Editor’s Note: This is the first of a multi-part story by Mikkel Pates, Agweek staff writer, about the book THE FARMER’S LAWYER: The North Dakota nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm. The book by Sarah Vogel is 388 pages and was published by Bloomsbury Publishing.
FARGO, North Dakota — Sarah Vogel’s memoir, “The Farmer’s Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm,” looks at Vogel's career as a lawyer/advocate, with a gritty, behind-the-scenes account of the 1980s farm credit crisis from one of its central figures, and her David and Goliath struggle against the federal government on behalf of broke farmers.
Vogel, now 75, living in Bismarck, won Coleman v. Block, in 1983. The national class action suit stopped foreclosures by the the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency and its Farmers Home Administration, an agency designed to help farmers. It protected some 240,000 farmers across the country.
The Farmer’s Lawyer was released on Nov. 3, 2021. In the book, Vogel tells how — and why — she made history in agriculture, which helped lead to national ag lending reforms in the 1987 Agricultural Credit Act.
Vogel reveals behind-the-scenes personal dramas. She was soft-spoken, shy — a “writing” lawyer. And she didn’t know a grain combine from a planter. Prior to Coleman v. Block she had never tried a case and was utterly unfamiliar with court policies and strategies.
But she won.
She went on to be the first woman to be elected to head a state agriculture department. In 2006, the American Agricultural Law Association awarded her its distinguished service award. In 2015, singer Willie Nelson honored her at the Farm Aid 30th anniversary, describing her as “a giant killer in ag law.” She went on to serve as co-counsel in a national class action case — Keepseagle v. Vilsack — filed to redress USDA race discrimination against Native American ranchers and farmers.
‘For the people’
Sarah’s grandfather, Frank Vogel, was a chief strategist for the Nonpartisan League, a left-wing multi-state political movement rising from a farmer’s rebellion in 1916 and 1917. The NPL (then associated with the Republican party, shifting to the Democratic party in 1956) fomented for the formation of North Dakota’s state-owned bank and mill and elevator. The NPL had full control of both North Dakota houses in 1918. It installed the “initiated measure,” way of using public vote to pass laws and pushed for anti-corporate farming laws still in place today.
Sarah said the concept of foreclosure moratoria was part of her family’s political heritage.
In the book she detailed the grain price collapse after Armistice Day in 1918. Prices dropped from 1921 to 1928, when the national Depression hit.
In 1932, her grandfather, Frank Vogel, was the campaign manager for William “Wild Bill” Langer for governor. Langer was elected governor in 1932 and returned in 1936. He was the only Republican governor elected in 1932, when 70% of North Dakotans voted for Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Also in 1932, Langer declared a five-year moratorium on farm loan foreclosures and employed the National Guard to enforce it as an “act of war.” It was the time of the Farmers Holiday Association, a farm reactionary group that in 1934 counted 70,000 members in North Dakota. Usher Burdick (a future congressman and father of future U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-North Dakota) was its president. Frank Vogel helped write a “moratorium proclamation” called the “Langer Foreclosure Moratorium" and managed the Bank of North Dakota through the 1930s with farmer-friendly policies.
In 1943, Sarah's father, Robert Vogel, moved to Garrison, to practice law and to serve as part-time state’s attorney for McLean County, a hotbed for the Nonpartisan League. (Mary was born in 1944, Sarah in 1946, Frank in 1949.)
In 1954, Robert was appointed North Dakota’s U.S. attorney in the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration. He ran for Congress in 1962, was appointed to the North Dakota Supreme Court from 1973 and in 1974 was elected to fill a partial term. Robert became a UND law school professor and established Vogel Law firm in Grand Forks.
Sarah graduated from Mandan High School in 1964 and went on to the University of North Dakota, where as a 19-year-old sophomore she married a 24-year-old philosophy graduate student named James. The couple moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where she studied law at New York University. She took a job in the “all-women” legal department for the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, and then at “a big bank” and then “a Fortune 500 company.”
In 1977, Sarah and James moved to Washington, D.C.
Initially, she worked for the Federal Trade Commission, the program director for the newly-passed Equal Credit Opportunity Act, prohibiting race, age and gender discrimination. The ECOA required lenders specific reasons for turning credit applicants down. At the FTC, she dealt with “a slew of complaints” about the FmHA who felt they were exempt from ECOA.
While her career took off, her marriage ended after she had a baby. In the book, she describes how she found a Christmas gift in the trunk of her car from her husband to a “Patricia.”
“I changed the locks in our house and hired a full-time nanny,” she said. “Now I had to pay for a divorce lawyer in addition to childcare.”
A rising crisis
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the federal Emergency Relief Act of 1935, creating the Resettlement Administration (1935 to 1937), the Farm Security Administration (1937 to 1946), the FmHA (1946 to 1994). (President Bill Clinton’s folded its functions into the Consolidated Farm Service Agency, later shortened to today’s Farm Service Agency.)
In 1936, the agency required to work with Farm and Home Plans, supervised by “home management supervisors" for women and the home. The agency had “rehabilitation supervisors,” geared toward the male farmers. Eventually, the agency dropped the home managers and and renamed the rehabilitation supervisors as “county supervisors” — a title that stuck.
“I soon viewed Farmer Home as the worst, most discriminatory creditor of all the hundreds of creditors we regulated” at the FTC, she writes in the book. Sarah tried to get the FTC to sue the FmHA for failing to explain why they rejected credit to some applicants. ”I will never know why,” Vogel said.
Meanwhile, an overheating farm economy was leading to a credit crash.
From 1971 to 1973, the U.S. sold wheat, corn, and other commodities to Russia. U.S. grain prices soared. Net farm income peaked in 1973. North Dakota farmland and building values quadrupled in the 1970s. Interest rates skyrocketed.
In 1977, a group of farmers in Colorado formed the American Agriculture Movement, designed to protest their plight. On Aug. 4, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Agricultural Credit Act of 1978, which authorized $4 billion in economic emergency loans, giving farmers the “opportunity to refinance the debts they incurred during the past period of low prices.”
In November 1978, AAM farmers drove tractors to Washington in a “tractorcade” to advocate for parity, a price relationship in the 1940s that allowed profits. In February 1979, they parked 900 tractors on the National Mall.
Vogel remembered at the time being annoyed with the tractorcades in 1979.
"I was a nursing mother and I wanted a short commute, and when they blocked the Capital mall, we had a big detour. I was less sympathetic the second time through,” she said. She thought they talked mostly to each other. They were “prescient,” but didn’t communicate their cause.
“Their target was Congress,” she said.
In 1979, U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick, of the Democratic-Nonpartisan League, recommended Sarah to become a new special assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury for consumer affairs — advising the secretary on how to protect consumers dealing with IRS, customs, and others. Carter created the post in each of his cabinet departments.
While at Treasury, Sarah was approached by Charles “Chuck,” Perry, a North Dakota farmer. The two had dated in high school. Now, Perry was in trouble.
He had received a $150,000 FmHA loan in 1975 and a first mortgage of $50,000 from the Bank of North Dakota. The agency was foreclosing on him. In July 1979, the FmHA sued him for “converting,” or selling cows that were loan collateral.
On Jan. 4, 1980, Carter imposed an embargo on shipping 17 million tons wheat to the Soviet Union, for invading Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan won the presidency, and Vogel — a political appointee — lost her job on Dec. 13, 1980.
Vogel and her son would move back to Bismarck, where her work for farmers would begin.