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Minnesota Farm Advocate Oral History Project: Interview with Jim Massey
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION: Jim Massey is an attorney and the director of FLAG (Farmers' Legal Action Group) based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He grew up in Beaverton, Oregon. As a young man he worked as a carpenter and laborer and did other jobs in rural Oregon. His wife, Leslie Barnes, was originally from the Iron Range of Minnesota. They returned to Minnesota in 1982 to allow her to join her family business. They have 2 children. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Jim began his legal aid work by representing inmates in the Utah State Prison from 1974 to 1977. He recognized that, due to inadequate budgets and too few lawyers in legal services, they would never be able to provide individual legal representation for the many potential clients. So he began studying ways of getting the greatest results from limited resources ("the most bang for the buck"). In 1979 he designed a training program for legal service lawyers, paralegals and community leaders to show them how to work together more effectively. This program was called "Guthrieville", a hypothetical Oregon town named for Woodie Guthrie. It was used successfully by the Legal Services Corporation in rural Oregon working with such issues as spousal and child abuse, substandard housing, migrant and native American problems. He then received a grant from the Legal Services Corporation to establish a national Rural Training Project. During his first months in Minnesota in 1982, he was working under this grant around the country designing and running pilot and training programs. After completing the Rural Training Project, Jim became the litigation director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance in Minneapolis. He first became aware of the farm crisis from newspaper articles. He also found that this crisis was caused not just by a natural swing of the economy, but that it was being made worse by policies of the Federal Government. In 1984 he wrote an article on the various ways in which the Reagan Administration was refusing to implement or blocking legal FmHA loans - without a shred of Due Process to the farmers involved. Thus, once FmHA decided to liquidate a farmer, they would cut off all of his income in an effort to starve him off of his farm within 60 days. It was a systematic abuse of power. Until that time, Legal Services had done almost no work for farmers - who were psychologically, politically, legally and economically isolated. However, a Legal Aid lawyer had won a case in Georgia, which effectively nearly stopped farm foreclosures by FmHA in that state. Massey thought that the same should be possible in Minnesota. (The issue in the Georgia case - the "Moratorium Issue": Congress said, in legislation, that FmHA should help farmers through crisis situations by temporarily not foreclosing their mortgages. The Reagan Administration had refused to implement that provision.) In addition, FmHA was not carrying out the Limited Resources Loan Program (which the Administration had tried - unsuccessfully - to have repealed). So Massey felt that Legal Aid had work to do for farmers. In November 1982 he began working with Sarah Vogel, an attorney in North Dakota, and others to file a suit there against FmHA. FmHA was granting "operating loans" to farmers and taking as collateral liens on crops, live stock, etc and money realized from them (in addition to real estate loans secured by mortgages). Under the operating loans, FmHA was withholding from farmers in financial difficulty all income from the operation of their farms - starving them out. Thus, farmers were being forced from their farms without a foreclosure action and without any due process. Sarah Vogel explained this to Jim Massey, and it was decided that they would use a "due process" theory for the North Dakota action (the farmer must be given notice of FmHA's intent and an opportunity to contest the issue). The North Dakota (class action) suit became the Coleman case. A decision was made to file a similar case in Minnesota and Massey went to Little Falls to work with Lynn Hayes (a young attorney) and Melba Granland (a paralegal, previously a dairy farmer), both in the Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance office there, to begin preparation of the Minnesota action. There were a number of farm families in the Little Falls area which were potential plaintiffs; he himself met with 50 or 60 of them - although Lynn did most of the contact work. A number finally joined the Minnesota class action, which became Gamradt v. Block. Ultimately Gamradt (and some two dozen other cases throughout the country) were merged into Coleman, which became a national class action on behalf of some 250,000 people. Sarah Vogel later became Assistant Attorney General for North Dakota and Jim Massey replaced her as lead counsel for Coleman (which was modified, expanded and finally decided for plaintiffs in 1987). This suit affected national policy, and it was an efficient use of limited legal resources. When Jim Massey first began putting the Gamradt case together, and found that he didn't understand the concepts of farm management (farm plans, cash flows, etc) he was referred to Lou Anne Kling. She was a farmer and she had already helped 20 or 30 farmers negotiate with FmHA (one farmer helping one farmer) and therefore had a wealth of practical experience. She was to be a witness in their suit, and she also helped in contacts with individual farmers and in converting raw information into a form that the lawyers could use. She was smart and informed; he realized that he could learn a lot from her. Massey had written a proposal for farm issue training - Guthrieville for farmers and a 3 day training session was held in July 1983. Lawyers, paralegals, farmers, advocates, and others from 23 states attended. Anne Kanten (Assistant Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture) and Lou Anne Kling spoke. That same summer, Randi Roth, a law student, came to work in Jim's office as a law clerk. During the first part of the summer, she travelled with Lou Anne, met farmers and attended negotiations after which she returned to the (Legal Assistance) office to draft a book to educate farmers on their rights in dealing with FmHA. That draft evolved into the Farmer's Guide to FmHA, of which 100,000 copies have been sold or distributed. Randi became an attorney and joined FLAG when it opened in 1986. Massey realized that farmers needed what Lou Anne had to say and they did workshops together all over the country - during which he developed even greater admiration of her. His staff could prepare lawsuits (class actions), train lawyers and draft proposed legislation and regulations, but they could not take every case. Lou Anne and others like her were essential. Lou Anne, Anne Kanten and Jim had discussed this problem a great deal - and a meeting of farmers was called at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to decide what should be done. At that meeting, Jim Nichols (the Commissioner) announced the formation of the Minnesota Farm Advocate Program. Massey's office was to provide training and backup for the Advocates. In the following months, Lynn, Melba and Jim took hundreds of calls from Advocates. Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance and its director, Jerry Lane, had provided much support for legal aid directed specifically to farmers. However, other sources of funding and greater name recognition were necessary if they were ever to obtain adequate and sustained support. Lynn Hayes was brought from Little Falls to Minneapolis in the summer of 1985 to form the kernal of an actual program. Also that summer, Jim received a phone call from Willie Nelson, who was investigating how Farm Aid should spend its money - and Jim was invited to attend the first Farm Aid concert and to discuss the subject. In April of 1986 his office received its first grant from Farm Aid. Furthermore, a bill to fund the Minnesota Family Farm Law Project was introduced in the state legislature and passed in 1986. With this funding, FLAG was created and was running as of July 1, 1986. FLAG has been able to work at the national level since with an average of only 4-6 lawyers on its staff. A major reason for this has been Lou Anne Kling and the Minnesota Farm Advocate Program, who have done the grass roots work. They keep things grounded in reality, focused on the right issues and provide spiritual impetus. The Minnesota Farm Advocate Program has remained true to its tradition of providing assistance one-on-one, farmer-to-farmer, and has become more and more sophisticated in doing so. It has been copied and modified in many states, but nowhere has it worked as well as in Minnesota. There is no institutional model for the Minnesota farm Advocate Program - it grew out of Lou Anne's work and committments. She never puts her own ego ahead of a farmer's interests. FLAG has the same philosophy: the attorney works for the client - not the reverse.
3 hours sound cassette
22 pages transcript
Content Category: sound recordings
Content Category: text
Interviewee: Massey, Jim
Interviewer: Hunter, Dianna
Made in: Saint Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, United States
|Holding Type||Oral History - Interview|
OH 37 (Library Call Number)
AV1991.158.24 (Accession Number)
MNHS Library Catalog
Oral History - Project, MHS Collection, project: 'Minnesota Farm Advocate Oral History Project'