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The Farmer's Lawyer

Remember first, as you read Sarah Vogel’s remarkable book, The Farmer’s Lawyer, that it is a memoir. This is her story to tell, grounded by solid legal records and trial transcripts.

A historian (which I am) would like some additional context on the farm crisis of the 1980s--the perfect storm of speculation, inflation, weather, market instability, and interest rates that brought matters to a head. Such material, however, might have damaged the focus and finding of the work.

The Farmer’s Lawyer, you see, is not about causation. It is about responsibility. Given the situation at hand, certain people were in authority to deal with it, making individual decisions about many thousands of farm families and the potential survival of their operations. These decision-makers of the Reagan administration--Secretary of Agriculture John Block, and more specifically the administrators of the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), galvanized by budget director David Stockman, disregarded individual circumstances and applied the blunt instrument of ideology to the fate of farms.

Stockman imposed quotas on FmHA offices at all levels to close loan files, which meant liquidating farmers. This was in line with an ideology dictating that government was a problem to be reduced or eliminated in all aspects. Vogel implies, and as an agricultural historian I think I would say more definitely, that this general ideological bent was reinforced by a more specific belief that the country just had too many farms, and it would be good to shed some of them, maybe most of them.

Newbie litigator Vogel came home to North Dakota, was sought out by farmers needing representation, and initiated the case Coleman v. Block on behalf of nine farmers or farm families seeking to stop foreclosure proceedings. This case morphed into a national class-action suit involving heavy-hitting legal teams on both sides and resulting in victory for the farmers in February 1984. Although by no means the end of farm foreclosures or farm consolidation, the case is a landmark.

A few words about composition and presentation of the book. There are recurrent efforts to situate and personalize the story. Appearances of pasque flowers and harvest moons are noted, drives across prairie landscapes are recounted. Individuals such as Vogel’s father, legal sage and future state supreme court justice Robert Vogel, and federal district judge Bruce M. Van Sickle are figures treated with agency and sympathy.

Vogel situates herself in savvy fashion in relation to a home audience, adopting a self-deprecating tone, punctuating alternately with practicality and idealism.

The work is period literature in some senses--Vogel learns of the decision of 1984 via that new marvel of technology, the fax machine--but also a cautionary tale for the twenty-first century. At one point a client says to her, “See those hills? There are some bad people up there”--referring to the violent organizers of the Posse Comitatus. Those people are still out there, perhaps more than ever, and the only thing that can prevent them getting the upper hand is justice, visibly transacted.

In his recent work, The Language of Cottonwoods, Clay Jenkinson posits an identity crisis for North Dakota. Sarah Vogel, in The Farmer’s Lawyer, recounts (and affirms) the belief of her father “that a healthy family farm economy was central to every aspect of life in North Dakota.” Clay doubts that our agrarian foundations, the basis of our historic identity, can be restored. Sarah closes her work with a bit more optimism, but in her expressed hope to “sow seeds for a future agriculture system that is based on human needs and human values,” she certainly intimates that a business-as-usual model is a dead end. Cottonwoods and Coleman notwithstanding, these matters are unsettled.

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