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About 100 people—farmers, members of their families, and supporters—gather to listen to speakers from the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition at a rally at the state capitol

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.

Read the full essay on the farm crisis and The Farmer’s Lawyer here.

Sarah Vogel reads from The Farmer's Lawyer

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.

Sarah Vogel reads from The Farmer's Lawyer

Listen to Sarah read >>

Bismarck Tribune

The Bismarck Tribune:


An excerpt:

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.

Read the full feature on Sarah and The Farmer’s Lawyer here.

LIbrary Journal review

August 16, 2021 | Library Journal

In this engaging work, lawyer Vogel recounts her battle against Farmers Home Administration (FHA) that began with representing a group of local plaintiffs and morphed into a national class action lawsuit involving the ACLU. Vogel had occupied several prestigious positions after law school when she decided to move back to North Dakota in the early 1980s. There she stumbled across unfair practices by the FHA, the U.S. agriculture agency that extended credit and gave loans and grants to individual farmers and low-income rural American. She learned that the FHA was freezing personal accounts of farmers when their loans lapsed, without offering the deferral they were legally entitled to. Hundreds of farmers began calling Vogel at all hours of the day, hoping for legal assistance. Vogel eventually filed a class-action suit on behalf of 240,000 farmers, Coleman v. Block, whose result was preventing tens of thousands of farm foreclosures. Vogel’s memoir approaches the case with a sense of history, giving in-depth insight on what happened within the farming community and the procedures and institutions put in place to prevent it from happening again. She recounts the personal stories of her plaintiffs with heart and discusses her own involvement as a non-trial lawyer with self-deprecating humor while also showing her intense dedication to her clients.

VERDICT An enjoyable true-life legal drama on par with Erin Brockovich. Vogel uses only the occasional legalese, and her story will appeal to readers who enjoy a good underdog legal story.

Publisher's Weekly review

Publisher’s Weekly


A lawyer recalls her battle to prevent the Reagan administration from running indebted farmers off their land in this feisty debut. Vogel, a former North Dakota agriculture commissioner, was lead counsel in Coleman v. Block, an early 1980s class-action lawsuit against the Farmers Home Administration, a federal agency that made loans to farmers. Prodded by the Reagan administration’s ideological opposition to handouts to farmers, the agency cracked down on borrowers who fell behind on loan payments, and pressured them to sell their farms to repay loans (and foreclosed if they refused); cut off credit for basics like livestock feed; seized farmers’ income and froze their bank accounts; and violated laws in denying loan-payment deferrals. Read the full review of The Farmer’s Lawyer here.

June 2, 2021 | KFYR

Sarah and The Farmer’s Lawyer were featured on KFYR News! See the full feature:

Dec. 2, 2019 | Union Farmer

Sarah is the cover story in this issue of North Dakota Farmers Union magazine! Click to read: Former ag commish Vogel speaks about 1980’s farm crisis at law symposium.