'The Price Is Right,'
While goodly numbers of Americans were recently mucking around with Bill
Clinton and Ken Starr in TV land PBS viewers that same "week that was"
were given the opportunity to eavesdrop for six and one-half hours on the
lives of Nebraska family farmers Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter's marriage
in The Farmer's Wife, a film documentary produced for the network's
Not In 'Farmer's Wife'
As a human drama and an artistic film it was superb, cinematically beautiful
with a haunting musical score. As a vehicle to inform and educate the public
regarding the true nature of this nation's "permanent agricultural
crisis," however, the series was deeply flawed and a major disappointment.
Being so seriously flawed, unfortunately, The Farmer's Wife only
added fuel to those corporate and political interests who argue that family
farming is inefficient and outdated, or as one of the film's reviewers concluded
"the film's real strength may lie in the question it raises about the
wisdom of clinging at all costs to a noble but possibly outdated tradition."
Prior to each of the three night's segments, filmed over a three-year period
(1994-1997), a narrator's voice cued the audience that the Buschkoetter's
story was not only a film about their marriage, but their battle with the
bureaucrats (FmHA) and their creditors (local merchants). Unfortunately,
that commentary was emblematic of producer/director David Sutherland's film
and how badly he missed the mark.
Except for one brief mention in the second segment by Juanita Buschkoetter
about the poor price they had received for their crop, there is barely a
mention throughout the entire film concerning the reality of the Buschkoetter's
and their neighbors economic plight and the reasons behind their having
to become so tethered to their creditors and FmHA.
One doesn't have to be a land-grant college agricultural economist to understand
that when producers fail to realize a cost-of-production price for what
they produce that are going to be eternally in debt.
For nearly a century now the inability of farmers to receive a consistently
fair and equitable return on their work and investment has left them with
basically three options: selling their land and quitting farming, borrowing
money, or seeking income from off the farm to survive economically and try
to keep the farm. Their inability to receive a fair and equitable income
on (to say nothing of simply being able to meet their production expenses)
has little to do with their efficiency and much to do with what they are
being paid for what they produce.
In 1984 former Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower, as chairman
of the Democratic National Committee's Agricultural Council, said in his
final report on eight nationwide farm policy forums on agriculture: "When
all was said and done, it came down to one word: Price. ... The overwhelming
consensus among participating farmers was that the other concerns--overproduction,
soil and water conservation, high interest rates, lack of credit, entry
by young farmers, the depressed farm service industry, and the farm program's
high cost, to name a few--could and would be solved when farmers received
a fair price for their products."
A fair price for their products. That is what is at the root of the family
farm crisis in America. How are agricultural commodity prices set and who
When the Buschkoetter's finally, after drought and economic hardships, harvest
a bountiful crop again the emphasis in the film is on the quantity of the
crop they have been blessed with and little or nothing is said about what
kind of price they got for that crop.
In short, The Farmer's Wife sadly lacked the proper economic and
political perspective that most consumers of food need to comprehend if
they are to understand the true nature of this nation's "farm problem."
It is no surprise, therefore, that in Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, and
some other places family farm groups who were part of TV and radio talk
shows barely touched on the show but focused on the current farm income
Curiously, some of the most egregious omissions in the film were fortunately
touched upon in some of the PBS's web site commentary on the film, particularly
in Juanita and Darrel's own testimonials.
"Today, more and more people look at farming as only a business; a
way to make money. In corporate farming, greed takes the place of many qualities
found in family farming." -- Darrel Buschkoetter
"We are losing literally thousands of farms a year to corporations
who look to farming as a business only. We only have to go as far as a few
miles from our farm to see the effects of corporate farming. Land had been
purchased by corporations, who brought in huge bulldozers to clear the land
of trees and shrubs and native grasses and ponds, that make it the beauty
that God intended." -- Juanita Buschkoetter
"This year, the price I will get for my grain will be less than what
a farmer received 30 years ago. I challenge anyone in the city to make a
living today on a salary they would have earned 30 years ago." -- Darrel
Likewise, on a recent visit to the nation's capital where the Buschkoetter's
met with family farm advocates and where Juanita Buschkoetter testified
movingly before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee on September
15, they proved that they were right on target politically, according to
those who attended the meetings and hearings.
Thus, listening to the Buschkoetter's own words one arrives at the conclusion
that the major fault in the film was Sutherland's inability to understand
or ability to communicate that message in the film itself.
For example, one could not help but wonder, watching the film of Darrel
Buschkoetter unloading his corn harvest at a nearby grain elevator, whether
the scenes showing the corporate owner of that elevator, maybe, like, say,
the nation's largest corn miller, ADM--"Supermarkup to the World"--and
no stranger to PBS--might be laying on Sutherland's cutting room floor.
Ironically, the same week The Farmer's Wife was exposing television
viewers to the human side of corporate agribusiness' relentless efforts
to rid American agriculture of its "excess human resources," i.e.,
family farmers, an equally important encounter was unfolding at the U.S.-Canadian
"The peaceful ways, the talking ways, the diplomatic ways, have basically
been exhausted," observed Larry Neubauer of Sweetgrass, Montana.
One had to read through 23 paragraphs of an Associated Press story which
appeared in the September 23 edition of the New York Times to find
Neubauer's dire warning. It came as hundreds of farmers and ranchers in
a series of demonstrations blockaded Canadian border crossings during that
week, including stopping a Canadian Pacific train for about 20 minutes near
Portal, N.D., by putting a tractor on the tracks.
Hank Zell of Shelby, Montana observed: "These little towns are drying
up. Farmers don't have any money."
Frustration with trade policies had been intensifying so much in the weeks
proceeding the farmers' actions that North and South Dakota officials began
pulling over Canadian trucks under tougher inspection programs for wheat
Canadian farmers also participated in the border actions. "When the
Canadian Wheat Board dumps grain down here, it suppresses your market and
we get less for it too," said Ron Duffy of Red Deer, Alberta.
"Our market just keeps slipping away from us," said the blockade
organizer, Ron Jensen of Sweetgrass. "We just can't afford to produce
a bushel of grain for $2. The Federal Government says it costs us $5.54
to produce it."
In 1997 a North Dakota State University study reported that durum and barley
producers in the upper Midwest had lost nearly $270 million in income in
three years because of Canadian grain dumping. Processors claim they were
forced to buy Canadian grain because of disease-plagued domestic crops.
American farmers, however, dispute this, saying there is plenty of good
grain south of the border.
Currently high-yield harvests in the U.S., have resulted in overflowing
grain elevators, particularly in the Northwest driving domestic prices for
wheat to record lows.
The price of wheat in the week proceeding the border stoppages, for example,
was $2.15 a bushel, compared with $3.20 a bushel at the same time the previous
year. Corn was getting $1.56 a bushel, compared with $2.28 last year, and
soybeans $4.80 a bushel compared with $5.85. Hog prices were at a 24-year
low, and beef cattle were selling at $50 per hundredweight, compared with
$60 the previous year.
For additional material on The Farmer's Wife film and its making
A.V. Krebs is the author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness
[Essential Book: 1992]
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