Personal finance on film: The Farmer’s Wife

“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:

  • The official PBS Frontline site includes viewer reaction (and some responses from the Buschkoetters) and discussion guides (including a FAQ that explains why they don't have a garden). You can also watch the first 53 minutes of the film at their site. Finally, there's a fine essay about The Farmer's Wife from author Kathleen Norris (whose Dakota: A Spiritual Biography is a fine book in the same pastoral vein).
  • The site of producer and director David Sutherland includes a detailed synopsis of the program and a photo gallery.
  • An excellent review of The Farmer's Wife from Current.
  • The Farm Aid blog is unrelated to the film, but interesting nonetheless.

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

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MVP
MVP
13 years ago

I was so surprised you profiled this film, I had to write. I fell in love with it in college (when it ran on PBS), but for other reasons: I’m a photojournalist. It’s great to see it profiled from a personal finance perspective. I’m pretty sure much of the country and world live this way. It’s so touching to watch how these folks manage to keep their family and home together despite their huge money problems.

Rich Schmidt
Rich Schmidt
13 years ago

It’s heart-breaking to read your summary and then go to the Frontline website, where under “Update on the Buschkoetters” I read the following:


January 2006

Darrel and Juanita divorced and each has since remarried and are happy in their new lives. The girls see both parents often and the two oldest girls are in college. Juanita is managing crop insurance and Darrel still has the farm going.

I’m glad they’re happy, but as I was reading that the film is mainly about their struggle to keep their marriage together, I was rooting for them inside…

Aimee
Aimee
13 years ago

Such an interesting story, people so often forget that farming is hard work. Actually, it seems that people forget that even those in poverty usually are very hard working… we tend to lump them together with those who are taking advantage of the system.

Have you read the book Nickled and Dimed? It’s not about farming, but just about trying to make it on min. wage. It’s another good perspective.

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Have you read the book Nickled and Dimed? It’s not about farming, but just about trying to make it on min. wage.

I have, but I must confess that I don’t like it. At all. I think that the author goes into the experiment biased and does everything in her power to sabotage herself.

Dave
Dave
13 years ago

Yeah, managing a farm is such incredible hard work that people who can pull it off can pretty much pull off ANYTHING in life –Don Aslett wrote a book entitled “Everything I Needed to Know about Business I Learned in the Barnyard!” Aslett runs a multi-million dollar, multi-state cleaning company as well as several other businesses but remarked about he didn’t really understand a lot of business books, and was simply using the principles he’d learned during his 16-hour workdays growing up on a farm in Idaho.

Wesley
Wesley
13 years ago

Great post! It’s tough to hear about people in this type of situation, but you’ve got a point. It’s quite easy to buy laying hens and a rooster, and it’s even easier to raise rabbits to supplement food needs.

Hearing this story makes me feel like these folks are fighting themselves. Heck, you can make $10 an hour as an assistant manager at several fast food chains…why work at something you hate for $7 !?!?

An excellent post JD. Thanks for sharing.

Michael
Michael
13 years ago

The older I’ve gotten, the more compassion I have for those less fortunate souls. HOWEVER, I second the previous commenter when I say that these people seemed to be sabotaging their own situation. Keeping the farm because it was the husband’s “dream”, even while its taking the family down with it, is such a nebulous, selfish,pie-in-the-sky justification for jeapordizing the well-being of your family. When you have kids, you’re accepting the responsibility of taking care of them AS BEST YOU CAN. Your dream of owning a farm,or starting a business,or being a video game designer, or whatever it may be,… Read more »

Steve Olson
Steve Olson
13 years ago

This post hit home…

I think I’m going to buy the video or get it from Netflix.

My dad – the oldest of 5 – grew up on farm during the great depression, and he talks about not having shoes, no running water and an outhouse, and his mother giving birth at home with his father delivering.

Thanks for the fantastic review…

icup
icup
13 years ago

this is going to sound a little harsh, but if they can’t make a living farming, maybe they should try something else? I mean, I would really love to travel the world righting wrongs as my job like Kain from Kung-Fu, but I know I can’t make a living doing that, so I work a 9-5. It would be nice if we could all do exactly what we loved to do, but sometimes its just not feasible. That is not meant to diminish/oversimplify their struggle in any way, and I’m glad they are/were able to work doing what they love… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Spoiler Alert:

I didn’t include this in the above review because I didn’t want to spoil anything for people who might watch this film. However, from the comments it’s clear that I should mention: In the end, the Buschkoetters are able to save the farm. They elements cooperate with them, and they get a great growing season and some bumper crops. They’re able to pay off their debts. They’re not flush by any means, but they’re no longer downtrodden either. The film ends on a note of hope, as the couple works together to paint their dilapidated house.

April D
April D
13 years ago

Sounds like an interesting film. If you are looking for another one to review, you might want to check out Maxed Out if you haven’t already seen it. I think it’s out on DVD June 5th, but here’s the synopsis from the Web site (maxedoutmovie.com): Maxed Out takes viewers on a journey deep inside the American style of debt, where things seem fine as long as the minimum monthly payment arrives on time. With coverage that spans from small American towns all the way to the White House, the film shows how the modern financial industry really works, explains the… Read more »

Kristina
Kristina
13 years ago

While I sympathize with the couple, I have a few issues: They write-up makes it sound like they went through 4 years of drought before the parents got non-farming jobs. That’s just incredibly head-in-the-sand and grossly financially irresponsible. You do what it takes to support your family. Period. They should have both had jobs from a week after their first inclination that farming might not work out in a given year. And they should keep those jobs while trying to get the farming successful over the next 4 years of drought. Yes, farmers work hard and I’d love to redirect… Read more »

Roger
Roger
13 years ago

I lose a lot of sympathy when people have big families and cannot afford them. They have THREE kids and want more? And yet they can’t even keep their current household together? There’s a lot of good in this film but there are also a lot of ways to learn from the couple’s mistakes.

Kristina, farm subsidies are the biggest social program of all, and yet I bet the vast majority of farmers consider themselves conservative.

Julie
Julie
13 years ago

These very harsh comments sadden me. It is so very easy to judge other people’s choices. Stop for a moment and ponder what others might say about YOU if you laid yourself vulnerable for three years?

None of us are perfect. We make choices. Some right, some self-defeating. But in the end, we are all just trying to make it through the day with as much happiness as we can with the physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and intellectual resources that we have.

Throw stones at your own house, please.

Some Farmer's Daughter
Some Farmer's Daughter
13 years ago

As always, I find it incredibly irritating to see non-farmers comment on how someone should “get out of the farming business” if they can’t make it. First, you don’t understand the forces — governmental, societal — that make it nearly impossible for small farmers to survive.

Second, you don’t know what being a farmer is. Farmers belong to the soil. Farmers live the land. There is no other life for them. You will, quite simply, never understand.

Some Farmer's Daughter
Some Farmer's Daughter
13 years ago

Adding on to my earlier comment…to those of you complaining about those people having a “beer or soda” on a poverty budget…your comments are bordering on mean-spirited-ness. People like that farming family are barely holding it together emotionally. Are you going to deprive them of an occasional cheap beer or soda? Please have a tiny bit of compassion on a situation you just don’t understand. Those type of comments are particularly hitting me hard right now because I’m raising my own children on food-bank food right now. There are days that I don’t think I can go on emotionally…surely that… Read more »

icup
icup
13 years ago

“Second, you don’t know what being a farmer is. Farmers belong to the soil. Farmers live the land. There is no other life for them. You will, quite simply, never understand.” If a business isn’t profitable, the businessman has to get a different business, or sometimes a completely different job. Why should farming be any different? because the farmer really likes farming? I agree it *would be nice* if that was how reality worked, but we don’t always get to do what we want. That being said, I think its amazing that these people finally did pull it together, and… Read more »

Blair
Blair
13 years ago

Thanks for this review. My wife, who blogs about food and food/agricultural policy at cleanerplateclub.wordpress.com, loved this film, but I wasn’t able to see it with her and now I wish that I had because apparently the film has more in common with my interests than I realized.

David
David
13 years ago

Your article was enlightening. It allows those who know nothing about the struggles of the poor to catch a glimpse into the causes and effects of poverty. Perhaps this same compassion and enlightenment can trickle down into the immigration debate. Perhaps people can begin to see how Americans aren’t the only ones who make great sacrifices for their families. Thank you, your article is wonderful.

Rita
Rita
13 years ago

If they want kids, that’s their right, especially if they are loving parents. They work hard and that’s what real Americans and people around the world do. This couple is amazing and their kids are learning about working hard, which is so much more important, I think, than having parents who can afford to get them the latest Mercedes or throw a ridiculous Super Sweet Sixteen party. My parents worked so hard and thank God I knew it and continue to know it. I could not appreciate life and have a strong work ethic if I had not seen it… Read more »

EJ
EJ
13 years ago

Farmer’s don’t have a vegetable garden? That’s hard to believe. It must just be edited out. I live in the city and I have a vegetable garden. It’s the best tasting food you will ever eat, not to mention the cheapest (seeds are insanely cheap).

Four years of drought doesn’t help the vegetable garden, though. Some hardy plants with low water requirements would make it, but the stuff you usually plant in a garden like that wouldn’t have returned very much food.

I’m glad they made it through the drought, though.

Dairy farmer's daughter
Dairy farmer's daughter
13 years ago

Some people have asked the basic question – After the drought and hard times, why not give up on farming and find another job? I can understand why someone who knows nothing about farming would ask this question. Others have definitely correctly stated that farming is somewhat of a calling and is in some people’s blood and that is certainly true. However I think it is also important for people to know that many successful farmers have gone through tough times so the fact that a year or two or five might be hard does not indicate that a farm… Read more »

Maggie
Maggie
12 years ago

I saw a later movie directed by the same filmmaker, David Sutherland, and loved it. “Country Boys” is the story of two young men growing up in rural Appalachia and dealing with poverty. They came from extremely poor rather dysfunctional families and were trying to figure out how to become successful. It was heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. I highly recommend it.

andrea
andrea
12 years ago

“If a business isn’t profitable, the businessman has to get a different business, or sometimes a completely different job. Why should farming be any different? because the farmer really likes farming? I agree it *would be nice* if that was how reality worked, but we don’t always get to do what we want.” Sounds like such a simple solution, doesn’t it? And just how do you propose family farmers get out? Move to the city? And buy a home with what money? Get a job with what education/skills? Who should they sell their land to? Nobody is buying. Farming is… Read more »

teresa
teresa
12 years ago

Does anyone, anywhere know what happened to this family? I know they divorced, but what then? Please let me know! ~ thanks teresa

Waitingforchickens
Waitingforchickens
12 years ago

If a business is not profitable, make it so or get out. Easy? No, but neither is being broke. We once tried farming and good grief it is hard work. But it did not take long for us to realize it was not for us. So my husband and I, we know what sort of work is involved. And I can say these people really seem to be working against themselves. Don’t have time to weed the garden? What are the kids doing? Our three year old worked in the vegetable garden with us. Canning is hard work, sweaty and… Read more »

Tangurena
Tangurena
10 years ago

> Does anyone, anywhere know what happened to this family?

They separated in 2000, and later divorced.

> Where is the couple’s vegetable garden? Do they not have laying hens?

I’m watching it right now and that is something that I noticed too – that they didn’t have their own garden to grow their own vegetables.

Ruth
Ruth
10 years ago

I loved this documentary — thank you for sharing it with GRS readers. Even though the documentary focused on the couple’s relationship, it was incredible to see at least some of what is involved for people trying to make it as farmers in the US. I just discovered and would like to suggest the writings of Wendell Berry to anyone interested in understanding more about farming in the US. In particular, essays in a volume called Home Economics, c1987. Berry defines some of the societal and governmental challenges that family farms face and situates small holder farming in the broader… Read more »

Helen
Helen
7 years ago

Just re-watched ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ which touched me deeply when I first saw it on PBS. This time, however, I felt somewhat manipulated. Clearly it was all staged. I don’t mean the weather and crop disasters. I mean most of the interpersonal stuff.

Be that as it may, chickens and rabbits have to eat, a vegetable garden takes time and money, and does not always produce! Canning also takes time and money. When you’re really up against it as many of us have been, time and money are rare commodities!

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