The Farmer’s Wife: Family farms face challenges

The Farmer's Wife: Family farms face challenges Farm audiences will immediately identify with the subject of a new FRONTLINE and Independent Television Service documentary, The Farmer's Wife, a 6 1/2-hour series telling the story of a young farm couple.

Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter of Lawrence, NE, are struggling to overcome the challenges of today's increasingly competitive agricultural economy.

The series will air on FRONTLINE Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 21, 22, and 23 at 9 p.m. CT/8MT on South Dakota Public Television.

Viewers will watch Juanita and her family grapple with the challenges of working their farm out of debt, restructuring finances, taking off-farm jobs and all the while raising three small girls and maintaining a healthy marriage. Over the course of the film, they see Juanita grow and struggle with new challenges as she shoulders more and more of the responsibility for saving the family farm.

As farm and ranch families across South Dakota are forced to struggle with everything from flooded farmlands to plummeting prices for bumper crops, they will find that the issues covered by The Farmer's Wife are even more relevant.

Their farm dream was alive and well when Darrel and Juanita, ages 25 and 18, walked down the aisle in the summer of 1985. They expected a prosperous future with crops, animals and children. But the dream crashed into reality during one of the worst agricultural crises since the 1930s.

Nationwide, some 14 percent — 315,000 — of farms went out of business between 1982 and 1992, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. In Nebraska 7,320 farms withered. The Buschkoetters almost made it 7,321.

The percentages vary for other states, but one factor remains the same — the number of farms is shrinking. In some cases, shrinking fast.

* South Dakota down 3,091, 8.3 percent;

* Illinois down 20,873, a whopping 21 percent;

* California down 4,794, 5.8 percent;

* Texas down 4,376, 2.36 percent;

* Maine down 1,227, 17.5 percent;

* Oregon down 2,195, 6.4 percent.

"Today, we have 300,000 fewer farmers than in 1979, and farmers are receiving 13 percent less for every consumer dollar," says a USDA National Commission on Small Farms report released just this year. "Four firms now control over 80 percent of the beef market. About 94 percent of the Nation's farms are small farms, but they receive only 41 percent of all farm receipts."

The crisis is not over. The commission found:

* 25 percent of all farmers are 65 years of age and older.

* The average farmer was 53.3 years old in 1992, compared to 50.3 in 1978.

* The percentage of farmers under age 25 was cut in half between 1982 and 1992.

* Between 1992 and 2002, a half million farmers will retire — approximately one-fourth.

Young farmers find it hard to get into the business. The average farm size in the United States is about 500 acres, according to USDA figures. Prime land can sell for $1,000 or more an acre. That doesn't include machinery (some new tractors cost as much as $150,000 and combines can go for a quarter of a million dollars), seed fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, etc.

Today, the Buschkoetters' dream, though a little battered, is still intact. The Buschkoetters agreed to allow their story to be told in The Farmer's Wife because they believe it holds valuable lessons for other families struggling to hold onto their farms. They hope that by sharing their experiences, people isolated from support and critical information will realize that they are not alone that there are resources and support systems available to them. They also hope American viewers will share their concern about the future of the family farm in this country.

Independent filmmaker David Sutherland filmed the Buschkoetters for hundreds of hours over the course of three tumultuous years. What emerges is a portrait of a remarkable and unforgettable American woman whose vision, perseverance, faith and determination saves her family from ruin and keeps the family farm alive.

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