For subjects, documentary is “strong form of family therapy”

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Various people tried to prepare Juanita Buschkoetter for the public reaction to The Farmer’s Wife, filmmaker David Sutherland’s cinema verite depiction of the real-life struggle to keep her husband’s farm and their marriage afloat, but the reponse to the show’s debut this fall was far beyond her expectations.

“I had no idea how many people would actually watch it,” she said in a recent interview–let alone the folks who would go far out of their way to drive by the Buschkoetter house, or send the family generous gifts.

Putting “a face on the statistics” of struggling farm families, Juanita Buschkoetter testifies at a Sept. 15 congressional hearing on the farm crisis. (Photo: Jody Ryan.)

“Since the film, people come by to take pictures, pull in and talk,” Buschkoetter added. It’s gotten so she doesn’t want to leave her three daughters at home alone anymore. Since the eldest is now 12, she previously had found it safe to do so.

Independent filmmaker David Sutherland documented three years in the lives of young Darrel and Juanita Buschkoetter, whose commitment to the endangered family farming way-of-life survived economic hardships, family struggles, and marital problems.

When Sutherland enlisted the Buschkoetters as the subjects of the documentary, he said his goal was to “put a face on statistics” about the insolvency of many family farms, Juanita recalled. “I have to believe that we did that, because of the reaction.”

PBS estimated that up to 15 million viewers tuned into some portion of the six-and-a-half-hour Frontline mini-series during its Sept. 21-23 PBS debut. E-mail messages–more than 11,000 of which made the official count–indicated that channel-surfers had been drawn to the program’s evocative landscapes and imagery. Frontline‘s companion web site registered 800,000 page views.

Callers from all over the U.S. and Canada contacted the Buschkoetters by phone, and the postman delivered mail responses to their home by the tubful. A man from Southern California sent boxes of food, and a woman from Connecticut gave Juanita a handmade quilt. Juanita also received four offers to fix her teeth, and–courtesy of a jewelry store–a pearl ring to replace the one she lost from her courtship days with Darrel.

Although Juanita had been worried about her in-laws’ reaction to The Farmer’s Wife, the film turned out to be “a strong form of family therapy,” she said. “Darrel and his dad are actually closer now because of it.” During the film, LeRoy came off as a gruff and demanding father, unable or unwilling to praise his hardworking son.

“Some of my family felt they were portrayed more harshly,” Buschkoetter acknowledged. Although her relatives weren’t supportive of the couple’s commitment to remain on the farm–a point raised repeatedly in the documentary–they have been “supportive of me in other ways.”

As for the townspeople of Lawrence, Neb.–the Buschkoetter’s friends, neighbors, and creditors–they turned out to be “a lot more supportive than we expected,” Juanita reported.

“Some people realize that they have something in common with you, and they open up,” she added. The Buschkoetters actually have “more and better friends now because of all this,” Juanita especially.

This year’s crop on the Buschkoetter farm was bountiful, producing two years’ worth of yield. But because grain prices are “ridiculously low,” the Buschkoetters remain uncertain about their future on the farm. “We have enough to get through the year, but the problem is cash flow for next year,” Juanita explained. “Some banks have already told farmers that they would not be financing them.”

The good news is that Juanita just received a raise and promotion at her job with a crop insurance company. She had been thinking about cutting back her hours, but quickly changed her mind. “After scratching by for so long, when I was offered this promotion, I said, ‘Yes!’”

“Not to say that money is everything, but when you’ve gone without the bare necessities, it means something.”

EARLIER STORIES

Frontline’s first happy ending, ever,” Current, Sept. 14, 1998

Jennifer Fox’s long-haul profile of a mixed-race couple, now scheduled for air in fall 1999, Current, Dec. 12, 1994

RELATED LINK

The Farmer’s Wife page on Frontline’s website

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