Rewriting the story of middle America (Lyz Lenz)

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.