The Common Good
September-October 1998

The Face and Fate of Family Farms

by Gil Dawes | September-October 1998

A PBS documentary takes a personal look.

The danger that viewers might click the channel scanner on the Frontline documentary The Farmer's Wife too quickly is real, but only to their great loss. As Americans, we are so accustomed to the sound and fury of TV drama that we find it difficult to adjust to the slow but sure pace of life lived together in harmony with the land. The constant hype of the surreal and supernatural have all but blinded us to the gift of reality and the beauty of the natural.

But, if we wait even a few minutes for life as we really live it to come back into focus, this documentary will reward us with a moving and compelling testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. It is a monument to the spirituality of the common, and life lived as a sacrament.

The Farmer's Wife

is the story of Juanita, Darrel, and their children; actually of three generations who are caught up in Darrel's dream of farming the land as his parents had before him. Darrel doesn't just want to make a living for his family; he has an intuitive sense that he is called to be a steward of the land as well. But like most farm families, Darrel and his family continue to face the "farm crisis" long after it was a fashionable topic for the news media. They are caught in an ever-deepening vortex of debt, self-doubt, and depression that very nearly sucks them under and destroys them individually and as a family. Reluctantly, and only when faced with the loss of everything he holds dear, does Darrel come to accept that Juanita has a right to a dream of her own, and that there can be life after farming if necessary!

THE CHURCH is critical in the life of this family, not just an add-on to an already overstressed life as is the case of so many of us. As Juanita says, and the bedtime prayers with their three daughters demonstrate, "Prayer is what has gotten us through all this." The church is clearly an anchor for this family, without which they would otherwise be swept away. The church also is a window to a wider world than the daily grind of endless work.

Having said this, however, at many points it seems their self-doubt and feelings of personal unworthiness, almost worthlessness, may be compounded rather than alleviated by religious tradition. There appears to be more than enough self-blame and blaming of one another without adding a culture of guilt inculcated through doctrine and tradition.

Given the fact that the creator of this documentary located this family by attending the rally of a national family farm organization, and that Juanita and Darrel were active participants in that movement, one has to wonder about the effectiveness of such organizations in helping farmers to analyze the roots of the on-going farm crisis. This family very articulately questions the actions of their local banker, farm-lending agencies, and the maze of governmental policies on agriculture. In the documentary the family stands alone against the weather, the creditors, and a community that doesn't understand the plight of the farmer, but at no point is there any mention of forces beyond these local players in the struggle to survive.

The role of agribusiness in shaping the policies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the teaching of land-grant colleges, and the terms of international trade agreements, to say nothing of their control over costs of inputs necessary for production and their capacity to manipulate the prices the farmers receive in the market for their products, are never mentioned by this farm couple. The personal drama of this family makes a gripping portrayal that causes us once again to see the farmer as a real person whose fate we share and from whose struggle we can learn to question how we are living our own life. For that alone we have reason to be grateful for this documentary. However, at some point we must ask the hard questions about systemic causes that thwart individual dreams and make such family struggles necessary.

What about NAFTA and the other trade "agreements," which unfortunately most farm organizations have supported? What about the Freedom to Farm bill, which already brings back haunting memories of a boy in a "many-colored coat" who established an agricultural policy in which seven good years were followed by seven bad years, and then 400 years of slavery? I hope these and other such questions can follow in church and community discussions of this deeply moving portrayal of faith on the land!

GIL DAWES is executive director of PrairieFire, an ecumenical organizing project committed to revitalizing family farm agriculture in rural communities.

The Farmer's Wife. David Sutherland. PBS, 1998.

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