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Anyone 50 or over will remember the 1980s farm crisis that choked the nation’s heartland. Family farm after family farm fell to the auctioneer’s block.
It was much more than the loss of a business, though. For many farmers, it was their inheritance and legacy threatened by Administrative Notice 580 handed down by the FmHA that accelerated payment schedules of borrowers behind on their payments or who had violated any agreement terms of their loans.
North Dakota attorney Sarah Vogel, in her exhaustively researched account, “The Farmer’s Lawyer,” tells the heartbreaking but later inspiring story of how she as a young lawyer fought and beat the federal government in the landmark class-action case Coleman vs. Block that originated with a lawsuit in which Vogel represented nine North Dakota farmers against the FmHA.
The Star Tribune:
Farming has never been an easy profession. The work is physically demanding and at times dangerous, commodity prices are capricious, agribusiness giants control the market, and the whims of Mother Nature are often cruel. Also, the hours suck.
That’s all to say it’s always required hardy souls to make a living working the land. And, at least in recent history, that was perhaps never truer than in the early 1980s, when low prices and widespread debt drove thousands of family farmers across the U.S. and particularly in the Midwest out of business. More than a full generation later, the ’80s farm crisis still echoes across rural America.
Sarah Vogel returns to that grim era in “The Farmer’s Lawyer,” which recounts her work as the lead attorney for a group of North Dakota farmers whose lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture led to a nationwide class action that eventually overturned the heavy-handed lending practices that drove rampant farm foreclosures. Part memoir, part populist political history and part courtroom drama, Vogel’s book is a charming, at times compelling recollection of a singular time in U.S. agriculture.
Excerpt from AG WEEK:
FARGO, North Dakota — In 1981, Sarah Vogel was out of her upper echelon U.S. Treasury Department job in Washington, D.C., because Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter for the presidency.
Vogel moved from Virginia back to Bismarck, North Dakota. She incorrectly thought banks might hire her for “advice,” much as she’d given advice to the Secretary of the Treasury. She and her son Andrew moved into a house on the Missouri River.
A financially troubled farmer-friend, Chuck Perry from North Dakota, now was traveling the country, raising funds for the “Farmers and Ranchers Protective League.” And he was promoting Vogel’s legal services to farmers in trouble with the FmHA.
In her book, “The FARMER’S LAWYER,” Vogel said she was “building a law practice for farmers who couldn’t afford my fees.” She was receiving child support, making only monthly minimum payments on all of her credit cards. She still owed $100,000 on the Virginia condo. Her loan was in default.
She held out hope she might get paid in these farm cases because Congress had passed the Equal Access to Justice Act. The EAJA said that if a citizen or small business sues (or is sued) by the U.S. and wins, the government should pay the winner’s legal fees.
In the “The Farmer’s Lawyer,” she describes how she accumulated a string of financially weakened clients.
Read the full feature, the second of a three-part story by Mikkel Pates, Agweek staff writer, about Sarah Vogel’s new book — THE FARMER’S LAWYER: The North Dakota nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm.
From Prairie Public:
Tuesday, November 30, 2021 – Efforts continue in North Dakota to fill the gap left by the closing of Lutheran Social Services. One such effort comes from USpireND, which is maintaining the Healthy Families program. Healthy Families looks to strengthen families so children can avoid entering the foster-care system. Joining us is Missi Baranko, executive director. ~~~ Tom Isern has a Plains Folk essay, “The Farmer’s Lawyer.” ~~~ Plantology is a North Dakota company that makes CBD products that are organically and locally produced. Ashley recent talked with Plantology’s Troy Goltz at a Pride of Dakota event. Bismarck’s Pride of Dakota is this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Listen to the full episode here.
Excerpt from: Civil Eats
In a true-life David and Goliath fight, lawyer and former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel won a remarkable victory in the class action lawsuit she brought against the federal government on behalf of struggling North Dakota farmers facing foreclosure in the 1980s. Amid high interest rates and low crop prices, farmers were experiencing the worst crisis since the Great Depression, and many who had borrowed money through the federal Farmers Home Administration faced foreclosure. In her new memoir, The Farmer’s Lawyer, Vogel recounts the story of the hard-won battle. Her first-ever trial was fought despite much personal hardship—Vogel was a single mother who faced foreclosure of her own home and, serving financially struggling farmers, she was often paid in baked goods and frozen fish. Nevertheless, the trial drew national attention to the farm crisis, and Vogel’s striking success shaped her career. After she won, she became assistant attorney general, and later, North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner, the first woman elected to the office in the nation. Vogel’s inspiring legal battle is a call to action to fight for the injustices faced by many American farmers, and it also ensures her legacy: Congress later passed a law enacting some of the reforms she and the farmers she represented sought, including fairer appeal procedures.
Access Civil Eats: Our 2021 Food and Farming Holiday Book Gift Guide here
Excerpt from AG WEEK:
FARGO, North Dakota — Sarah Vogel’s memoir, “The Farmer’s Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm,” looks at Vogel’s career as a lawyer/advocate, with a gritty, behind-the-scenes account of the 1980s farm credit crisis from one of its central figures, and her David and Goliath struggle against the federal government on behalf of broke farmers.
Vogel, now 75, living in Bismarck, won Coleman v. Block, in 1983. The national class action suit stopped foreclosures by the the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency and its Farmers Home Administration, an agency designed to help farmers. It protected some 240,000 farmers across the country.
The Farmer’s Lawyer was released on Nov. 3, 2021. In the book, Vogel tells how — and why — she made history in agriculture, which helped lead to national ag lending reforms in the 1987 Agricultural Credit Act.
Read the full feature, part of a multi-part story by Mikkel Pates, Agweek staff writer, about the book THE FARMER’S LAWYER: The North Dakota nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm.
Excerpt from Lyz Lenz’s newsletter:
If you read one version of the story of America, [the farm crisis] happened by accident. Market forces drove American farms to a crisis in the 1980s. Catastrophic weather events plus Jimmy Carter halting grain shipments to the Soviet Union, resulting in surplus grain unsold rotting in barns, and farmers forced to take high-interest loans and unable to pay them back, resulting in widespread foreclosures, which devastated Middle America, in a way that is still felt today.
But if you read The Farmer’s Lawyer, a memoir by Sarah Vogel, the narrative completely changes. Vogel was a lawyer who worked for the Treasury Department under the Carter administration. When Reagan was elected, Vogel found herself an out-of-work single mother and moved back to her native North Dakota.
There she found a crisis. Hundreds of farmers were losing their homes and livelihoods to foreclosures that didn’t have to happen. The crisis was created by the new head of the Farmers Home Administration, Charles W. Shuman, who issued a directive titled “Administrative Notice 580” in 1981 to reduce loan delinquencies by 23 percent on average by March 1982. State directors were offered merit pay bonuses for foreclosures. The result was disastrous.
In response, Vogel became a de facto Erin Brockovich for farmers, filing a class action lawsuit that alleged that the government was illegally foreclosing on the farmers, failing to follow a 1978 deferral law. The law outlined that farmers should be offered a loan deferral if the circumstances of the foreclosure were out of their control. They weren’t being offered the deferral. What’s worse, even before the foreclosures, the USDA was seizing income, making it impossible for the farmers to feed themselves or their animals.
As she fought for the farmers, many of whom paid her in food, Vogel herself went into debt and faced foreclosure. Vogel was locked out of her office because she couldn’t pay rent, she wasn’t able to pay her phone bill and had to rely on her clients to loan her money. She describes carting her toddler son along with her to meetings, his crayons melting in the back of a car rented by a Time magazine photographer.
The case Coleman v. Block was filed on March 11, 1983, on behalf of nine named plaintiffs representing 8,400 North Dakota family farmers. The case resulted in an injunction prohibiting the USDA from foreclosing on 240,000 FmHA borrowers nationwide.
From Prairie Public:
Attorney and author Sarah Vogel is a North Dakota farm advocate. As a young lawyer in the 1980s, she brought a national class action lawsuit, pitting her against the Department of Justice in her fight for family farmers’ Constitutional rights. Her new book, The Farmer’s Lawyer, tells the story of this legal battle and the family farmers she advocated for.
Sarah was featured in an author event at Zandbroz Variety in Fargo on November 10, 2021. Listen to a recording from the event above, as Sarah reads from the book, and answers questions from the audience and the event moderator, Patty Corwin.
The Bismarck Tribune:
Late at night buried in legal briefs, Sarah Vogel occasionally took a moment to contemplate the magnitude of the lawsuit she had filed seeking to help farmers facing foreclosure.
“I should be keeping a diary,” she thought.
But she had no time, especially as more and more farmers added their names to the 1983 class action suit. In all, 240,000 joined from across the country.
Instead of a diary, Vogel hung onto every slip of paper related to the case: notes from phone calls, bills she needed to pay and drafts of court documents she planned to file. She revisited them over the past few years to write a book, “The Farmer’s Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm,” which comes out Tuesday.
Vogel used to store the records in her attic in Bismarck, but she donated them about 20 years ago for the public’s use.
“I thought a historian would go over to the State Archives one day and write a book about the ’80s farm depression, and no one did,” she said.
So, Vogel decided to write the book herself.