ARLINGTON, Va. – Armed with a big smile, Sarah Vogel moves humbly about in a room full of agricultural lawyers — her short, light steps unassuming for an ag law giant who once stood with 240,000 family farmers against the United States Department of Agriculture and won.

Her presentation during a breakout at the 40th annual American Agricultural Law Association symposium in Arlington, Va., – across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. – is a half-hour long, but on this day she’s confined to 15 minutes. 

Vogel rushes through it, hitting the high points – today’s ag crisis could only be the start, and programs like ag credit counseling and the North Dakota Ag Mediation Service need to be ramped up to accommodate farmers in trouble.

Vogel’s public service to North Dakota is well-known. She was an assistant attorney general in 1985 before her election as North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture in 1988, serving in that role until 1997.

Prior to that, Vogel was lead counsel in Coleman v. Block, which ruled that the Farmers Home Administration needed to provide fair hearings and timely notice for the right to apply for deferral of farm payments. And during the 1980’s farm crisis – a credit calamity led by skyrocketing interest rates – Vogel was instrumental in making sure farmers received that help.

In her advice to ag lawyers in the room, Vogel preached empathy.

“I was the first lawyer many of my clients ever worked with – many of them hadn’t ever gotten a speeding ticket,” she said. “They were very anxious and stressed.”

Vogel added the importance of understanding farmers throughout the process, particularly when it appears economic conditions are collapsing.

“A paralyzed, depressed farmer is barely going to be able to get out of bed, much less come to your office and answer deposition questions,” Vogel said. “An informed attorney can share concrete steps to take and help them to understand that they’re not alone.”

Not unlike the crisis in the late ’80s, Vogel spoke with Roger Johnson at her side. Johnson – who succeeded Vogel as North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture until his election as president of National Farmers Union in 2009 – also spoke about the current farm crisis. 

Johnson said the farm economy isn’t like the 1980s because of low interest rates but did caution against rising debt. According to the USDA, debt-to-asset ratios have risen for the last seven years. And while it’s not to a level that’s sounding alarm bells, farm debt financing is at its highest peak since 1988.

Johnson said farmers have taken to off-farm jobs to survive.

“For many of those farmers, that off-farm income is larger than the net farm income they receive,” he said.

In difficult times, Vogel said ag mediation services help move the process along. But prior to that, farmers should seek ag credit counseling to get a sense of where they’re at, financially, and to understand their options.

“In ag mediation, it’s side A vs. side B,” she said. “If side A is a banker with the head of their farm division and an appraiser, and side B is a farmer who has never experienced anything like this, the outcome is clear. It is not good for the farmer. He won’t know what his real options are. That’s where counseling comes in. Ag credit counseling is vital to the survival of many farms.”

Vogel said teamwork made a difference in the late 1980s, as the legislature worked to implement ideas meant to help family farmers such as farm foreclosures that auctioned land off in 40-acre parcels as opposed to quarters or full sections.

“The farmer could specify that the home quarter would be the last bit of land sold, and sometimes, the debt would be paid before the home quarter was sold and the farmer could keep his home,” Vogel said.

Lawyers, bankers and economists often miss the crisis that can seem so obvious in small communities, Vogel said.

“Sometimes, the person most aware of a crisis is the local minister,” she said.

Vogel told the room full of ag lawyers to make sure everyone’s heard when sitting down with farmers.

“Don’t ignore the women,” she said. “The women are typically the ones paying the most attention. It’s a team, and they both need to be included.”

Vogel said she doesn’t anticipate many of the same issues, because of today’s regulatory framework that’s in part based on her work in the 1980s. However, new issues always arise, and in those instances, Vogel encourages lawyers meeting with farmers to do what she did.

“I listened,” Vogel said, “because they were teaching me, too.”

– Chris Aarhus, NDFU