The Law of Hard Times

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Lou Anne Kling

To understand the Farm Crisis of the ’80s, it helps to learn about those who helped.

From How Farm Advocates Made a Difference in the 1980s post:

“I first met Lou Anne in a crowded Mandan, North Dakota motel conference room, in the spring of 1984. I was there because I was invited to speak at a training program offered by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture for the newly minted job of “farm credit advocate.” I was asked to present an hour-long lecture on how farmers could use the Farmers Home Administration’s (FmHA’s) deeply flawed and unfair appeal system. But it was very clear to me that the farmers in the audience hadn’t come to hear me. They were waiting to hear from Lou Anne Kling, the Johnny Appleseed of farm advocates — she was sowing new farm advocates across the country, just as she had already done in Minnesota.”

Watch the short video below featuring Lou Anne Kling and read more about her in this post.

A.C. Townley addressing crowd

During 2016 and 2017, I would occasionally attend out-of-state meetings. At some of the smaller meetings, participants were expected to introduce themselves. I’d sometimes choke back tears and try to keep from weeping, “I’m Sarah Vogel from North Dakota, and I’m so sorry!” Why? I was ashamed of the way Morton County and the state of North Dakota had behaved during the historic gathering of indigenous people that became known worldwide as the Standing Rock DAPL movement.

Why was this so emotional for me? I’m all for spirited public debates (I’ve run for office myself and have worked for many political candidates and causes). But DAPL was different: in DAPL, the machinery of criminal law and military power were used to suppress debate.

I believe that whenever a government uses the machinery of criminal law or, even worse, military force, it is reprehensible. And it has happened before.

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law enforcement officer wearing a mask, holding a video camera

I’ve seen my share of dissent. I was at the University of North Dakota from 1964 to 1967 when students stood silent vigil on campus to protest the placement of nuclear missiles in hundreds of underground silos under the prairies of North Dakota. I lived in Greenwich Village from 1967 to 1970, and I watched massive anti-war protests from my law school dormitory overlooking Washington Square. To get groceries, I had to detour around violent mass arrests by New York City police. The Stonewall “riots” during the summer of 1969 occurred only a few blocks from my law school. And, in 2016 and early 2017, I witnessed some of the massive, historic Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) because I was based in Bismarck, North Dakota, 40 miles from where the pipeline met the protesters.

I have deep respect for those who peacefully protest in the pursuit of justice. I deplore arrests of peaceful protesters or use of force or threats of arrest by law enforcement to quell peaceful protests.

On September 3, 2016, journalist Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now, was in North Dakota learning about the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had sued the US Army Corps of Engineers, arguing that the pipeline company should not be allowed to go under the Missouri River next to the northern border of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation because it had not properly consulted with the Tribe about the Tribe’s concerns. (The Tribe later also sued because the Corps had not required the pipeline to undergo a full environmental impact analysis.)

Amy Goodman was interviewing LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, when LaDonna got a call. The caller said that bulldozers had started to tear up an area with cultural sites (graves, cairns, etc.) that had been identified by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as places that the pipeline should NOT disturb.

LaDonna was alarmed, and said she had to cut the interview off.  She had to go where the bulldozers were.

Amy said, “I’m coming with you!”

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Bess Myerson on the cover of Life Magazine, 1971

I’m now known as “the farmer’s lawyer,” but that hasn’t always been the case. Once upon a time, I worked as a corporate lawyer for a big bank and a Fortune 500 company.

Bess Myerson on the cover of Life Magazine, 1971

My first job after graduating from New York University School of Law in 1970, however, was with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. This was the first consumer protection agency in the United States and I joined it soon after it started. I worked under former Miss America, Bess Myerson, who was a pioneering consumer advocateIn 1971, Commissioner Myerson (we all called her Bess) was on the cover of Life Magazine as “A Consumer’s Best Friend.”

I was one of the young lawyers and investigators she hired and it was a wonderful, fun job. 

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In the summer of 1999, Steve Jorgenson, a young farmer from northeast North Dakota called me about problems with his confection sunflower crop. In North Dakota, we call confection sunflowers “spits” because you spit the shell out, while eating the tasty inner seed.

Sunflower plants grown from good seeds have tall, sturdy, straight stems, with huge single flowers. But that year, Steve’s fields had multi-headed sunflower plants, with stunted, twisted stalks. Steve had spent a lot of money on the land, seed, fuel and machinery to grow his sunflowers, but this crop of deformed sunflowers would be worthless. He said he’d complained to Agway, Inc. (the breeder and seller of the seeds). Steve was still fuming over what the Agway representative told him: “It wasn’t the Agway seed that was bad; many farmers had used that seed and no one else had complained.” According to the rep, the poor crop was his own fault.

When Steve came my office a few days later, he brought another unhappy Norwegian farmer, Lorin Haagenson. They had been at a repair shop, chatting while waiting for parts, and discovered that Lorin had planted the same variety and his sunflowers were also deformed. What’s more, Lorin was also told he was the only farmer who had complained.

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oil field flare at night

It’s always a big deal when a small state like North Dakota (population 762,000) is featured in a book that’s reviewed in the New York Times. Michael Patrick F. Smith’s The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown opens on an oil well site near Williston, North Dakota in the spring of 2012. It’s his fifth day on the job and Smith is asked at a “safety meeting” to sign a paper. He asks an innocuous question and his boss says, “And when I hand you something, don’t ask any questions. Just fucking sign it. And smile.” Smith smiled and signed it. I was hooked.

I read The Good Hand in one huge gulp, all 478 pages, on a red-eye flight and I loved it.

When I stumbled off the plane, I was furious—not at Smith, whose book about his time as an oil field worker living in and working in the “boomtown” of Williston is beautifully written and researched. I’m mad at the politicians who allowed oil companies to use human beings as though they were disposable appliances in a wild rush for money.

The Good Hand’s central themes revolve around the mayhem, money, and men that Smith encountered during his 15 months or so of living and working in North Dakota during the peak of the Bakken oil boom. This boom arose when oil companies realized that they could tap a huge oil field (the Bakken formation), miles underneath the pristine North Dakota prairies by use of hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling. In the spring of 2012, 217 oil rigs were punching oil wells in a frantic attempt to secure oil rights before the terms of the oil companies’ leases expired. Each rig employed (in various capacities) over 100 workers. Smith was one of those workers and he aspired to be known as “a good hand”—someone who knew his job, was reliable, and respected.

Much of the book is consumed with the wretched living conditions that Smith and his fellow workers endured. Yes, the pay was good, but the costs were spectacularly high. Ironically, Smith —who came to Williston from Brooklyn where he held a series of “indoor” jobs like bartender, musician, actor, and office worker—found that Williston rents were higher than Manhattan rents. He ended up paying $450 a month to sleep in a flophouse on a mattress in a living room shared with four other men, and thought it a bargain.

What most shocked me was the danger of the work, and the disregard shown for worker safety.  It is a modern day expose of the miserable working conditions that were tolerated by the oil companies, their many subcontractors and, I’m sorry to say, the state of North Dakota.

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This post was taken from the first issue of my email newsletter, The Law of Hard Times:

Most of The Farmer’s Lawyer occurs in my home, in my office, or on the farms of my clients. But I also spent time in bleak USDA offices, where my clients and I suffered through administrative hearings where we argued that USDA’s reasons for foreclosing or freezing a farmer’s income were illegal under the law and under the Farmers Home Administration’s own regulations.

I was spectacularly unsuccessful at those hearings. I lost them all.

There were many reasons I lost. First, I was making legal arguments to non-lawyers. Second, I was bitterly adversarial, which, naturally, inspired my opponents to be adversarial. Third, I knew the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) rules (almost by heart) but I was a lawyer from town, not a farmer or rancher. I didn’t know enough about farming or ranching to help the farmer develop a credible plan that would show a skeptical FmHA employee in bushels and pounds, in dollars and cents, that foreclosure was not the answer. However, the farm advocates could spend hours brainstorming with the farmer at their kitchen table to come up with feasible cropping and livestock plans that melded with FmHA’s regulations.

To my delighted surprise, a few of my clients – having learned about the hearing process by going through it themselves – began to act as “paralegals” and some began to handle hearings for other farmers. And, to my amazement, they sometimes won.

Today I want to highlight and honor the amazing role that farm advocates played in the 1980s farm crisis. One of these farm advocates was Lou Anne Kling. Read more