Sarah Vogel Fought the Government on Behalf of Family Farms | Civil Eats

Sarah Vogel Fought the Government on Behalf of Family Farms

Sarah Vogel, "The Farmer's Lawyer"

Attorney Sarah Vogel made history when she raised and won the first class-action lawsuit against the federal government to protect North Dakota farmers from illegal foreclosures during the farm crisis of the 1980s. Coleman v. Block, also known as the case of the North Dakota Nine, stretched into a national class action lawsuit and led to critical legislation, the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987, which radically changed the way farm credit disputes were handled.

In the early 80s, farmers faced an economic crisis spurred by high interest rates and operating costs, low crop and land prices, and severe weather. Rather than providing assistance, the Reagan administration savaged a long-standing farm credit program, leaving farmers—who had voted Reagan into office—facing impossible demands leveled by suddenly hostile government creditors. Debts were accelerated, and farmers were asked to pay off entire loans decades in advance of their original timeline. To make matters worse, farmers could only register complaints about the unreasonable measures to the very agencies and people who created them.

A young lawyer and single mother facing foreclosures on her own home, Vogel took on the struggling farmers as clients, even though many could not afford to pay her. Her work drew the national spotlight, she appeared in a Life magazine photo essay and was depicted the 1984 movie Country starring Jessica Lange. Coleman v. Block, however, was not just stunning in its time. The win helped create a wave of agricultural justice efforts—often grassroots and peer-to-peer in nature—that continue to this day. Willie Nelson and Farm Aid are among the many fans of Sarah Vogel and her book.

Vogel’s memoir about this period, The Farmer’s Lawyer, published last November, is as much a recounting of this time as it is an agricultural thriller. It sets the stage by showing the history of the Nonpartisan League (NPL), a left-wing political party founded by Socialist Arthur C. Townley in North Dakota, and its protections of farmers in the Great Depression. Vogel’s grandfather was a prominent NPL member and served as president of the Bank of North Dakota from 1937-1944.

That legacy makes her progression seem fluid: of course this lawyer would carry forward the impulse to serve farmers and fight for them using legal circuits, becoming the first female head of a state department of agriculture, and more. Vogel’s past work with Native Americans also led to a recent appointment to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Equity Commission, which is charged with eradicating discrimination from USDA programs.

The book is wonderfully written, and available in print or audio narrated by Vogel. Hearing this heavy-hitting tale in her steady, soft-spoken voice is a lesson in applying yourself and your values to work and life.

Civil Eats spoke to Vogel about the writing process, why mid-size family farms are critical for thriving rural communities, and how individuals and lawyers can play a significant role in changing agriculture.

What inspired you to write this book?

While I was doing the case, I knew it was really important. I often thought I should be writing a diary, but I didn’t have time. I did save all the papers that I filed, my phone messages, rough drafts of briefs, rough drafts of affidavits, and records of people’s lives. I put them in boxes, and they marinated for decades. While visiting a historian of the Nonpartisan League, I learned of archives on the ’80s farm crisis that were about to be destroyed, and I added them to my collection.

At first, it felt uncomfortable to write about myself, but working collaboratively [with book development expert Leigh Stein] was natural. I learned that in my legal training. We always had a critical eye on each other’s work and never filed anything without help.

What other research was involved?

Telling the story of what was happening to farmers when they hired me meant including the history of the Nonpartisan League. I read so much about that I swear I lived through the 1930s. The ’30s and the ’80s are inextricably intertwined.

In North Dakota in the ’30s, there was a precipitous land devaluement. The more land goes on the market, the more land values decrease. Governor [William] Langer’s foreclosure moratorium [in 1932] stopped the slide until FDR got into office. Another valuable thing was that the Bank of North Dakota rented land back to farmers when it was in the bank’s possession so that farmers could keep working the land.

I couldn’t include everything I uncovered. A lot of history got cut, and the book is better for it. But I’d like to tell it elsewhere.

Can you summarize the impact of the case?

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Most immediately, the case addressed horrible conditions: the freezing and seizure of farmers’ bank accounts [and] the starvation of animals because farmers didn’t have operating credit, which they relied on to run their farms. Farmers were not allowed to access to the crop money and livestock income that they earned. They didn’t have a fair hearing officer, and they did not have a fair process. And my case changed that.

Congress adopted a big series of reforms, the Coleman reforms, which have been fine-tuned since passing the Agricultural Credit Act in 1987. They give farmers a fair hearing before a neutral hearing officer, and that, I think, is the biggest legacy today. It’s like night and day, compared to the way it used to be. And, well, the lasting effects are perhaps saving multi-generational farms that would have been lost in the ’80s, but weren’t because of the injunction. Maybe saving those farms also saved farmers’ lives.

What do you hope the book will achieve?

History says that there will be more farm crises. I did not want another farm crisis by neglect, or on purpose. In the case of the Reagan administration, it was intentional. They really did not want government supporting farmers. The hypocrisy of the whole approach was horrible because they campaigned on helping farmers. Then the minute they got in, they put the hammer to family farmers. The delinquency reduction quota was so harmful and unnecessary. It had cataclysmic results. And right up through the denouement of the whole ’80s farm crisis, Reagan was still saying, “Take away those protections.” That was in his signing statement. Do I sound angry? Well, I’m not over that yet. He was a disaster for farming.

But back to the big picture. I hope the book supports the long-held plank of American life and democracy that rural people and farmers—and food grown in the U.S.—are very important. I’m trying to nurture that feeling and let people know about what happened in the ’80s. It could happen again if we’re not careful.

I also want the book to help people understand the nature of farmers, their attachment to their land, and their importance to communities. Public awareness is what I’m writing for. There is a lot of irrefutable sociological, economic, and historical information that proves that the presence of middle-sized family farmers creates thriving rural communities. If you lose family farms, you will lose thriving rural communities. There’s so much talk now about red areas and struggling rural areas and why did communities that used to vote Democrat turn Republican? Why are these small towns dying, and what’s the program to revive the small town? The program would involve family farmers.

In the book, I wanted to show that the little guys can make a difference. For example, I included the story of how Tom Nichols inspired Lou Anne Kling, who was the goddess of the farm advocacy movement, to help other farmers to be advocates. His story shows that a single person can have a huge impact.

Another lesson I hope the book conveys is that if people start a challenging project that is very important to them, big things can come of it. One never knows whether others will come to help you or not. Getting a call from the national director of the [American Civil Liberties Union], right before I was ready to file the case—well, I mean, wow! If I had waited to do something until I had the national ACLU on board, it would not have happened. Sometimes you just have to walk off the diving board. Another job of the book is to show that law can be used as part of the remedy. That’s why I got a little cranky in the book about lawyer jokes.

I remember your description of the bevy of lawyer jokes at rodeos and how it upset you that lawyers were trashed, even as you knew how critical they were/are to farm survival.

Public interest lawyers, lawyers working for people—this kind of work is really important. It should be a tool that people think about, not just lobbying. Lawyers are a very important piece of the puzzle. Law schools have specialties in agriculture law, and the Yale Law School recently held an all-day seminar on agriculture and antitrust issues.

What farming challenges could be tackled through the legal system?

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There’s a groundswell of deep interest in antitrust law. Democrats and Republicans have not paid attention to antitrust laws, and changes require staffing. Without funds from Congress, nothing can happen. I would tell people to put pressure on Congress to give serious money to these antitrust enforcement agencies, so that they can hire people, get the experts, and do the work. President Biden’s antitrust statement is incredible—fabulous, over-the-top good. It’s up to Congress now to give money—serious money—to the Department of Justice and USDA, because they have the enforcement powers of the Packers and Stockyards Act.

I don’t think big corporations that are the size of small countries are going to be too scared of the Department of Justice or USDA unless there is a big infusion of money. This is something that normal people can do, without getting a law degree; ee can have a voice and ask representatives to fund antitrust work.

What else can help farmers now?

There’s a lot of action, a lot of initiatives. I see a lot of great ideas coming from Indigenous and Black farmers. For 10 years, I was holed up in the basement writing the book, and when I emerged, I saw lots of changes.

I don’t consider myself to be that old, but I’ve watched the railroad spurs to small towns get rolled up. The little grain elevators that were all over the landscape are no longer there. The new economy will be different from the old economy. I hope the focus is how people can support middle-sized farms and how small farmers can grow to middle-sized—and that has nothing to do with acreage.

What worked nationally in the ’30s to get people out of trouble was production controls and fair pricing. I’m not an ag economist and haven’t followed the farm bill lately, but the USDA still collects parity figures, and that was one of the programs that worked so well. More generally, Congress has got to get over its dysfunction. The National Farmers Union and sustainable ag organizations need to work to make and implement a farm bill that is family-sized and farmer-centric, not geared toward exporters and suppliers. I see a great deal of good ideas percolating up from the countryside. We need another Country Life Commission or bold experimentation like FDR’s and put the concerns of farmers forward.

I’m optimistic now about the leadership at USDA. Secretary Vilsack has been making some amazing appointments—people who know the ground they’re covering. They’ve got three more years to put many of these reforms into place. I’m excited about that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Amy Halloran lives with her family in upstate New York. She teaches food justice, writing, and cooking classes, and runs a community meals program. She works with the Artisan Grain Collaborative and Northeast Grainshed Alliance. Read more >

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