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Minnesota Farm Advocate Oral History Project: Interview with Susan Schneider
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION: Susan Schneider grew up on her family's farm in the Hastings, Minnesota area, and she still lives there. She graduated from high school in 1972 and from the University of Minnesota law school in 1985. She was in private practice in Hastings until she joined FLAG (Farmers Legal Action Group) in September 1987. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Agricultural law, with which she has been involved, includes special laws on renting agricultural property, ownership of farms and corporate farms, as well as tax and enviornmental issues, and has become increasingly complex in recent years. In private practice she would typically try to find a way out of financial dilemmas of farmer clients. Often this would involve a negotiated settlement or some type of bankruptcy. Several types of bankruptcies are possible: The new bankruptcy chapter, Chapter 12, was created specifically for farmers. It allows them to write their secured debts down to the fair market value of their collateral and extend their payments over a period of time (unsecured creditors get the amount they would have gotten if the farmer had liquidated). Problems with these bankruptcies: Some farms will not cash flow at fair market value and the trustee provided for under Chapter 12 takes 10% of all payments (this burden and attorneys' fees make cash flowing even more difficult). Chapter 11 and Chapter 7 bankruptcies are more familiar. Chapter 11s haven't worked too well for farmers, due to technical rulings and a Supreme Court decision. Chapter 7s are liquidation bankruptcies. All the farmer keeps is his exempt property, and fortunately in Minnesota the exemption rules are quite liberal (usually making it possible for a farmer to keep farming at a scaled back level). Relationships between farmers and lenders have varied. When prices have been good and values of farm collateral high, they have worked well together. However, dropping prices and values have left many lenders grossly under secured, and this has brought out the worst in them (since they have been concerned for their own jobs). The farmers, on their side, learn to think of the lenders as friends and allies during good times, and have often been trusting and unsophisticated, e.g. depending on oral agreements. Some lenders and bankers have taken advantage of those circumstances. The relationship between FLAG (Farmers' Legal Action Group) and MFFLP (Minnesota Family Farm Legal Project): FLAG is a separate corporation, but also serves as the central (St. Paul) office of MFFLP. Attorneys throughout the state sometimes call attorneys at FLAG directly to ask for suggestions in handling problems in agricultural law. More often, however, private attorneys rely on regional offices of MFFLP for feedback on legal matters - and these offices may in turn contact FLAG. FLAG's major grassroots sounding boards are the Minnesota Farm Advocates. Individual Advocates call in frequently with questions - and these calls keep FLAG in close touch with the current problems of farmers. FLAG attorneys may be able to answer these questions immediately or some research and a return call may be needed. Sometimes there is no legal handle for a particular problem. FLAG also provides training programs for Advocates and others. FLAG is also able to bring direct legal actions in situations in which a successful outcome will support large classes of farmers, e.g. to secure precedents in relief of systemic abuses. These occur most often in actions against FmHA and the Farm Credit System because they are the major farm lenders and because they have general rules that apply to all of their loan officers; unfair rules of these agencies cause systemic abuses. Such suits take the form of class actions, for example, the Coleman Case (refer to Jim Massey or Lynn Hayes relative to Coleman). Others include the Hedge Case (involving whether an FmHA county committee can be involved in political activities), the Hansen Case (re whether FmHA must deal with borrowers in a commercially reasonable way - a concept now embodied in the Agricultural Act of 1987) and an unfiled case re whether FmHA borrowers who have received a discharge in bankruptcy are entitled to debt restructuring). Susan had a backup roll in a couple of such cases. Another form of action used by FLAG against lending agencies is demand letters, i.e. stating in essence: "This is the law: . . . All we want you to do is follow the law." Susan Schneider began teaching Agricultural Law at the William Mitchell College of Law at about the same time that she started at FLAG. She arranged for Lou Anne Kling to address one session on the Farm Advocates and mediation. This brought the reality of Agricultural Law (in which the lawyer is dealing with the client's business, home, family, whole way of life) to the students and excited and inspired them. A clinic in conjunction with another of her courses allowed students to work directly with farm clients. Relative to gender among lawyers: 40% of those in her law class at the University of Minnesota Law School were women. In practice, there is a lot of the good old boy male power base, but there is also a lot of change going on. Many male lawyers are attempting to adapt, but are incredibly intimidated. They don't know whether to be as aggressive, more aggressive or less aggerssive (gentlemanly) toward a woman opposing them than to a man. And there is the problem of the double standard: is an aggressive woman lawyer being difficult and unreasonable whereas an aggressive man is just doing a good job for his client? Both sexes are having problems with rolls they aren't prepared for. However, Susan thinks women bring a different perspective to the law, and that is good. Why are there a disproportionate number of women in leadership rolls in farm activist groups? Farm wives are as involved in the operation as their husbands. Often the husband takes care of the physical part of the operation and the wife takes care of the books. So the wives are the first to be aware of any financial crisis. Also, women are sometimes better at communicating than men and are more likely to reach out to neighbors in times of crisis. Lawyers practicing Public Interest Law are not well paid, compared with those in other fields. But there is the satisfaction of helping other people. Four of the six attorneys at FLAG are women, and she enjoys working with good women attorneys. The work is exciting, on the cutting edge. Things are happening.
1.5 hours sound cassette
25 pages transcript
Content Category: sound recordings
Content Category: text
Interviewee: Schneider, Susan
Interviewer: Hunter, Dianna
Made in: Saint Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, United States
|Holding Type||Oral History - Interview|
OH 37 (Library Call Number)
AV1991.158.29 (Accession Number)
MHS Library Catalog
Oral History - Project, MHS Collection, project: 'Minnesota Farm Advocate Oral History Project'