Review/A.V. Krebs

'The Price Is Right,'
Not In 'Farmer's Wife'

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 Frontline series.

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Wife only added fuel to those corporate and political interests who argue that family farming is inefficient and outdated, or as one of the film's reviewers concluded "the film's real strength may lie in the question it raises about the wisdom of clinging at all costs to a noble but possibly outdated tradition."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 sets them?

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 situation.

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 Buschkoetter

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 border.

"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 and livestock.

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 see:

A.V. Krebs is the author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness [Essential Book: 1992]

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