judgment at the Buschkoetters for not being able to afford a $40 doctor’s visit when they’re drinking soda and beer.

One wonders if they might not make a better go of it by simply giving up and selling the farm. But the farm is Darrel’s dream. It’s his heart and soul. He puts everything he has into it. So the family gets by the best they can, paying creditors a little every year, pushing to make the farm profitable. Meanwhile, Juanita scrimps and saves.

I don’t agree with everything the Buschkoetters do, but I cannot fault them for their choices. They work hard. They try hard. At times it’s heart-breaking:

Juanita is out of town for a bridal shower. The girls are staying with Darrel’s parents while he works long hours on the farm. The sun sets. Darkness falls. Darrel comes home, carrying his middle daughter, Abby. He puts her to bed, washes the grime from his hands, grabs a beer from the fridge, and then turns on the television.

We hear the sound before we see the picture — it takes several seconds for the image to appear, and when it does, there’s a blue hue across the bottom of the screen. It’s late, so there’s nothing on but infomercials. Robin Leach (of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”) is pitching a “work from home” scheme.

Leach: …but, you know, through capital investment systems and, what, you’re making $10,000 a month?
Man: (nodding) Mm-hmm.
Leach: There must have been skeptics at first, how did you…
Man: Most people lose sight of the fact that the easiest way to make money is to work for yourself. And it’s easy to do. You just have to take the first step. That’s get to a workshop, find out if it’s right for you, and get started.

As Darrel watches, the viewer sees the weight of his worries on his face. We empathize with him. We know how hard he works for himself, and he’s not making any sort of riches.

Chipper spokeswoman: Stay tuned for more important news about great home business opportunities that can build your financial independence. After this short break.
Leach: (with enthusiasm) Are your bills piling up faster than the money you make? What would you do with 3,000, 5,000, even 10,000 extra dollars every month? That’s what your very own home-based business can do for you in your spare time, in the comfort of your own home. Get your share of the safe, simple, and exciting billion-dollar home-business phenomenon! There is absolutely no obligation to buy anything, and no costly 900 numbers…

Fade to black.

The Farmer’s Wife isn’t for everyone. It’s over six hours long. How the Bushkoetters cope with money is an important theme, but the film is mostly about their struggle to keep their marriage together.

Much of the show just features scenes from everyday life: carving pumpkins for Halloween, worshiping at church, building a fence, harvesting crops, arguing about money. But that’s what personal finance is all about: how we deal with day-to-day life. This is real reality television. I’m grateful that Darrel and Juanita agreed to let themselves be filmed for three years. They did it to bring attention to the plight of the American family farmer. It worked.

This is a great film.

For more information on The Farmer’s Wife, check out:

Available via Netflix. Surely your public library has a copy.