Half-memoir, half-story of a lawyer who fought foreclosures on family farms in the 1980s.
“Farmer’s Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm” by Sarah Vogel; Bloomsbury Editions (432 pages, $ 28)
Agriculture has never been an easy job. The work is physically demanding and sometimes dangerous, the prices of raw materials are capricious, the agribusiness giants control the market and the whims of Mother Nature are often cruel. In addition, the hours are zero.
This is all to say that it has always taken strong souls to earn a living by working the land. And, at least in recent history, this has perhaps never been truer than it was in the early 1980s, when low prices and widespread indebtedness pushed thousands of family farmers across the states. United and especially in the Midwest going bankrupt. More than a generation later, the agricultural crisis of the 1980s still resonates across rural America.
Sarah Vogel returns to those dark days in “The Farmer’s Lawyer,” which chronicles her work as senior counsel for a North Dakota farm group whose lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture led to a Nationwide class action lawsuit that ultimately overturned the heavy-handed lending practices that led to rampant farm foreclosures. Part memory, populist political history, and audience drama, Vogel’s book is a charming, sometimes compelling, recollection of a singular era in American agriculture.
Born in Bismarck in 1946, daughter of a federal judge and a judge of the State Supreme Court and granddaughter of a politician and strategist, Vogel and her family history are involved in the rise of the League. non-partisan North Dakota, a socialist movement that has espoused the banks, mills and grain elevators to loosen corporate control over agriculture. Vogel convincingly credits Nonpartisan League-backed politicians with helping to create a farm safety net during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency that brought many farmers out of the Great Depression.
“As a young girl growing up in a League family, I absorbed the lessons of my father’s 1930s,” writes Vogel. “I believed that during terrible economic times, foreclosures from farmers were unfair and unfair.”
Only a few years after starting his legal career, Vogel had the opportunity to put these principles into practice. A single mother working as a lawyer for the US Treasury Department, she decided at the end of the Carter administration to return to North Dakota and set up her own law firm. Soon an old acquaintance with ties to financially struggling farmers began to distribute her name and number across the farming country. Before she could help him, Vogel writes in his wry, wry voice, she was “setting up a law firm for the farmers who couldn’t pay my fees.”
Through emotional, sometimes painful, meetings with farmers in dire financial straits, Vogel began to see a pattern of what appeared to be predatory lending practices by the USDA’s Farmers Home Administration (FmHA). Driven by the fiscal zeal of the new Reagan administration, the FmHA was pushing farmers to quickly liquidate their farms and related assets to pay off their government debts. If the book bogs down a bit as Vogel tries to explain the complexities of FmHA policies and their implications for farmers, you feel that she considers it important to record what exactly happened. so that it never happens again.
“The Farmer’s Lawyer” gains momentum as Vogel prepares for the courtroom showdown against Coleman v. Block, in which she represented a group of nine North Dakota farmers against the main defendant John Block, then the US Secretary of Agriculture (the farmers called him the “Auction Block,” writes Vogel). She self-deprecates her own inexperience in the courtroom, admitting that she got lucky with a sympathetic judge as she faces a government defense team that seemed at times under-prepared, at times needlessly malicious. .
His eventual legal victory helped launch Vogel’s own political career. A Democrat, she served two terms as North Dakota’s elected commissioner of agriculture, ending her term in 1996 just as state politics took a right turn. As you wrap up “The Farmer’s Lawyer,” you wonder if political circumstances will ever arise in the future that will rekindle the kind of prairie progressivism that Vogel once embodied.
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