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Minnesota Farm Advocate Oral History Project: Interview with Randi Roth
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION: Randi Roth grew up in Chicago and Evanston, Illinois and attended law school at Northwestern University in Chicago. She wanted to work in the area of poverty law (with people who couldn't afford access to the legal system). She obtained a Mansfield Fellowship to do legal services work in Minneapolis during the summer of 1983 (between her second and third years of law school). SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Upon arriving in Minneapolis, she talked with Jim Massey (a lawyer in the Legal Aid office there who had just filed the Gamradt statewide class action). It was agreed that she would write a book about FmHA foreclosures, and, since she knew nothing about farming, he put her in contact with Lou Anne Kling. Lou Anne and Bobbi Polzine picked Randi up in Saint Cloud, Minnesota on their way to a farm where the farmer was threatening suicide. He had requested a small loan from FmHA to fix up his barn; FmHA would grant him only a much larger loan to build a new barn using FmHA's own (severely flawed) design. When he then failed to make it financially, FmHA blamed him (told him he was a bad manager). The family situation was desperate, the farmer didn't feel he could discuss the problem with anyone and he became more and more depressed. The first day, Lou Anne and Bobbi paid attention only to the farmer's mental problems; later many hours were spent on his financial problems. By the end of the summer, he was cheerful and making an aggressive effort to help other farmers - an amazing transformation. After that first day, Randi was sold. In the following days, Randi entered Lou Anne's 'road show'. Lou Anne placed ads in small town papers saying: "Are you an FmHA borrower? Do you know what your rights are? If not, come to a meeting...". They would be on the road by 5 AM. They would cover three towns a day; one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one at night, then sleep at a farmer's house. Randi wrote down what Lou Anne said, questions people asked her and her answers. She began to see patterns, the repeater questions, basic things people didn't know. These notes were the basis for the first draft of the "Framer's Guide to FmHA", which she wrote at the end of that summer. Later, the law changed, and she was asked to return and write a second edition. After completing law school, she worked in housing law in Chicago, but took leave in November 1985 to write the third edition of the "Farmer's Guide to FmHA". Jim Massey had obtained a grant (from Willie Nelson, Farm Aid) to set up a farm law backup center (Farmers' Legal Action Group, FLAG). Randi joined when it started in July 1986 (and has remained there since). At FLAG, she has worked in community legal education (designing and teaching training sessions, writing articles and additional farmer's guides, e.g. the "Farmer's Guide to FDIC"). They have trained the leaders of farm advocate groups from many states (the Minnesota Farm Advocate Program is recognized throughout the country). Jim Massey asked Randi to look into how farmers should react when local banks where they have loans and accounts fail - and the loans are sold to FDIC. She soon found that there are no Federal laws on how farmers should be treated under these circumstances, and that there can be very harsh results. Usually, people have their checking/savings accounts and loans at the same bank. The FDIC is a liquidator, not a lender, and consequently it just wants its money and to be finished with the loan (it doesn't care about goodwill). So FDIC immediately freezes the accounts (until it can deal with the individual loans), which can leave the farmers with no money at all. Thus, two major categories of issues normally arise between the farmers and the FDIC: (1) the question of the release of funds to the farmer prior to working out an arrangement on his loan, and (2) working out the arrangement. In the absence of any pertinent rules and regulations, Randi began calling other states to ask about their experiences relative to bank closings and FDIC assumptions of loans. She found that whole towns had been devastated in Nebraska, while the results in Iowa had not been so bad. The difference seemed to be community action and communication. When a farmer remains isolated he is very susceptible to manipulation, and his requests for the release of funds for living and farm operation can be ignored or put off. However, this had been avoided in Iowa through the actions of Prairie Fire, an organization that had local farmers meeting weekly to tell each other what FDIC had been saying to them (to deny any divide and conquer advantage to FDIC). In addition, the farmers met regularly with the local FDIC person in their area and a state Prairie Fire group (which included a well-placed political person, e.g. someone on a senator's staff) met regularly with the regional FDIC person. With this network, a problem of an individual farmer (such as a need for the release of funds to repair a water pump) could be under discussion at high levels within hours. A support group based on the Iowa model was started in Minnesota (the Bank Failure Response Group, BFROG), but it has never gotten off the ground since there have been few bank failures here recently. Congress has not been silent as to farmers rights in legislation concerning FmHA. It has said basically that if a farmer can't make payments temporarily and for reasons beyond his control, FmHA can give him a 5 year deferral - no payments - while he gets back on his feet. But FmHA would keep his right to apply for a deferral a secret from the farmer. That was the situation in the Gamradt case. FmHA's tactic relative to the "release of income" was even more insidious. Although it seldom foreclosed on anyone, the collateral on many loans it granted would include the ultimate products of the farm. Thus, a farmer doing anything with (e.g. selling) his product would be guilty of conversion (i.e. theft) and could go to jail or incur civil liability. So without permission by FmHA, the farmer would be denied all income and he would be unable to feed his family, put in a crop, take out a crop, feed livestock, etc. FmHA has frequently refused any releases of income to farmers and has thus starved them out without foreclosure. The Coleman decision held that this was improper and that a farmer has the right to due process, including notice and a hearing. Jim Massey wrote an article in 1984, "Farmers in Crisis", which is a classic in describing what was happening to people and in stating what was needed to address the problems. Much of what he prescribed in that article has been the subject of the programs of the Farm Advocates and FLAG since. The Advocates have the practical experience, FLAG has the law and they work together. The Advocates are now very knowledgeable, their training has evolved and progressed over the years. There is no other area of the public interest law which, to Randi's knowledge, has evolved in this way and to this extent. Many of the people active in the farm law have been women, including, among the lawyers who brought relevant suits, Martha Miller (in Georgia), Sarah Vogel (in North Dakota) and Lynn Hayes (in Minnesota). Randi also discusses the loss of land by small black farmers in southern states, noting particularly the work of Shirley Sherrod in Georgia. She is a farm advocate for all of Georgia and works mostly on FmHA loans. The practical and legal problems she faces relative to black farmers are staggering. She has no legal help (the lawyers there will not touch the problems of black farmers) and loan officials are acting illegally. Unless someone takes the initiative, small black-owned farms in the South will be history.
4 hours sound cassette
40 pages transcript
Content Category: sound recordings
Content Category: text
Interviewee: Roth, Randi
Interviewer: Hunter, Dianna
Made in: Saint Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, United States
|Holding Type||Oral History - Interview|
OH 37 (Library Call Number)
AV1991.158.27 (Accession Number)
MHS Library Catalog
Oral History - Project, MHS Collection, project: 'Minnesota Farm Advocate Oral History Project'