Decades later, lawyer revisits fight to save family farms

By AMY R. SISK The Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Late at night buried in legal briefs, Sarah Vogel occasionally took a moment to contemplate the magnitude of the lawsuit she had filed seeking to help farmers facing foreclosure.

"I should be keeping a diary," she thought.

But she had no time, especially as more and more farmers added their names to the 1983 class action suit. In all, 240,000 joined from across the country.

Instead of a diary, Vogel hung onto every slip of paper related to the case: notes from phone calls, bills she needed to pay and drafts of court documents she planned to file. She revisited them over the past few years to write a book, "The Farmer's Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm," The Bismarck Tribune reported.

Vogel used to store the records in her attic in Bismarck, but she donated them about 20 years ago for the public's use.

"I thought a historian would go over to the State Archives one day and write a book about the '80s farm depression, and no one did," she said.

So, Vogel decided to write the book herself.

Her memoir follows the lawsuit, known as Coleman v. Block, which she filed on behalf of nine North Dakota farmers named as plaintiffs whose stories were representative of the troubles facing thousands across the state and nation.

Vogel worked on the East Coast after law school, eventually as a special assistant to the U.S. Treasury secretary.

"I had this enormous job watching out for the interest of the people of the United States, but I never saw any people," she recalled.

She eventually decided to move back to North Dakota, where she had grown up and attended college at the University of North Dakota.

At the time, farmers were experiencing the worst crisis since the Great Depression amid high interest rates and low crop prices. Many who had borrowed money through the federal Farmers Home Administration faced foreclosure.

"The more I learned about how they were being treated by an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the more outraged I became," Vogel said.

She started working on their behalf as she settled into her new life in Bismarck after purchasing a house along the Missouri River and opening a law practice. Her clients were broke.

"One farmer brought me a freezer of fish," she said. "Others brought baked goods. I'd go to a farm and they'd fill up my tank with gas. They were wonderful and supportive and they paid what they could, but it was not enough."

In a twist of irony, Vogel herself faced foreclosure on the house she had purchased. She packed up and moved with her young son to Grand Forks to live in her parents' basement. She started work at her father's law firm, continuing to represent the farmers.

Vogel filed the lawsuit in March 1983, according to Tribune archives. She sought a preliminary injunction to halt the foreclosures while the litigation played out. Such a move required that she show the farmers were likely to succeed in court.

U.S. District Judge Bruce Van Sickle granted the request in May that year and certified the case as a class action suit. Vogel recalled "a line of reporters" seeking to interview her that day. The early win was "very, very exciting," she said.

"The farmers of North Dakota were protected, although the Department of Justice and USDA did not come along willingly," she said. "They were pretty upset over being told what to do by a bunch of broke farmers and a judge from North Dakota."

Van Sickle's ruling stopped the federal government from engaging in what Vogel termed "the starve-out," which stemmed from federal loan agreements that determined how much of a farmer's income went to the farmer's family or the government.

At times, farmers during the era earned less than expected because crop prices were low or untimely bad weather struck their fields. If they fell behind on payments, the government sometimes froze their incomes and emptied their bank accounts, leaving farm families without money for living expenses or to feed cattle, Vogel said.

Farmers struggled to obtain fair hearings to challenge the government's decisions, as the person presiding over a hearing could be the very person who recommended freezing a farmers' income.

"It was a kangaroo court," Vogel said.

Over time, her work drew significant attention. Life magazine wrote a profile of her. A national class action expert joined the legal team, as did the American Civil Liberties Union. News of the preliminary injunction prompted farmers across the country to call Vogel asking if she could help them, too. She did.

Van Sickle ruled again in the farmers' favor after a trial, Vogel said. The federal government challenged his decision but eventually dropped its appeal.

Congress passed a law in the late 1980s enacting some of the same reforms Vogel and the farmers she represented sought, such as neutral hearing officers and fairer appeal procedures.

"To me, that is the lasting legacy of this case," she said.

Vogel went on to work on agricultural issues for the North Dakota Attorney General's Office. The state's voters later elected her agriculture commissioner. She served in the role from 1989 to 1997 and is the only woman to have led the department.

Vogel's book has drawn praise from a number of prominent authors as well as country music singer Willie Nelson. The two met during the 1980s after Nelson heard about the farmers' lawsuit. He started the Farm Aid concert series in the mid-'80s to raise money to help farmers.

"Sarah Vogel and I share an ornery persistence in the face of bullies," Nelson wrote in a review of her book. "This is her real life story of fighting for farmers as they were pushed off the land by a plan, ordered and carried out by top officials of our government. Sarah's story, told in her unique voice, inspires me -- and I'm sure it will inspire you -- to fight for family farmers."