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September 26: The Farmers Crisis and Jessica Lange

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Friendship with a lawyer from Bismarck led to famed actor Jessica Lange receiving an Oscar nomination in 1985. While she did not win, Lange went on to testify before Congress about the plight of farmers. How did a Bismarck lawyer inspire such a chain of events? It all began when Sarah Vogel of Mandan was roommates with Jessica Lange’s older sister at the University of North Dakota. Vogel had remained close friends with the Lange family.

Sarah Vogel got her law degree at New York University and then worked for the Treasury Secretary in Washington. In 1981, after a divorce, she moved back to Bismarck with her young son to go into private practice. She arrived amid an economic crisis that was hitting farm families across the country. In the early 1970s, farm incomes and inflation rose dramatically, causing a huge increase in farmland value. Many farmers took out loans to buy increasingly expensive land. However, the early 1980s interest rates rose, farmland values plummeted, and exports to foreign countries declined, especially after the 1980 embargo of grain exports to the Soviet Union. Many of these small family farms had received loans from the Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Home Administration, which was now starting to foreclose on devastated farmers.

Sarah Vogel represented farmers who were facing foreclosure. Even though few of her clients could pay her, Vogel pushed forward, using Dunseith farmer Dwight Coleman as the lead plaintiff in a class action suit against John Block, the Secretary of Agriculture. The case was tried in U.S. District Court in Bismarck. This led to an injunction preventing the USDA from foreclosing on 16,000 farms in 1983.

Jessica Lange was inspired by her friend Sarah Vogel, and co-produced and starred in the 1984 movie, Country. On this date in 1984 the Associated Press wrote about Lange’s connection to the Bismarck lawyer and the groundbreaking court case. The movie follows the fictionalized account of a family farm facing foreclosure by the Farmers Home Administration. Lange’s performance led to her Oscar nomination and an invitation to testify before Congress about the struggles family farms endured. Sarah Vogel was later elected as North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture, a position she held from 1989 to 1997.

Dakota Datebook by Trista Raezer-Stursa


  • Associated Press. “N.D. Friend, Stories Spurred Actress to do Film on Farmers,” The Bismarck Tribune, September 26, 1984, pg. 11A.
  • Lamm, Brian. “Banking and the Agricultural Problems of the 1980s,” in Histories of the Eighties: Lessons for the Future. Vol. 1, An Examination of the Banking Crisis of the 1980s and Early 1990s. Washington, D.C.: FDIC, 1997.
  • Pates, Mikkel. “‘The Farmer’s Lawyer’ Shows Farm Crisis Dramas,” AgWeek, November 22, 2021.
  • Pates, Mikkel. “Coming Home: Sarah Vogel Returns to North Dakota,” AgWeek, November 30, 2021.
  • Pates, Mikkel. “Surviving to Win: Sarah Vogel’s Coleman v. Block Lawsuit Rocked Agriculture,” AgWeek, December 6, 2021.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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