"Country" film by Richard Pearce (1984)
“Going Under: North Dakota Lawyer Sarah Vogel Fights to Save Family Farms” feature story in Life Magazine (1982)
USDA Equity Commission
Guest: Sarah Vogel
Host, creator, producer and co-editor: Megan Torgerson
Editor, mixer and music composition: Aaron Spieldenner, Hazy Bay Music
EPISODE FUDNING PARTNER:
SEASON 3 FUNDING PARTNERS:
*Correction notice: The Crowsheart plaintiff 's full name is Lester Crowsheart.
Megan Torgerson (narrating): I grew up hearing about the ‘80s farm crisis, the record high interest rates, grasshoppers that flew up at my sisters’ faces as they biked down prairie trails, winters with barely any snow and dust storms like white outs that forced you to pull over on the side of the road. Like many young farmers, my dad worked off-farm jobs to support his small children and farm. Fortunately, we were able to hold onto our farm and ranch during a time when farmers across the country lost not only their livelihoods, but their identities, communities and sometimes families.
I was born in 1991, when the pendulum was swinging toward a decade of prosperity, but I knew never to forget about the hard times my parents endured or the Dust Bowl that forever left its mark on my grandparents’ generation.
The “farmer’s lawyer,” Sarah Vogel, knows this history intimately. As the attorney behind Coleman v. Block, the landmark class action lawsuit filed on behalf of 240,000 farmers facing foreclosure during the 1980s farm crisis, she fought like hell to protect family farms across America alongside nine lead plaintiffs from North Dakota.
Sarah Vogel: Most people are extremely private about their personal financial trauma and here were farmers who were facing foreclosure and when I called them and said “Will you be a plaintiff on this lawsuit? Can I use your name? Can I use your story?” They said yes.
And I will never forget Russel Folmer telling me, “It may be too late for me, but if I can help someone else, I will, so this doesn’t happen to other people.”
And that’s exactly what we were able to do.
Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today, a conversation with Sarah Vogel, author of The Farmer’s Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm, a legal thriller and memoir dedicated to “the farmers of America, the ones who feed us all.”
The Farmer’s Lawyer is the only book I’ve read and thought maybe I should become a lawyer, Sarah’s career advocating for farmers, women and Native Americans is just that inspiring.
Her book and our interview begin with a long view of the Vogel family’s commitment to justice for farmers, beginning with a history of the Nonpartisan League, the left-wing political party founded by North Dakota socialist Arthur C. Townley to protect farmers during the Great Depression. Sarah’s grandfather Frank Vogel, a dedicated Nonpartisan Leaguer, was the most trusted advisor of “Wild Bill” Langer, governor of North Dakota from 1933-1934 and 1937-1939 who in his first speech as governor insisted that there can [quote] “be no return to prosperity in North Dakota that doesn’t begin with the farmer.”
Sarah inherited this belief and when the worst economic crisis since the 1930s led farmers to call her at all hours of the day seeking help, she stepped into action. This was the 1980s when in an effort to reduce government spending, President Reagan’s Director of Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, installed “delinquency reduction goals,” or “foreclosure quotas” as they came to be known, that accelerated the payment schedules of farmers borrowing from Farmers Home Administration. In order to meet these foreclosure quotas Farmers Home Administration, a federal agency, sought to persuade farmers to voluntarily liquidate. The results were farm foreclosures and declining farmland values that led some farmers to take their own lives and a few others to threaten to violently overthrow the government.
But luckily this book has a happy ending. The due process and fair treatment protections that were provided to indebted family farmers in the Coleman court decisions in the early 1980s were later made into permanent laws by Congress. Congress called these laws the "Coleman reforms" and today they provide people with fair appeals for most USDA programs.
Foreseeing another farm crisis on the horizon, Sarah published her memoir in hopes that we learn from past mistakes and come together to help the ones who feed us all.
Megan Torgerson: So while the heart of your memoir is the David and Goliath story of your landmark class action lawsuit, in some ways your memoir begins and ends with the historic figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who pursued parity for farmers so they'd have comparable income to townspeople and his undersecretary of agriculture, Rexford Tugwell, who wished to cure the “deeper malady of human erosion” in the 1930s. And we can't forget about your forefathers and the mighty members of the Nonpartisan League who have been standing up for farmers in the Heartland since 1915. In “The Farmer's Lawyer,” you write that you hope your book “sows seeds for a future agriculture system that is based on human needs and human values.” I'm wondering, growing up, how did you see your family and other Nonpartisan Leaguers stand up for human needs and human values?
Sarah Vogel: In my family the Nonpartisan League was a religion. It was not a political party. It was something that was all encompassing. I remember going to political events when I was in high school. My father ran for Congress, and I had just gotten my driver's license. So I thought it was the epitome of a fun summer to be the driver. And it was all over western North Dakota. Whenever we drove anywhere in North Dakota, you drive. You know, you don't measure trips in miles. You measure them in hours. So it's like three hours to Fargo, four and a half hours to Grand Forks. So on all those trips I was inculcated with the Nonpartisan League philosophy. And when I was writing the book, I was able to do a deeper dive into the life of people, like to Rexford Tugwell, who was such a remarkable figure. And he set the basis for what is now today the Farm Service Agency.
In North Dakota in the thirties, they felt that FDR was way too conservative. The Nonpartisan League ran in the Republican column because that's where the votes were. But they ran against regular Republicans. And I think Bill Langer, who won in 1932, the same time that FDR won, he won as a Republican, whereas FDR basically swept North Dakota as the Democrat. So people in North Dakota were pretty used to splitting tickets. But the Nonpartisan League felt that FDR was way too conservative. So they were always calling on him to do more, do more, do more for farmers, for small town businesses and so on. The history that I brought out in the book, “The Farmer's lawyer,” was really fun to go back into. And I read a lot of books, in order to write it. And then of course, it was based on what happened with me and my clients in the ‘80s, but it's built on history.
Torgerson: I grew up one county north of Roosevelt County in Montana, in Sheridan County, and after starting this project, it hit me. Oh, yeah. It's named Roosevelt County because the residents of that county were so grateful for all of the New Deal programs that he implemented. What are some of the, the trademark Nonpartisan League values that the party was built from? And could you speak a little bit about your grandfather, Frank Vogel's role in really making it a successful party in the thirties?
Vogel: My grandfather came to North Dakota from Wisconsin as a school teacher in the 19 teens. And that's when North Dakota was in a very much an expansionary mode. And he was a, high school teacher in a small town called Daisy. And that's where he met my grandmother, who was also a teacher there. But he became a banker. And in the 1920s, the farm depression hit farm country in the twenties. So by the time the thirties came around, they had already been in a severe depression for 10 years. So those years, the Nonpartisan League was standing up for farmers, standing up for small businesses, Native Americans. And, I think that he probably experienced firsthand the economic injustices that were occurring throughout North Dakota. And so he became a Nonpartisan Leaguer.
He was in the legislature for several terms in the twenties. And then in 1932 he was the campaign manager for William Langer, who became the governor. And one of the things I grew up very proud of, was that my grandfather and Governor Langer were indicted by the federal government (those evil people) basically for selling a newspaper.
Torgerson: They must not have like what was written in the pages,
Vogel: No, I think not. They were basically arguing that FDR was too slow, wasn't doing enough, had to get his act together, needed to do more. And, my dad told me a story. He would always just laugh, but he remembered going to big events and Governor Langer would invite someone from the federal government to be the keynote speaker, and they would come, because I think at that point, he was the senator. So they would come to North Dakota and he would have 'em up on the stage, and he would just flatter the guy who was being introduced. “This is so and so and he's here from Washington, and he has all these employees, and he handles all this stuff, and he's an absolutely fabulous person. And he's now going tell you why he can't get electricity to your farm.”
Torgerson: Oh my gosh. He really put the spotlight on him.
Vogel: Yeah. And then the guy would be on the spot and he would say, “Well, it'll come, It'll come, It'll be right there.” Politics was fun back then. I think they had lots of picnics, lots of gatherings and very issue oriented because the Nonpartisan League basically ran on issues. And they had a platform that centered on the idea that government should work for people.
Torgerson: Yeah, and that is evidence by when Wild Bill, Governor Langer in 1933 called on the National Guard 30 times to stop foreclosures.
Vogel: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was. There were many fewer foreclosures in North Dakota than there were in other comparable states like South Dakota. Because of the actions that state government under Nonpartisan League control was taking for broke farmers and small businesses and homeowners.
Torgerson: And I like how you also wrote in the beginning of your book, how you remember growing up and going into some of the abandoned farm houses, some of the places that might have foreclosed or people moved on to more favorable conditions to farm further west. And you spoke about kind of the reverence that you had when you would step into those quiet abandoned homesteads.
I had a similar experience growing up and I wonder if you thought growing up that you would become the farmer's lawyer and that you would return to your home state and work on the behalf of farmers. Or had you envisioned something different for your life? Or was that kind of always what you wanted to do?
Vogel: That's a very good question. Growing up I saw political life and being a lawyer as possibilities because of my father and my grandfather. But I don't know that I had that idea as a very young person. But when I went to law school in New York City, I was very much drawn to work like civil rights, consumer protection and those kinds of options. And so when I came back to North Dakota, I think I had had quite a bit of experience. And because I'd been part of big government and been part of a big corporation as well as working for consumer protection, I wasn't all that daunted by the idea of suing the federal government or going up against big corporations, because I'd been part of them. And they really weren't that all that scary. And maybe I was naive. Yeah, actually I was!
Torgerson: So even though your dad was like in awe that you would wanna work for a corporation, ultimately it probably was helpful for you because then it broke down kind of the inner workings.
Vogel: My, my father was really deeply ashamed of me when I went and was a lawyer for a big Fortune 500 company. He really was ashamed because he used to brag that he had, in his 50, 60 years of practicing law, never once represented a corporation. When I was assistant council for a Fortune 500 corporation, that was a low point for my father.
Torgerson: It seemed to help you when you took on Coleman v. Block at least.
Vogel: It did. I think having a wide variety of experiences and, if you're from the Midwest going to the East Coast or going to the West Coast, and you know having those experiences is very useful. But I was always drawn back to home when people would ask me, “Where are you from?” I never said New York or Washington DC or Connecticut. All places that I'd lived for years. I always said North Dakota. And I think that's something about, you know, the, the Great Plains. It has an impact on the people who live here. It's the sky, it's the prairie, it's the expansiveness, it's the people. It’s amazing, I think, the Great Plains.
Torgerson: I agree. And I similarly when people ask where I'm from, I say, I'm from Montana, instead of saying that I'm from Seattle, because it does feel more like home to me than anywhere else.
Before we move into the – I'd like to speak about the economic conditions of the seventies and things that led into the ‘80s farm crisis. But before then I wanna draw on a couple of things from earlier history that I thought were just fascinating. Like the parity programs from FDR and how in your book you kind of equate the loss of the parity programs to a loss of rural population. So from between the ‘50s and ‘60s you wrote that the population dropped 30%, and then between the ‘60s and ‘70s it dropped another 26%. So I don't know if you wanna add anything else about that time period and just how powerful the parity programs were and also the penny auctions that farmers did themselves and the anti-corporate farm law that North Dakota citizens took into their own hands and made happen.
Vogel: All of those topics, the parity program is something that I grew up with in the background, but as I was studying the ‘30s, I understood better how extremely important it was. And parity was basically that farmers should be at parity with the rest of the economy. And there is a formula for measuring parity. And the idea was to keep supply in rough approximation of demand. And when parity was working, then farmers were making more, rural people were doing better. But as parity dropped and dropped and dropped, by the way it's still measured by USDA, it's kind of like a ghostly relic of the ‘30s that they measure parity. And they've tweaked the parity ratio several times over the years so that it does not look as bad as it actually is. But it kept people in the country at parity with people in the city, so that all people could be lifted up at the same time. And it had a huge impact. But one of the problems of course, is that farm products were not produced at lower than the cost of production.
Right now, farmers spend more money raising their wheat and their corn and their other crops than they get from the market. So who benefits? It's the big, it's the manufacturers, the grocery store chains and so on, not the farmers. And then the federal government programs sort of prop up farmers because farms are an essential part of the national security. I believe, and I think the pandemic really showed how important it is to have food that is produced in the US, in our region, in our area, so that people will have food. It’s really important, and they understood that in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s. And then with the attachment to globalized trade that's been forgotten. But the pandemic reminded us that food is as important to our national security as any other factor. And who grows food? Farmers.
Torgerson: Did parity kind of go out the window with get big or get out policies, or was it the Reagan administration that those programs started to fall to the wayside?
Vogel: I think there was a gradual erosion because when parity was working well, people didn't know why times were good probably, but I think it was because of parity. And so the loss of parity over time was masked by various government programs or more opportunities for marketing abroad when other countries were having disastrous crop years and so on. I'm not an ag economist, so in a debate with an ag economist, I wouldn't do all that well. But I saw the impact on human beings. And I think if you start looking at what is the impact on human beings, then you'd say that the parity program is extremely important. People have forgotten about it, but it really was a very good idea. I think it should be brought back. And I think it's important that people in rural areas have a fair chance at success.
Torgerson: I really liked how when we first spoke, you discussed how we really need more sociologists to talk about these issues.
Vogel: Yeah, one of my big dreams is to replace economists with social workers. Like USDA has a chief economist and they have a whole slew of economists specialists who keep track of all of these different things. But if we had a department of social work and they were looking at how are people doing, how are the farm kids doing? How are the people in the countryside? How are the people in the small towns doing? And they brought these government programs back to the impact on people. I think that would be a welcome addition to the national debate.
Torgerson: Another thing that I loved about your book and highlighting the North Dakota nine was the human suffering that you that you profiled that I think is really important for us to remember when we're talking about these issues.
Vogel: Yeah, it was in the Reagan administration that a number of people got into high public office who had as their core belief that the government should get out of agriculture, get rid of parity, get rid of these government programs that made low cost loans to farmers. You know, like eliminate all that and let people just stand on their own two feet. They had that as a driving impetus, and they wanted to get rid of this whole low cost farm loan program that had been set up in the 1930s and had worked so well for so many years, helped so many farmers, start farms, establish themselves, pay for the farms, pay for the loans. The government did not lose money on these low-cost loans. All the loans were paid back. The government actually made a profit. There are very few defaults as long as it was run appropriately. But in the ‘70s, they made some changes to those programs. And then when Ronald Reagan got elected, the government decided to, they basically wanted to shut the whole thing down. And they were merciless, merciless.
The way they were getting farmers to leave their farms was to deprive them of all of the income from their farm. And that was done overnight. Their bank accounts were emptied. They couldn't get a penny from their dairy checks or their grain checks. And it was sudden and it was ruthless. And they were given a hearing, if you could call it that, maybe months later to see if that was the right thing to do or not. And the hearing officer would be, a person would already weighed in on shutting that farm down. So they were biased. It was an unbelievably cruel system and it was intolerable to me. So that's why I, I felt compelled to bring this lawsuit against the Farmer's Home Administration. It's now called the Farm Service Agency, and they make farm loans. It's a great, it's a great program. So I used to say, you know, that I, who was suing USDA and the Farmer's Home Administration was their biggest fan, because I wanted it to work the way it was supposed to wok. It was really being operated in a cruel and heartless way, and not the way it was intended.
Torgerson: “I pictured these families, some with children and dairy cows named Suzy and Sweetheart. These were families with hayfield and croplands named after the original settlers (the Carlson quarter, Schmidt’s pasture). These were families with memberships in churches and social groups (Sons of Norway, the Bohemian Hall). These families were the ‘real’ people I had longed to work for when I felt isolated in my office in the Treasury Department. They were so much more than stats on a memo.”
Vogel: Yeah, that’s right.
A message from Montana Farmer’s Union: “Support for this episode comes from Montana Farmers Union, an organization dedicated to supporting farms, ranches, the people on the ground and the communities who surround them. Learn more at montanafarmersunion.com.”
Torgerson: Could you just speak about the early moments of starting this case and the first phone call that you got that started the whole big journey going?
Vogel: Well the first phone call came from someone that I had known in high school. And by this point I was already aware of the Farmer's Home Administration because I'd been at the Federal Trade Commission enforcing the Equal Credit Opportunity Act when the law was just brand new. And one of the entities that we had jurisdiction over was USDA and the Farmer's Home Administration. And during that period of time, we saw big national organizations who were discriminating. We went after Montgomery Ward. We went after Bloomingdale's.
Vogel: Like a whole bunch of, creditors. Amoco oil. There was redlining going on. There was discrimination against women. But the worst of them all was this outfit I'd never heard of before, which was called the Farmer's Home Administration. And I couldn't believe it. It was an agency of the federal government. And why were we getting so many complaints about them? So I went over, we went over to USDA and thought that well, they should just change their ways, but there was real resistance. I was, you know just out of law school and, you know, back then there were very few women lawyers. But I looked at their application form and the bottom of the application form had signature lines and one said “farmer” and the other said “wife.”
Torgerson: Oh my gosh, I can't imagine reading that.
Vogel: So it was like just pulling nails. These bureaucrats did not want to change their ways. And actually this was under Democrats. Well, it didn't matter. It didn't matter. These were not political appointees, these were career bureaucrats, but they had their way and they didn't want to change. And they were exceptionally condescending and arrogant. And I said I would get even. So when the farmer called and he started to complain about Farmer’s Home I was disposed to believe him. I was disposed to believe that this agency would behave that badly and be violating farmer's rights. So I started with that one farmer, and that was, that was basically a Freedom of Information Act case he was just trying to get his records.
But I ended up learning quite a bit about it. And then when I came back to North Dakota, other farmers started to call me, and they started telling me these tales of mistreatment and the conduct of the agency. That was just unbelievable. And I learned that the agency was now run by people who didn't believe in the agency or its mission. They wanted to get rid of the Farmer's Home Administration, and the way of doing that was to foreclose on farmers.
So they had this practice of basically pushing farmers out, and they did it by starving them out. And if that didn't work, then they would foreclose. And it was really bad. Before I knew it, I had people calling me from all over the country. My phone number was on lists saying, there's a lawyer in North Dakota who will help you. And phone calls came in from all over the country. And I wanted to do a lot of cases and then I got a small grant for $15,000 from the J. Rodrick MacArthur Foundation. And that was enough for me to say, I will do one case in North Dakota. And you know, that was really naive on my part to think that that amount of money… but yeah, naivete is a secret weapon.
So that's how the case started.
Torgerson: Wow. And how much do you think the general public knew about what was going on with farmers at that time? Was it known?
Vogel: Yeah there was a general recognition that there was a farm crisis. And there was a lot in the national news, and there was a lot going on in Congress. And it was interesting too because not only were farmers protesting and upset and complaining, but also Congress was. Congress was saying, you're not doing this the way you ought to be doing it. You are not following our laws. And there were resolutions and complaints but it didn't matter because, John Block and others were led mostly by the Director of Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman. They wanted to get rid of this whole agency. So that was the plan. I didn't know all of that. I just thought, this is mistreatment and we can step in and we'll get a judge and we'll stop it. I kept thinking that it wouldn't have to go that far, but it certainly did.
Torgerson: So the accelerated payment schedules of borrowers and the foreclosure quotas in which FMHA district directors had delinquency reduction goals of 23%. Was that all kind of directed down from Stockman and from kind of this larger goal of wanting to shut down the Farmer's Home Administration?
Vogel: Yes, Stockman had issued an edict to all of the agencies that they had to reduce. If they had loans, they had to collect them. So they were getting orders from Stockman, and then that went to the head of the Farmer's Home Administration who believed that the agency shouldn't even be there. So he sent out directives to all the states that you have to reduce the delinquencies within months. And if you don't do that, then we're going to take away your home loan programs, which are extremely popular in their states. So this set in motion a cascade of collection actions and pressure on farmers to, to quit. And if they didn't quit, they were going to face foreclosure by the federal government. It was very, very daunting. And what this did too, then, is it pushed land onto the market.
So during the ‘70s, land values had been going up, and then in about ‘82, they were flat, and then all these farms went on the market. And when appraisers value farmland they used recent sales. So many of these sales were not foreclosure sales. They were forced sales because of pressure from Farmer's Home. And all of a sudden land values started to go down, and then they dropped like a rocket. And then that pushed more lenders into fear that if they didn't collect, they would be left holding the bag and not be able to get all their money back. And it was just a frenzy. And farmers were basically helpless. But it started with this foreclosure, I think it started with this foreclosure reduction memo that came from Farmer's Home. And that's one of the reasons why I wrote the book, because I really don't want to see anything like this ever happen again.
Farmer's Home for 50 years had had a really solid repayment rate. And some years the farm economy is not so great, but other years it will be better. So if lenders are patient, they will come out okay. It’s really important that people look back at that history and they see what could happen that's bad and not repeat those same mistakes.
In the ‘80s, I had the benefit of having grown up in the Nonpartisan League, hearing all about the different things that had been done in North Dakota by Governor Langer. And then my grandfather had been manager of the state-owned bank. And so I knew what happened in the ‘30s could happen again. And in the ‘30s the mantra of the Nonpartisan League was stick with the farmer. Don't let the farms go. Stick with them, be patient. They will come out of this. This is not their fault. And so that was the mantra I grew up with.
And so in the ‘80s, I was able to take these lessons of the ‘30s that I had had the good fortune of hearing about all that time. And now I wrote this book about the ‘30s and the ‘80s so that in the 2020s, we don't make the same mistakes that were made in the past. And I'm really happy that I think the message is getting out.
Torgerson: Do you have inklings that things are kind of headed in the direction that they went in the ‘80s and in the ‘30s?
Vogel: Well, yes. It depends on how you look at it, like do farmers make enough money from their farming and their ranching to keep their farms and ranches afloat? Probably not.
Torgerson: Not always.
Vogel: Today that gap, which is called the cost price squeeze, is masked by a wide variety of federal government programs to support farmers. And amongst them are crop insurance programs where farmers don't pay the full cost, different payment programs, set aside programs. You name it. There's a lot of them. And I don't pretend to be an authority on them, but underlying it all is this concern that if that those government programs were taken away, then the farmers would be helpless because the markets aren't fair.
Like we need better antitrust law enforcement so that farmers have options for selling their animals and their crops. And we need better regulation. And we need a whole host of programs to help people get started in farming. There's a real problem today, the farmers are in general getting older and older, and it's harder and harder for young farmers to start. And that's a crisis too. And it's in plain sight.
Torgerson: I agree and I think one of the farmers, or you wrote in your book that in the
‘80s, farmers weren't looking for more credit, they were looking for better prices. And so we can't just put band aids on of more credit or farm programs that aren't really solving the base issue that the cost of production is higher than what they're getting at the market.
Vogel: It's a big problem. But there are a number of farm groups and organizations that are out there working. And I have little bookmarks that I give out to people. And the bookmarks recommend that non-farmers go look at websites like the National Farmers Union, Farmer's Legal Action Group, which is a nonprofit law firm that works with farmers nationwide. It's absolutely great. And of course, Willie Nelson's Farm Aid.
Farm Aid is having a concert that's coming up, and that concert will give money to a whole wide array of farm organizations that are doing god's work out in the countryside helping farmers and ranchers. So I think like supporting those organizations and following their lead and asking politicians questions about what they're doing to help farmers is a good idea. Like in North Dakota, I'm suggesting to all my friends that when somebody knocks on the door and says, I'm running for the House or the Senate, or they meet somebody running for statewide office at the fair or something like that and aspiring politicians says that they would like your vote. You say, “well, yes, I'd love to visit, but first tell me, what are you doing for farmers?”
Torgerson: I love that you're telling people that, and I hope that people who don't grow up in states like North Dakota and Montana, or who don't maybe personally know a farmer also know that they, they should ask that question too. That this issue is everybody's issue
Vogel: Exactly, one of the things I'm feeling really optimistic about is like the resurgence of farmer's markets and farm to table restaurants and the recognition that that's where food comes from. So I think that's good. But again, if you ask your politicians, “what are you doing for farmers? Then I'll listen to all your other issues.” And just making them think about it a little bit might be what's needed.
Torgerson: I watched the film “Country” this weekend.
Vogel: Did you cry?
Torgerson: I did cry.
Vogel: But it's also joyous.
Torgerson: Yes it is. I like how Farm Aid and films [like Country] and your book again really speak to that human element of what farmers stand to lose if they lose their farms, that it's that it isn't just a business.
I think that's really important. And there's one quote I'd like to pull from your book to kind of bring it back a little bit to Coleman v. Block, you wrote, “Losing a home is traumatic. Losing a farm is even more so. For family farmers, everything was at stake: their livelihood, their heritage, their standing in the community, their school, their church, their legacy, their identity.”
So I'm wondering if you could speak a little bit to a couple of the North Dakota nine plaintiffs, and their identities that were at stake when you all were working to fight against the USDA?
Vogel: Well, now you're going to make me want to tear up, because they were so amazingly heroic. And that's why the subtitle of the book is the “North Dakota nine, and the Fight to Save the Family Farm,” because, you know, most people are extremely private about their personal financial trauma. And here were farmers who were facing foreclosure. And when I called them and said, “Will you be a plaintiff on this lawsuit? Can I use your name? Can I use your story?” They said, Yes.
And I will never forget Russell Folmer telling me, “It may be too late for me, but if I can help someone else, I will so this doesn't happen to other people.”
And that's exactly what we were able to do, because when we went to court and they couldn't all be at in the courtroom that day, but the judge had read all of their affidavits and he knew what had happened to them.
Dwight Coleman, who was the first named lead plaintiff, it was alphabetical, was just a young farmer. He'd grown up in a farm family that had been farming for generations, probably back to colonial times. And they moved out west and west and west, and he had just gotten this beginning farmer loan, and there were reverses. And he was told, “You have to get out.” I think he'd only been farming 18 months. They were going to foreclose on him.
And it was like, “I'm a beginning farmer. This is a beginning farmer loan.” It was just awful.
He wasn't offered a hearing. He wasn't told how he could defend himself. When he heard that I was looking for plaintiffs, he came to a picnic meeting and he told me a story, and it was like, Oh my goodness, what had happened to him was so illustrative of what was happening to so many other people. And he said, I could use his story. So I still see him from time to time.
By the way, one of the happy things about this is that even though the government had said that every one of these North Dakota nine was a hopeless case, they were definitely going to lose their farms. They were all bad managers, blah, blah, blah. They farmed for decades after the lawsuit wrapped up. So, they were, they were good farmers. But those were bad times.
I think people who watch the movie “Country,” which is really like a documentary, the movie “Country” is set in Iowa in the summer of probably ‘82, ‘83 in there. And I was sending the affidavits of my lead plaintiffs to Jessica Lang, who was really the driving force behind that movie. She was the lead actress, but she was also the person who created the idea of the movie, who brought it all together. And then she went around in Iowa to real farm families who were suffering through the same thing. So the script of the movie “Country” you watched is so true to life.
And at the very end of the movie, there's the teletype of the news story announcing the national class action. For people who don't want to read the book, at least rent or buy the video of the movie country.
Torgerson: I love that the impacts of the Coleman case weren't just the Coleman reforms, but it was also that your impact on the cultural consciousness surrounding the ‘80s farm crisis, like through the “Country” film, which also just transported me back to like my farm home growing up, hearing the price of wheat being broadcasted on the radio. It was really, really good. And also the Life Magazine article, which I, I read through the scans on your website, and I loved how you talked about, the journalist. What was his name again?
Vogel: Richard Woodley.
Torgerson: Yeah, how he was less interested in parachuting into rural communities and going straight to a foreclosure sale. But he wanted to speak to farmers who wanted to talk to him. And he wanted to tell that story through your perspective.
Vogel: Yeah, and he brought along this phenomenal photographer, Grey Villet, who I didn't know it, but he was a world famous photographer at the time. I had no idea. He was very quiet and he always had a camera with him, he and Richard, just sort of accompanied me. And I loved it because they drove and they bought dinner and they were even, in a way babysitters, when I had to go in. But it was a great, great experience. But they wanted to tell the story also of the, the suffering that this treatment was causing farmers and people. It was a photo journalism essay in Life Magazine. It was pretty remarkable. It had a big impact, I think, on awareness. And it also had a big impact on me because that came out in, I think it was November of ‘82, and all of a sudden I started getting calls from all over the country. I was getting mail that said “Sarah Vogel, North Dakota,” and they would find my rural mailbox. So it certainly let me know that this was a severe national problem.
Torgerson: I really like how you also paralleled the story of the North Dakota nine with your own personal story and the journey that you went through to try to get yourself out of debt and also make it as a single mom. And at one point you talk about your son Andrew, who so sweetly asked if, like, why don't you just work at the daycare instead of working on this big case.
Vogel: Yeah, and that was actually quite a good suggestion because I would've made more money assisting at a daycare than I did as a lawyer. And it would've been better hours and everything. After a while when I got started working with these farmers, I could not leave them. I could not leave them. It, it didn't matter, you know my phone was disconnected, locked out of my office, no money for food. It didn't matter. I couldn't leave them because I viewed myself as basically their only defense. And they were so, so supportive of me. I mean, they knew I didn't have gas money. They helped me get gas because they would always have a tank at their farm. And they brought food and they came and did carpentry or whatever, however they could help, they helped. They were great. If a lawyer out there is looking for a really wonderful client, look for a farmer.
And they loved to explain things. I grew up in town. I didn't know anything. And they were the best teachers. They told me how hog farms worked and grain farms worked, and the livestock industry and what all these different terms meant because it's like another language. But they were patient and they taught me what I needed to know. And I wasn't shy about asking. I think that was maybe an advantage of being a woman lawyer, is that I was less reluctant to look macho.
I didn't mind saying, “what does that mean?” And then the farmers would just love it. They would like be off and running with their explanation of how things worked. So it was a great experience. And I loved, I really loved working with farmers, but it was very tough.
Torgerson: It might have even been a benefit that you grew up in town, because sometimes I feel bad asking questions that growing up on a farm, I feel like I should know. But it’s great that you asked all the questions that you needed.
Vogel: They definitely wanted their lawyer to know a little bit more about farming and ranching. They had an incentive to be good teachers too. Even though it was at times very scary, depressing, demoralizing, I mean, it was like frightening, even sometimes. It was overall a good experience. And, you know, and I think the fact that I was going through hard times too, gave me greater empathy and understanding.
Most of the farmers were couples. And most of the time the women were just ignored, but they were full partners in the farm and they were doing essential work. And I noticed that as people would come to my office and one of them maybe would completely fall apart but the other would keep it together. And sometimes it was the man who was falling apart, and the woman would keep it together, or the woman would fall apart and the man would keep it together. But they were teams. They were partners, and they got through it together. And typically they didn't tell the kids.
Torgerson: So there was one plaintiff that you worked on with Coleman v. Block that was the Crows Heart family, and a chapter that really stood, that stuck with me after I read your book was about the Garrison Dam and how it displaced 80% of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Tribes and the effect that had on Crows Heart and how they were stuck between the bureaucracy of the BIA and the USDA. So I was wondering if we could speak just a little bit about your work with Native American farmers, through that case and through Keepseagle vs. Vilsack case that you later took on.
Vogel: Back in the eighties when I was doing the Coleman v. Block case, I knew that if the government was treating white farmers this badly, I could not imagine how they were treating Native American farmers. So I definitely wanted to find a Native American farmer, so I reached out through the grapevine and I got a call back and it was Dwight Crows Heart. And he and his wife were, you know, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, they had been on this land, in North Dakota since they welcomed Lewis and Clark.
Lewis and Clark stayed with their predecessors. You know, they kept them alive. They were farmers. They had these big farms. And over the years, they had been pushed back and pushed back and pushed back. And then finally they were drowned out by a great big dam called Garrison Dam. And my hometown was Garrison, so really nearby where I grew up, and I remember seeing the water come up as a kid.
That was the hardest chapter of the whole book. I think I probably read 30 books or 40 books and I don't know how many drafts I did in trying to condense all this history and the importance of Native American agriculture to our country. So Dwight Crows Heart and his family told that story through their affidavit and their participation in the lawsuit. And many, many years later, I had the chance to participate in an equal Credit Opportunity Act case against USDA. And this took me back to my time at the FTC when I had been working on this same law. And so I volunteered to work on a national class action seeking equal credit opportunity for Native American farmers and ranchers. And I thought we all thought that the case would be over in a few years, but it ended up lasting total beginning to end 19 years and nine months.
It basically settled after about 12 years of ferocious litigation against USDA. It settled under President Obama. But one of the beautiful things about this case is we got I think $740 million. We made a lot of reforms to the way USDA does business. And most of the claims, I think 85% of the claims that were paid were approved and paid. And we had leftover money. We had a lot of leftover money. And so one of the things that came out of it was the formation of a big national charity called the Native American Agriculture Fund. And that arose out of the lawsuit. It was approved by the judge, and it's completely Native American-led. The board is all Native Americans, farmers and ranchers.
You can go to their website, it is phenomenal. Just yesterday they made $11 million worth of grants to small nonprofits all over the country. And they're making such a big difference. Another thing that I think is making a big difference is the creation of an equity commission. I was named to the Agriculture Subcommittee of the Equity Commission. And we are charged by Congress with making recommendations for changes to USDA to make the programs of USDA more equitable. And one of the proposals that I'm making is to revise the appellate process for civil rights complaints so that people who have civil rights complaints can also have the benefit of the National Appeals Division which I think grew out of the reforms in the Coleman case that were adopted by Congress. So there's a big long arc of history, you know, with years and years of changes and improvements so that farmers have more due process that they didn't have before the Coleman v. Block case, and now I'm trying to I guess put a ribbon around it and provide due process for civil rights complaints as well.
Torgerson: Wow. One of your parents' friends in your book you write, wrote your parents a letter and they wrote, “you must be very proud of the excellent and successful way that Sarah is handling the FMHA case.” And I think that this friend would say she's also very proud of how you are continuing the legacy.
Vogel: That lady was a really remarkable Nonpartisan Leaguer. So if the Nonpartisan League were proud of the work I was doing today, I would be very, very, very pleased.
Torgerson: I think that they would be. And you are such a hero, the farmer's lawyer, to so many. And I really look up to you after reading the book and am inspired to take more action in this fight.
There’s one quote that I'd like to leave us off with and then ask the question of like, what regular people, what everyday people can also do to contribute to supporting the family farm system of agriculture. But the quote that I'd like to preface that with is from FDR that you shared in your book, and it begins, “No cracked earth, no blistering sun, no burning wind, no grasshoppers are a permanent match for the indomitable American farmers and stockmen and their wives and children who have carried on through desperate days, and inspire us with their self-reliance, their tenacity and their courage. It was their fathers' task to make homes. It is their task to keep those homes. It is our task to help them win their fight.”
Vogel: We reach out to farm organizations that are doing this work. By the way, Farm Aid has a list of hundreds of them, and many are small, many are underfunded. And reach out to them and then do what you can to buy as close to the farmer as you can and tell the politicians that they need to make sure the antitrust laws are enforced. That they need to give farmers fair markets that they need to protect farmers against rapacious corporations. And just because a corporation puts the word farm in their name, doesn't make them a farmer like do a deeper dive. And we also need democracy reform so that our country is not run by corporations. It needs to be run by people. That's what the premise of the United States is about, is a country that is to be run on behalf of the people of the country. Not corporate America. The list goes on and on, but I would say people should be active and involved and not discouraged and reach out to other people who are doing the same kind of work. If they can't do things themselves, they can contribute money to others who are working in this area. There's a whole host of farm organizations that are trying to turn the tide and they need our support.
Torgerson (narrating): Thank you to Sarah Vogel, Beth Schatz Kaylor and my cousin Tiffany Vinje for making this episode possible. Visit Sarah’s episode page at reframingrural.org to find links to her memoir “The Farmer’s Lawyer,” and numerous resources mentioned in this episode like the National Farmers Union, Farm Aid and the Native American Agricultural Fund.
Next month I’ll bring you with me to my hometown Dagmar, Montana, the site of our first season “Coming Home,” and where I’ll share a new story on my father Russ’s retirement from wheat farming this fall. This episode will also feature succession stories from other farmers in Sheridan County and explore how amid an aging farmer population, the next generation, including Dagmar farmer Tanner Jorgensen, is making plans for the future of their families’ multigenerational farms.
Tanner Jorgensen: I think it's really easy to be pessimistic about the future, just the natural way that farmers think, you know, commodity prices are down further. We were just in talking about fertilizer prices yesterday. Oh, my Lord. It's expensive. I mean we spend more money on fertilizer than most people spend on their houses and that’s not one year. That’s every year. So that’s the new name of the game, managing risk, but I also think you need to look at it in terms of there’s a big opportunity out here too.
Torgerson (narrating): I produced and co-edited today’s story on Duwamish aboriginal territory with recordings captured on Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara lands. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music was composed and recorded by Aaron Spieldenner and Hazy Bay Music. Aaron Spieldenner was also the principal editor of this episode. Season Three Groundwork is funded in part by Humanities Washington, Humanities Montana, Headwaters Foundation and listeners like you. Funding for this episode was also provided by Montana Farmers Union. Visit montanafarmersunion.com to learn more.
To access resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation to Reframing Rural visit reframingrural.org. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation and an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC.
Thank you for listening!