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Sarah Vogel moved home to Bismarck from Washington, D.C., in 1981. She specialized in helping financially troubled farmers and November 1982 was featured in “Life” magazine, in this photo essay by Grey Villet. Courtesy of Life magazine

Attorney worked to stop foreclosures during ‘80s farm crisis

BISMARCK — Sarah Vogel was uniquely prepared to have a leading part in the 1980s farm crisis.

A granddaughter of Frank A. Vogel, chief adviser to Bill Langer, the famous Nonpartisan League party governor and U.S. senator of the 1930s and 1940s, Sarah grew up hearing about the man who imposed a moratorium on farm foreclosures and sent the National Guard to stop sheriff sales. Frank Vogel was Langer’s tax commissioner, his head of the Bank of North Dakota, a state-owned bank that remains unique in the nation today.

Sarah followed her father, Robert Vogel, a former U.S. attorney and member of the North Dakota Supreme Court, into law.

Sarah Vogel had gone to Washington, D.C., where she became a lawyer special assistant in the Department of the Treasury. She remembers being pregnant in Washington, D.C., when the first tractorcades snarled traffic in the capital in the late 1978 and 1980.

She was sympathetic to farmers’ plight, but frustrated that the farmers and their large tractors on the National Mall didn’t seem to communicate policy changes to lawmakers.

What she saw

In 1981, Vogel and a young son returned to live in Bismarck, where she started a law practice. She says she “could recognize the ’80s (crisis) because I knew about the ’30s.”

Vogel was approached by farmers who had glitches with Farmers Home Administration loan timing, coupled with other circumstances including droughts or storms, and the cost-price squeeze. Most said they thought they could hang on but just needed more time.

FmHA policies were the focus of much of Vogel’s work. The FmHA was created in the 1930s to help poorer, downtrodden farmers, come out of tenancy and get farms.

When Vogel was in the U.S. Treasury Department, she’d tried to stop a national rule that allowed federal agencies to override state laws on interest rate caps.

“Variable interest rates are a killer, and I think there are a lot of them out there now,” she says.

A class action

In the summer of 1982, Vogel built her case by selecting a collection of named class action plaintiffs in North Dakota who would demonstrate a “fact pattern” that would “cover the array” of issues.She filed the case in March 1983 with nine plaintiffs from around the state.

The farmers couldn’t pay her; she lost her house in Bismarck and moved into her father’s basement in Grand Forks.

The ACLU paid for the cost of depositions and Judge Bruce Van Sickle gave her a preliminary injunction to stop foreclosures on North Dakota borrowers in May 1983.

In November of that year, Van Sickle allowed the case to convert to a national class action case, over the opposition of the FmHA. A co-counsel from Missouri added plaintiffs from Missouri, Kansas and five other states. The case covered 285,000 farmers and stopped 16,000 foreclosures in court.

In 1984, the federal authorities resisted complying and Vogel brought contempt of court actions.

First paycheck

Vogel says many of her clients were suffering without money to pay for phone bills, food or gas. “None of them had been told about a right to an appeal and there was a right to appeal — statutory, constitutional and regulatory,” she said. “I would tell them, ‘Get your files.’”

In 1985, after the Coleman v. Block class action foreclosure injunction, NIck Spaeth, the newly elected North Dakota attorney general, hired Vogel to pursue farm cases on behalf of the state.

Finally, Vogel had a paycheck.

Jim Massey, a Minnesota lawyer, became the lead counsel in the Coleman case. Vogel would testify in Congress to create the Farm Credit Act of 1987, which affected both the FmHA and the Farm Credit System and folded in many of the due process requirements that the Coleman v. Block case had insisted on.

Vogel said the stressful times spawned a parade of outsiders who offered false hopes. Some were racist, anti-semitic and potentially violent.

One group called the National Agricultural Press Association, from Colorado, was holding meetings in North Dakota, offering farmers information on “pro se” (do-it-yourself) legal cases.

Vogel rose to call legal “gobbledygoop.”

“Back then, I felt I was the only one with credibility to stand up and say, ‘Your techniques don’t work.’”

She said a NAPA farm leader from out-of-state once got angry and verbally intimidating toward her. Two farmers came to her side and assured her, “Don’cha worry Sarah; we’ll protec-cha.”

She can laugh about it today.