Sarah Vogel remains a force, outside politics

Bismarck, N.D., lawyer and former North Dakota agriculture commissioner Sarah Vogel comes from a long line of North Dakota leaders. Her father, Robert Vogel, was the U.S. attorney and later became a member the North Dakota Supreme Court. Her gran...

Bismarck, N.D., lawyer and former North Dakota agriculture commissioner

Sarah Vogel comes from a long line of North Dakota leaders. Her father, Robert Vogel, was the U.S. attorney and later became a member the North Dakota Supreme Court. Her grandfather, Frank Vogel, was close to Gov. Bill Langer, was manager of the Bank of North Dakota and was one of the early leaders in the state Nonpartisan League, which today is part of the Democratic-NPL Party.

Today, Vogel, 64, is a senior partner in Sarah Vogel Law Partners in Bismarck. Her and her three partners' practice is focused primarily on agriculture.

Vogel grew up in the North Dakota communities of Garrison, Fargo and Mandan. She graduated from UND and then from New York University School of Law. She practiced in the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs and various posts before she went to the Federal Trade Commission then to the Department of Treasury in consumer affairs.

She returned to North Dakota in 1981, where she went into a private practice, first alone and then with her father in Grand Forks. She made a name for herself in the Coleman v. Block national class-action lawsuit to stop foreclosures by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


She was elected North Dakota agriculture commissioner in 1988 and served until deciding not to run for re-election in 1996.

As ag commissioner, she was known for starting the Marketplace for Entrepreneurs event, among other things. After that, she made an unsuccessful run for the North Dakota Supreme Court.

She signed on as an attorney for the Wheeler-Wolf Law Firm before starting her own firm with colleague Beth Baumstark in January 2005.

Vogel spoke with Mikkel Pates, Agweek staff writer for the Grand Forks Herald. Her office is decorated with vintage political posters from the NPL days, and just across the hall is the coordinated campaign headquarters for the Democratic-NPL party.

Q. Judging by your office, your NPL roots are close to your heart.

A. Just a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the 95th anniversary of the formation of the NPL. We had an event sponsored by the Kennedy Center Foundation, which is affiliated with the Democratic-NPL party.

About one year after it was founded, the Nonpartisan League had swept every state office. They had a platform that we still should be working on today -- grain grading, weights and measures -- big problems, still.

Q. On the Internet, you continue to be described as a politician. Do you still consider yourself a politician?


A. No, I'm not still a politician and haven't been for a long time. The Nonpartisan League had a rule of two terms and then out. After two terms, you would be "spoiled."

I wanted to go back to being a lawyer. I figured if I stayed another term, I'd have a hard time getting back into the legal field. I announced a year out that I wouldn't run for ag commissioner again. I did that so I wouldn't change my mind.

Q. Do you ever miss serving in public office?

A. Occasionally. If you're a politician -- say you're on the Water Commission, the Industrial Commission or something -- every once in a while, you're at a fulcrum point. By virtue of a vote, you can make a significant change.

But if you're in office, you lose a lot of your privacy, your weekends. It's really hard work to be in politics -- it is rewarding, but it doesn't lead to a great quality of life.

Q. One of your signature efforts as ag commissioner was Marketplace for Entrepreneurs. What do you think about the event's demise?

A. I'm a big believer in the state being supportive of individuals who want to do different things. I don't support giving away state money to private people and then letting them do whatever.

But there's a role for the state, and I think the Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill and Elevator are examples.


Marketplace didn't take much state money, but it took a lot of effort by employees of the state ag department and had the support of Sen. Kent Conrad, who was the co-founder of Marketplace.

For a number of years, Marketplace has been a private, not-for-profit corporation. I no longer serve on its board, but the other day I got an e- mail that said to leave two days open in late September for Marketplace of Ideas 2010. I thought, "Zowie, hooray!" The board and staff are not going to let Marketplace die.

Q. What do you consider to be some of your important cases since going back to private practice?

A. The Wiley case was a big one. (She and then-colleague Courtney Koebele won a $41 million settlement for 8,000 durum wheat farmers when the U.S. Department of Agriculture shifted formulas to pay farmers far less than promised.)

Keepseagle (v. Vilsack). We've been litigating that one pretty hard for 11 years. At the moment, we're in settlement discussions. It would redress decades of discrimination against Native American ranchers and farmers. The class period is 1981 to 1997.

I've enjoyed working on that case. Native American farmers and ranchers were denied loans and loan servicing and generally treated, as a class, worse than white farmers and ranchers. We hired as our statistical expert Dr. Pat O'Brien, who had previously been USDA's head statistician.

George and Marliyn Keepseagle live on a ranch south of Fort Yates and are members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. George has a homestead title to his land that was signed by Teddy Roosevelt -- keeps it in their kitchen.

Right now, I'm working with a group of 70 ranchers in Montana on a big crop insurance appeal. Our law firm does quite a bit of work on crop insurance and farm program payment disputes -- most often in arbitration or appeals.


Q. You were a lawyer in the farm credit crisis of the 1980s and were ag commissioner as farmers were trying to claw their way out. Do you sense that farmers are less troubled than in those days?

A. I generally don't hear from the folks who don't have troubles. Nobody ever calls me and says everything is going great. I get calls from people who have had bad seed, bad feed or pesticide drifts, have been cheated in some fashion, were discriminated against or believe that the government isn't following the rules in a farm program.

Most farmers are extremely averse to rushing into court, though, so they tend to go to a lawyer as a last resort. We are quite busy, and enjoy the challenges.

Q. As agriculture commissioner, you presided over the development of "new generation" ag cooperatives for farmers. Today, most of them are converted to other corporate forms, particularly Dakota Growers Pasta Co. What do you think of that?

A. You could have knocked me over with a feather on that one. That was pretty shocking because the spirit of the co-op was to have a plant that was subject to farmer control and ownership, and to compete. That's been lost. And to a Canadian company? That's unbelievable.

On the other hand, it wasn't a takeover. The farmers did the voting and gave up on their dream.

As for the co-ops, there were a lot of failures, yes, but it was exciting while it lasted -- farmers and ranchers working together. But it takes a lot out of key leaders. It isn't easy being a full-time farmer and organizing a new business.

Q. What are some of the emerging issues among your clientele?


A. I'd say farmers and ranchers are having many more issues having to do with oil companies. Sometimes it's about surface use, and sometimes it is because they believe the company is not properly paying them for their mineral interests. Sometimes it involves environmental issues: for example, we recently settled a saltwater spill case. There are other cases where farmers and ranchers believe their lease had expired but the oil company is saying it's still in effect. A great deal of money can rest on those types of issues.

This spring, we went to a meeting sponsored by a local legislator, Kenton Onstad, and we walked into a room at 8 p.m. at Parshall, N.D., on a Friday expecting a pretty low turnout. We were surprised to see 40 or 50 farmers and ranchers with problems. We were there to answer whatever questions we could. There are a lot of problems out there on which farmers and ranchers need legal advice.

Q. What are your pursuits outside of work these days?

A. My son, Andrew, lives in Mongolia where he just finished a degree in Mongolian studies. He has a Mongolian wife and two children, so I enjoy them a lot, and they are visiting this summer.

About two years ago, I got on the Northwest Area Foundation board. The foundation combats poverty in an eight-state region. Among their other programs is the Horizons program, where they try to help small communities.

The foundation also does a lot of work on reservations, trying to combat poverty.

I quit smoking about 14 years ago and started exercising the same day. This summer, I have done three triathlons so far and a 5-K and 10-K race. I did a 19-mile bike race this past weekend.

I'm not fast at all, but I'm still out there.

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