From Deep in the Heartland

Elizabeth Jensen is a Times staff writer

Timothy Byrnes is a sergeant with the New York City Police Department who knows nothing about farming. Yet, last fall, he and a couple of colleagues were so moved after watching "The Farmer's Wife" on PBS that they volunteered to spend two weeks of their five weeks' vacation working the harvest in Nebraska.

Byrnes, 32, says nothing on TV has inspired him to such a personal response ever before; he previously didn't even watch much public television.

But when a colleague told him to check out the 6 1/2-hour documentary about a couple's struggle to save their marriage along with their Lawrence, Neb., farm, he got "glued." When it was over, he first thought about writing a letter, but then whipped off an e-mail offering help. "I was moved big-time," he says, by the way farmer Darrel Buschkoetter "kept everything from the kids, how hard he worked, and it made me think how maybe we should not complain so much."

The first broadcast of "The Farmer's Wife" made unusual stars of Darrel Buschkoetter, his wife, Juanita, and their three daughters: Audrey, now 13; Abby, 12; and Whitney, 8. Filmed over three years, it tracked in intimate detail the Buschkoetters' everyday struggles to stave off creditors eager to snatch the farm for want of a $100 payment, and to keep intact a marriage crumbling partly from the stress. The film's power derived from its unvarnished look at the couple's relationship, from Darrel's struggle to control his anger to Juanita's family's misgivings, and it made unlikely moving scenes out of such mundane occurrences as Juanita's success at scraping together a $5 Halloween party for the girls. (A rebroadcast of the show will be seen on most PBS stations beginning tonight.)

Sgt. Byrnes said his offer to help was "a way to let [Darrel] know that people out there feel for people like that." He and his police colleagues "felt for the guy; he had no time to himself, he got home, got a glass of water from the sink and went back out to the fields. We thought, man, we bet that guy could use two weeks off."

But even as the film triggered an avalanche of responses--a PBS record of 15,000 e-mails, thousands of letters and an unspecified amount of donations to Farm Aid, an organization dedicated to saving family farms--it also led to some only-in-America outpourings. Four viewers offered to pay for braces for Juanita. One San Francisco viewer donated money for the Buschkoetters to use as they pleased; another gave carpeting. Politicians such as presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole still call. And one viewer offered the item that most epitomizes reward in America: a trip to Walt Disney World.

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Television comes into people's homes--or in Byrnes' case, his workplace in the borough of Queens--and thus often inspires viewers to respond in ways they might otherwise not. Before the program aired, Juanita Buschkoetter says she drove documentary maker David Sutherland "crazy, telling him that no one was going to watch because it was going to be so boring."

She was wrong: PBS says the program was watched by 15 million to 18 million viewers in its first showing last September.

And it's precisely the mundane details that appear to have inspired much of the immense outpouring, based on the viewers who wrote in--from Darrel's grunting during work, captured by the microphones the couple constantly wore, to the progression of paint peeling on the farmhouse as the three years passed.

Viewers ended up feeling as though they knew the family, so they invited them to vacation at their homes. "If you ever do get a chance to get away, we would be honored to one day meet all of you," wrote one woman who lives outside Philadelphia and talked about how watching the show "changed the way we saw ourselves and our relationship to each other and God this Rosh Hashana."

A California viewer wrote that he was "mesmerized" and moved to tears, even though "I just don't do that." The Buschkoetters, he said, "will remain in my thoughts forever and I almost feel a part of their family." He, too, offered the Buschkoetters a place to stay and tickets to Disneyland.

The bulk of the letters and e-mails were from viewers who said they were inspired by the Buschkoetters' story. "I encouraged my young son to watch this story partly to learn what it is to be a real man," wrote one. Another wrote a song called "Dry Ground." One man called the show "a reality check. As a 26-year-old with a master's degree, career in the investment world, and a very comfortable annual income, I had begun to become like the wealthy stereotype, just the kind of guy I bet Darrel would dislike. . . . After watching your program I was 'brought back down to earth' so to speak. . . . My 'problems' are an absolute joke compared to the life-altering struggles you, and many like you, face."

Although the responses were overwhelmingly positive, many viewers read into the program conflicting messages. "One thing that was frustrating in a way, . . . so many people got out of it what they wanted and not just what was there," Juanita says.

Indeed, one viewer, who described herself as a PhD candidate in economics, wrote that "after watching Juanita finally put together a $5 Halloween party for her girls, it seemed completely grotesque to me to change channels and immediately watch an ad for Disney World. Seeing the 'ad family' enjoying a sampling of attractions at Disney World brought me to tears as I thought about Juanita's party."

Yet another viewer had the opposite reaction: The St. Louis widow gave the Buschkoetters a year-end trip to the theme park, "because she thought we really deserved a vacation after what we had been through," Juanita says. They met their benefactor during a four-hour layover at the St. Louis airport on the way to Florida and have stayed in touch since, Juanita says.

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The Buschkoetters got involved in the program in the first place after the producers, David and Nancy Sutherland, asked a farm-crisis hotline for names. Juanita says she didn't want to participate "at all," because the Sutherlands were upfront about how honest the portrayal would be, and "I knew what we had gone through; there were a lot of things we don't want people to see. Plus, with all the family issues and all, it would be like we were betraying them in some way."

But Darrel, she says, was "gung-ho, to let people know what farmers go through." They debated a month before deciding to participate.

Because they live in a small town, population 323, she quips, neighbors "knew 75% of our business anyway, and the other 25% they just make up." Still, she says they had no idea so many people would see the film.

The family at first tried to respond to many of the letters, and their responses on the PBS Web site are thoughtful and as personal as the film. But many more letters have gone unanswered, Juanita says, because of the overwhelming number they received. Likewise, they haven't accepted the numerous offers like Byrnes' to come and help, although Juanita says "it would be neat to figure out how to take people up on that."

Although the couple have done about two dozen speaking engagements on saving family farms, they have had to turn down many more offers. "We could have done it full time for a year," she says, but there was the farm to tend to, and "the kids got really burned out." She is still passionate about the topic, however, launching into an update on possible legislative changes when asked how the farm is faring. (More than three inches of rain recently fell after a month of drought, so they are hopeful of having a good harvest this year. But depressed farm prices mean that the family "will have less farm income than we have ever had in the past." The family is doing well, she says, but is mostly living off her outside job at a crop insurance company.)

For the most part, Juanita says, the experience has been positive, particularly for all the people they have met. The dozens of people who have just stopped by the farm are "very respectful," although she says "it is a little intrusive; usually when they stop it's only when the house is a disaster." Some neighbors have wondered "why we got all the attention because we're no different than anybody else." But she says they also "have more and better friends than we did before," as neighbors have opened up about similar trials.

After much debate, Juanita decided to accept one of four offers of braces, what she calls "just a pride thing." The couple also accepted some donations, which she declines to quantify, from viewers who insisted that they accept them personally. But they steered many people who asked how they could help to organizations such as Farm Aid. The Cambridge, Mass., outfit declines to estimate how much money it got as a result of the heightened awareness.

The Buschkoetters did feel some of the price of fame. The couple fielded some criticism after stumping for a Nebraska gubernatorial candidate, from people who "felt we didn't have a right to take a political stand," she says. The phone would ring for hours at a time, so they often had to take it off the hook. There were calls at 3 or 4 in the morning, from viewers who "wanted to see if we're real," she says with a laugh. "I said, 'Yeah, we're real, but we're sleeping.' "

Juanita says she doesn't regret having participated in the film, but she also doesn't know whether she would repeat the experience. She does know she "dreaded the whole idea of the film airing again." This time, she said, "we'll take some measures," perhaps an unlisted phone number.

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"The Farmer's Wife" airs tonight at 9 on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV.

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