SARAH VOGEL THE FARMER’S LAWYER

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SINGLE MOM LAWYER TAKES DOWN THE USDA

The midwest farm sector in the 1980s experienced the worst crisis since the Great Depression.  Some of downturn was due to bad weather and some of it was general economic conditions.  Most of the destruction was caused by Ronald Reagan and his free-market presidency.  Reagan’s minions deliberately dismantled the agricultural financial support system that had been created in the 1930s.  

David Stockman, budget director for the Reagan administration, was determined to get rid of small farmers, whom he saw as inefficient and a drain on government resources.  The thinking was that if you could just get rid of the small farmer then maybe taxes could be reduced.   And wouldn’t that be a great thing for America– pesticide-infused monoculture crops, profitable agribusiness, cheap grain and low taxes.

This attempt by Stockman and John Block of the USDA to drive the small farmers out of the fields ran into a buzzsaw in the form of Sarah Vogel.  Vogel, single mother and penniless lawyer, sued the USDA.  She won a class action suit that saved a quarter of a million family farms.

This book is a memoir of Sarah Vogel’s life to the time of the successful conclusion of the lawsuit.  

Her primary target was the Farmer’s Home Loan Administration(FmHA).  The FmHA was created in 1946 to provide and guarantee loans for rural families and farmers. It managed housing, utility, business, and community development programs that provided credit and technical assistance.   It is called Home Loan Administration, but it was not just for rural housing. FmHA also provided loans for equipment and land and cows, etc.  It was the go-to agency for family farmers for any kind of farm expansion.

The FmHA was created to replace the Farm Security Administration which replaced the Resettlement Administration which was created during the New Deal to resettle landless farmers.   Conservatives were worried that those New Deal agencies were getting too radical and too successful.  PHIT has a series of documentaries on successful Resettlement Communities in Texas.  You can view them here.

A lot of the book explains the technical bits about how farmers live off debt.  Farmers have to have access to debt and the FmHA was set up to provide that access.  In the glory years of the 70s, with land prices surging, farmers were encouraged to expand their operations and FmHA lent them buckets of money.  There were plenty of assets to support such loans.  But when land prices plummeted in the 1980s, due to the government induced recession of the early 80s, technically the farmers no longer had enough assets to justify continued support their loans.  The law clearly said that FmHA was required to help the farmers work out a recovery plan, and the law also gave farmers the right to a neutral arbitrator.  FmHA forgot to inform farmers of their rights and when farmers asked, FmHA denied those procedural rights.

Farmers were losing their land at massive rates.

Word got out that…”Hey there’s a woman in North Dakota who will represent you for free.  They flooded in.” Sarah Vogel fought and won the good fight.  The USDA, John Block, David Stockman, and Ronald Reagan had to change their policy.

Sarah Vogel went on the become the Agricultural Commissioner of North Dakota and with Jim Nichols of Minnesota and Jim Hightower of Texas became the voices of progress and the defenders of the family farmer.  One can only hope that she writes a memoir about the rest of her career.

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