Every farm is a story within stories, just as every life is. Darrel Buschkoetter and his first wife, Juanita, bared more of their story than most ever have the chance to when their family was featured in a 1998 documentary called “The Farmer’s Wife.”
The Lawrence, Nebraska farm family went through some trying times on national television. The film aired as a three-part series on PBS “Frontline.” The project was a little more in-depth than they originally bargained for.
Buschkoetter remembers when producer David Sutherland visited from Boston. His original plans were to make an hour-long show with four families, Buschkoetter said.
“Well, it turned out just be us, and he taped more than 400 hours of our lives in three years,” he said.
Those were some pretty tough years economically in farm country, and it tested their marriage. The couple ended up divorcing years after the documentary, but Buschkoetter said having the filming crew follow them through it didn’t make anything worse than it already was.
“It probably took some of the pain away,” he admitted.
Long before film crews arrived on the farm, Buschkoetter’s parents started a life there. Leroy, his father, has since passed away and today his mom, Eileen, lives in town. Darrel is the second owner of the farm, living now on the place where he grew up with his five sisters and brother, who now farms by Holdrege.
“He is the smart one. He gets paid for everything he does,” Buschkoetter said.
When he started farming in 1981, he went to the bank to borrow a chunk of money that bought his first truck, tractor and his first group of cows. High interest rates over 20% kept him down and he had to borrow money to pay this interest on his loan, which just doesn’t work, he said.
“If I had started 10 years earlier, I would have had a lot better start,” he added. “The early ‘90s were really ugly.”
His wife at the time, Juanita, tried cleaning houses and raising three kids at the same time. What Buschkoetter made on the farm just didn’t work. That’s when the family started working with the Farm Crisis Hotline to try and satisfy the banks so they could survive.
“We barely had enough to buy groceries,” he said.
Once the television show aired, Buschkoetter began hearing from thousands of people who were going through tough times. There was a doctor who lost a son, and couples going through a divorce.
“People would call and tell me everything, it was like I was their counselor,” he said. “If you look back on the 1980s and what happened afterwards, there were a lot of suicides and a lot of people went through things we just didn’t know about.”
Today Buschkoetter owns and operates a 100% dryland farm that has about 700 acres of corn, soybeans, alfalfa and a little wheat, along with pasture. He runs a 160-head commercial cow herd of primarily Black Angus cattle with a few Simmental-Angus cross. He also works as an independent representative for Big Iron Auctions in Nuckolls, Webster, Clay and a portion of Franklin County.
Mother Nature can still make for tough times on the farm.
“If it does not rain here, we cannot raise a crop. We are lucky if we have enough water for the house and the farm,” Buschkoetter said.
Throughout the years, he has shifted his farming to no-till and is starting to get into cover crops as a way to put nutrients in the ground and save money on commercial inputs.
He laments that it’s difficult to pay the bills with farming today: “You really can’t make it without off-farm jobs anymore.”
Age takes its toll, too. Buschkoetter was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago, and he’s had both knees replaced.
“When I was younger, I may have given my life up to the farm, but I will be 60 in November and my body does not want to do all the hard work on the farm anymore,” he said.
Then there’s the coronavirus scare to contend with. It comes as a difficult time for farmers who are trying to negotiate the next year’s financing with their bankers, but they can’t meet face to face. Part of Buschkoetter’s corn crop was in the bin but not yet priced as prices went down 60 or 70 cents a bushel. He was also concerned suppliers wouldn’t be able to get farmers the fertilizer and seed they need this season.
“The farm doesn’t stop though. The cows are still having calves and we have to get tractors ready for planting,” he said.
Despite the challenges to contend with on the farm, Buschkoetter remains active in the Nebraska Farmers Union, an organization he became involved with after the 1998 documentary. Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen invited the family to attend a state meeting after the film came out. Since then, Buschkoetter has served as Nuckolls/Webster County president and is now the secretary-treasurer.
“If we don’t get involved, our leaders won’t know what we’re dealing with,” he said. “We just want to make a living and get a fair price for what we produce. We just want to make ends meet.”
Overall, Buschkoetter is thankful for his wife, Kathy, who serves as a nurse practitioner at Main Street Clinic in Red Cloud and helps on the farm when she can. He is also proud that all his grown children are well employed. He has celebrated all his grandchildren, including a new addition born weeks ago.
Buschkoetter is not sure anyone in his family will continue the farm after him. He has a son-in-law that expressed some interest.
“But he has a good job at the coop with good benefits, so I told him to for sure keep that,” he said.
While some farms continue to get bigger, Buschkoetter said he doesn’t want to go that way: “It’s just too much stress and you spend so much money.”
In the end, he encourages farmers to know they aren’t alone when it comes to stress — especially now.
“Take care of your mental health, because that’s the first thing to go. Take care of yourself,” he said.
Kerry Hoffschneider can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.