The Law of Hard Times: Essays
Select essays from Sarah Vogel’s The Law of Hard Times — subscribe to Sarah’s email list to get her latest essays in your email inbox.
In the spring and summer of 1982, the national media began to hear of the farm crisis. Reporters and producers on the coasts went on a hunt for stories that illustrated the farmers’ plight. I was getting calls almost daily from the Washington Post, the New York Times, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and many others.
When they said, “I want to do a story about a foreclosure sale! Do you have any coming up?,” I was furious.
“I’m a lawyer fighting foreclosures!” I’d snap back. “I haven’t lost one yet, and I don’t intend to lose any. I’m doing everything that I can to stop foreclosures and forced sales against my clients. But if you want to watch a foreclosure, just come to North Dakota, pick up a copy of the Fargo Forum’s Friday agriculture supplement, and you’ll find pages and pages of auction sales and some foreclosure sales. Don’t call me again!”
A different kind of call came in the summer of 1982 from a reporter from Life magazine.
“Hi, I’m Richard Woodley, and I’d like to see what it is like for a farmer who is suffering from financial stress.”
I agreed to introduce Woodley to any of my clients who were open to talking to him. Soon, Richard and a photographer, Grey Villet (famous today for his photographs of the Loving couple in Virginia), showed up and set up camp in a Bismarck motel with a rental car, and an apparently unlimited budget.
Day after day, they came to my windowless basement office and I gave them directions on how to get to the farms and ranches of clients whose farms and ranches were within a half day’s drive of Bismarck—after getting an “OK” from the farmers. Richard and Grey went out, came back, visited with me, and even accompanied me on a trip to see a client (which was a bonus for me—they had an expense account to pay for the gas!).
Richard told me that they had visited with his editor and had presented an alternate story idea: instead of having the story be about the farmers, it would be a story about my work, as the farmer’s lawyer. “Would that be OK with you?”
“Yes,” I said. “If you and Grey will drive.”
That summer, they followed me to a picnic in Wolford, 170 miles north of Bismarck. I brought a stack of questionnaires with me. My class action was only in handwritten form, but I could “see” its eventual outlines in the same way that Grey could “see” the photographs he would eventually take and Richard could “see” the story he would eventually write for Life magazine. I had a stack of questionnaires for the farmers to fill out when we got to the farm. I was on the search for lead plaintiffs.
There were about fifteen farmers at the picnic that day and one of them was Dwight Coleman, who farmed in the Turtle Mountains, near the Canadian border. Dwight was a beginning farmer—he’d borrowed from the Farmers Home Administration in 1979, but by 1981 he’d fallen behind on his loan payments due to a series of catastrophic events, and instead of standing by him (as the agency had done with farmers during the Great Depression), they were threatening foreclosure if Dwight didn’t pay his full loan balance by Christmas Eve.
It was one of the cruelest stories I’d heard about FmHA’s tactics.
“I was under the impression that this beginning farmer program was supposed to be for more than two years,” Dwight said. He tried to fight back. “I said this is not right: you’ve got your appeals board and they’re the same people who were on the foreclosure board. What kind of a goddamn kangaroo court is that?”
Dwight first heard of me at another farmer’s auction sale.
“I didn’t know it was happening to everybody,” Dwight said. “I thought it was just myself.”
photo by Greg Booth
That day at the picnic, I told Dwight that a class action was a way to have a few “lead plaintiffs” represent and protect many other people who were in a similar situation (the class). I told him I needed to find class representatives to represent the 8400 farmers who were borrowers from FmHA.
And because I listed the lead plaintiffs alphabetically in the complaint, Dwight Coleman’s name will forever be associated with Coleman v. Block.
(Secretary Block, by the way, was called “Auction Block” back in those days.)
To understand the Farm Crisis of the ’80s, it helps to learn about those who helped.
“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.
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.
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!”
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.
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 advocate. In 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.
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.
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.
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