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From Deep in the Heartland

A struggling Nebraska farm family profiled in a PBS documentary gets an outpouring of viewers' support--and unexpected celebrity.

August 22, 1999|ELIZABETH JENSEN | Elizabeth Jensen is a Times staff writer

NEW YORK — 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.

*

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."

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