Memoir Recounts Landmark Case that Helped Save Family Farmers

Advocate, attorney, and author Sarah Vogel recently released her memoir, The Farmer’s Lawyer. The book follows the landmark lawsuit to save family farmers during the 1980s farm crisis in the United States. In the historic case, the young Vogel represented more than 245,000 farmers against the U.S. federal government.

“I wrote the book to raise awareness of the consequences of a farm depression and encourage people to care about family farmers,” Vogel tells Food Tank. “I wanted to write a popular book that people would read [so they can] understand that, even though it happened in the ‘80s, it’s relevant today.”

In the 1980s, family farmers’ across the U.S. faced a farm crisis as land prices fell dramatically while farm debt for land and equipment rose. Established in 1946 to support farmers in times of crisis, the now-terminated Farmers’ Home Association (FHA) pushed farmers off their land through forceful foreclosures, the memoir recounts.

Initially, Vogel says, those in charge of the FHA, a part of the USDA, were knowledgeable of the farming sector. They sought to help farmers through rules that provided them with flexibility and support. “But under the Reagan Administration the FHA was not [helpful or friendly],” she tells Food Tank.

Vogel explains that farmers typically held supervised bank accounts, with the checking account overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “They would take all the money and the USDA would not release a penny back to the farmer or ranch from the sale of crops, cattle or livestock. So [farmers] couldn’t feed the animals, they couldn’t feed themselves, their phones were disconnected, they were losing electricity, they had no gas,” she tells Food Tank.

Vogel committed to helping farmers at risk of losing their livelihoods, beginning with nine families. Over time, she came to represent over 245,000 farmers across 46 states. The lawsuit stopped the USDA from foreclosing around 16,000 farms.

“The USDA was forced to start dealing with farmers again instead of just pushing them off the land,” Vogel tells Food Tank. Shortly after winning the lawsuit, Congress passed the Credit Agriculture Act which allowed farmers to stay on the land and radically reformed how the USDA treats its farmers.

Recognizing the importance of the case, Vogel saved all the paperwork in the North Dakota State Historical Society in the hopes that someone would pick up the case and write a story about it.

“But nobody ever did, so I decided that I have to do this book,” Vogel tells Food Tank. The decision came at the time that she was noticing trends “that reminded me of the ‘80s,” she says.

According to Vogel, farmers today are facing similar problems. The cost of farming equipment is soaring as big agri-businesses control the costs of seeds and fertilizers, and the prices farmers receive are decreasing as there are fewer buyers.

Vogel hopes that her story will serve as a warning that will prevent another farm crisis. “I got a really deep education in watching a farm depression develop.” And, she adds, she hopes that readers will understand what can happen when “society at large does not pay attention to family farmers and rural people.”

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