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The Farmer’s Lawyer

By Sara Vogel


Part court thriller, part chronicle of a crucial labor struggle, part reminder that when people work together they can overturn great injustices, and workers can triumph against corporate-government collusion, The Farmer’s Lawyer is an inspiring, enjoyable read.

Set during the American farm crisis of the 1980s, the story pits Vogel, a novice lawyer from a family of North Dakota political activists, against a Depression-era agency meant to help struggling farmers—the Farmer’s Home Agency gone rogue, the USDA and the Reagan Administration’s Justice Department.

The villains in the tale are: David Stockman, head of the Reagan Office of Management and Budget, the callous staff of the Farmers Home Administration and Reagan’s neoliberal “free market” agenda. Vogel comes from a lineage of honorable fighters. Her father, a successful socialist lawyer who supported her during the case, had sat as a justice on the North Dakota Supreme Court. Vogel herself served 8 years as the North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner.

Setting the stage for the multi-year legal battle, Vogel describes the situation facing family farmers during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. Then she provides an excellent history showing the parallel crisis of the 1920s and ‘30s that spawned the series of government agencies designed to help farmers. Vogel’s family belonged to the Non-Partisan League (NLP), founded in North Dakota in 1915 by the charismatic socialist, Arthur C. Townley. Along with “ several other disaffected North Dakota farmers” the League fought systemic pillaging of farmers profits by railroads and grain barons.

Vogel explains how the establishment of agricultural price controls (called “parity,”) during that period “was under constant attack by corporate lobbyists for being a “socialist” program standing in the way of ‘modernizing’ agriculture.” She recounts the particular socialist history of North Dakota (which resulted in the creation of the nation’s only public bank) and many battles won by workers and their political allies.

The book is filled with humorous and human anecdotes about being a single mother of a four–year-old; struggling to pay her bills (and losing her home) fighting for the rights of farm families who can’t afford to pay her.

On a larger scale Vogel states, “This memoir tells the story of ordinary citizens who stuck together to fight for a moral economy and fair treatment from their government. I hope it will inspire readers who are already working to remedy injustice and disparities in their own lives and communities.”

The book raises fundamental questions about the role of government: Is it to help workers or enrich corporations? Will the courts ensure that laws enacted on behalf of farmers will actually serve them, or will an abased Supreme Court as we have today act to support the latter?

In most reviews, The Farmer’s Lawyer is portrayed as a David versus Goliath story. In fact, it is a reminder that on the shoulders of a movement built by countless individuals and organizations over decades, victories against seemingly unconquerable behemoths can be achieved.

You can find out more about permaculture dude Bruce Horowitz at Ripe Landscapes.

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