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Sarah Vogel: Legal giant killer in the 1980s farm crisis

Editor's note: This is the third part of a multi-part series, the "1980s Farm Crisis Flashback"

BISMARCK, N.D. — Sarah Vogel was uniquely prepared to have a leading part in the 1980s farm crisis.

Born in 1946, Vogel was a granddaughter of Frank A. Vogel, chief adviser to Bill Langer, the famous Nonpartisan League party governor and U.S. senator of the 1930s and 1940s.

Sarah grew up hearing about Langer, who put North Dakota on the political map when he aggressively imposed a moratorium on farm foreclosures and sent the National Guard to stop sheriff sales. Frank Vogel was his tax commissioner, his head of the Bank of North Dakota, a state-owned bank that remains unique in the nation today.

Her father, Robert Vogel, a former U.S. attorney and member of the North Dakota Supreme Court. Sarah followed her father into law.

Sarah Vogel had gone to Washington, D.C., where she became a lawyer special assistant in the Department of the Treasury. She remembers being pregnant in Washington, D.C., when the first tractorcades snarled traffic in the capital in the late 1978 and 1980.

She remembers being sympathetic to farmers' plight, but frustrated that the farmers and their large tractors on the National Mall — the large lawn area between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol — didn't seem to communicate policy changes to lawmakers.

What she saw

TractorcadesIn 1981, Vogel and a young son returned to live in Bismarck, where she started a law practice. She says she "could recognize the '80s (crisis) because I knew about the '30s." She had studied the Farmers Holiday Association movement, a militant farm protest movement in Iowa and surrounding states.

Vogel was approached by farmers who had glitches with FmHA loan timing, coupled with other circumstances including droughts or storms, and the cost-price squeeze. Most said they thought they could hang on but just needed more time.

In November 1982, Vogel was featured in a Life magazine photo essay by Grey Villet, as she met with financially strapped farmer-clients in North Dakota and Montana.

FmHA policies were the focus of much of Vogel's work. The FmHA had been created in the 1930s to help poorer, downtrodden farmers, come out of tenancy and get farms.

When Vogel was in the U.S. Treasury Department, she'd tried to stop a national rule that allowed federal agencies to override state laws on interest rate caps. "Variable interest rates are a killer, and I think there are a lot of them out there now," she says. It was especially problematic when the federal government began operating at a large deficit.

Federal triggers

In 1980, Ronald Reagan had campaigned for president promising to "make life in rural America prosperous again." As president, Reagan's tax cuts spurred higher interest rates.

David Stockman, the son of a Texas fruit farmer and a former congressman from Michigan, was Reagan's head of the Office of Management and Budget. Among other things, Stockman didn't want farm program expenditures to keep up with increasingly high levels of inflation. This led to farm foreclosures, and a "tidal wave" of related problems, Vogel recalls.

Legal Services officials in Georgia had helped an individual who had both an FmHA rural housing loan and a farm loan. An FmHA regulation required a deferral option before the agency could foreclose on a housing loan. Farmers were fighting FmHA in a string of individual cases.

A class action

Sarah Vogel in 2018 is working on writing a book about the 1980s farm crisis.In the summer of 1982, Vogel built her case by selecting a collection of named class action plaintiffs in North Dakota who would demonstrate a "fact pattern" that would "cover the array" of issues.

The farmer-plaintiffs had to be above reproach. They could not be accused of any crime, such as illegally converting (selling) collateral grain or other assets. She also needed people willing to commit to the suit as the named plaintiffs, which required publicly acknowledging that they owed bills they couldn't pay.

North Dakotans were inclined to be "ashamed" of not being able to pay debts. "That was a rough summer because I was getting calls from all over the country," Vogel says.

She filed the case in March 1983. The farmers couldn't pay her, so her law firm did it on her own. She lost her house in Bismarck and moved into her father's basement in Grand Forks.

The ACLU paid for the cost of depositions. Judge Bruce Van Sickle gave her a preliminary injunction to stop foreclosures on North Dakota borrowers in May 1983.

There were nine plaintiffs from around the state, including a Native American. The first — alphabetically — was Dwight Coleman, a young cow-calf operator near Dunseith who had been weakened financially by drought and blizzard.

The FmHA was foreclosing on a farm purchase.

In November 1983, Van Sickle allowed the case to convert to a national class action case, over the opposition of the FmHA. A co-counsel from Missouri added plaintiffs from Missouri, Kansas and five other states. The case covered 285,000 farmers and stopped 16,000 foreclosures in court.

In 1984, the federal authorities resisted complying, and Vogel brought contempt of court actions.

First paycheck

Vogel says many of her clients were suffering without money to pay for phone bills, food or gas. "None of them had been told about a right to an appeal and there was a right to appeal— statutory, constitutional and regulatory," she said. "I would tell them, 'Get your files.'"

She prescribed a process that involved numbering hundreds of pages, putting everything in chronological order, and identifying every time the farmer thought an FmHA decision had been made unfairly.

In 1985, after the Coleman v. Block class action foreclosure injunction, NIck Spaeth, the newly elected North Dakota attorney general, hired Vogel to pursue farm cases on behalf of the state.

Sarah VogelFinally, Vogel had a paycheck.

Jim Massey, a Minnesota lawyer, became the lead counsel in the Coleman case. Vogel would file amicus briefs on behalf of the state. She would testify in Congress to create the Farm Credit Act of 1987, which affected both the FmHA and the Farm Credit System and folded in many of the due process requirements that the Coleman v. Block case had insisted on.

Vogel said the stressful times spawned a parade of outsiders who offered false hopes. Some were racist, anti-semitic, and potentially violent.

One group called the National Agricultural Press Association, from Colorado, was holding meetings in North Dakota, offering farmers information on "pro se" (do-it-yourself) legal cases.

Vogel rose to call legal "gobbledygoop." "Back then, I felt I was the only one with credibility to stand up and say, 'Your techniques don't work.'"

She tells how a NAPA farm leader from out-of-state started getting angry and verbally intimidating toward her. Two farmers from Wishek, N.D., came to her side, and assured her, "Don'cha worry Sarah; we'll protec-cha."

She can laugh about it today.

Part one: 

1980s Farm Crisis: Origins, myths and realities: Jerusalem artichoke miracle crop was a sign

Part two:

A 1980s murder during the farm crisis: A desperate, hapless farmer and son kill ag lenders

Next week: Leveraged farmers make news; the times slowly change.