Sarah Vogel speaking at the Alumni Awards Banquet

2022 Alumni Honors: Sarah Vogel

Attorney, activist, politician, writer: UND grad says her liberal arts degree was the basis for her many accomplishments.

Sarah Vogel, ’67, remembers attending the UND Writers Conference in the 1980s as a reprieve from the long hours she was spending on a class action lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of farmers. 

“It was like oxygen,” Sarah said. 

Never would she imagine that she’d be a featured author at the 2022 Writers Conference after publishing a book on her fight to save the family farm titled “The Farmer’s Lawyer.” 

“For me to be invited is just such a thrill. I’m happy and honored.” 

Sarah Vogel Headshot

Sarah’s book documents the case she took on as a young lawyer and single mother whose clients could rarely afford to pay her. The book’s jacket includes a blurb from singer and farm activist Willie Nelson that reads, “Sarah Vogel and I share an ornery persistence in the face of bullies. … Sarah’s story, told in her unique voice, inspires me – and I’m sure it will inspire you – to fight for family farmers.” 

Sarah, who would – spoiler alert – go on to win the case against the USDA’s Farmers Home Administration, did not plan on writing a book about Coleman v. Block. But she got tired of waiting for a historian to tackle the story. 

“So, I realized it would have to be me,” she says. “I spent years trying to clear the deck so that I would have time to do it. I wrote it because I felt that if there was another farm depression – and they come in cycles, every 50 years, now maybe less – I wanted people to be thinking about the lessons of the past.” 

I wanted people to be thinking about the lessons of the past. 

The case was a classic David versus Goliath tale. During a farm economic crisis in the early 1980s, farmers were being foreclosed upon and having their assets seized before they could even file an appeal. The Goliath in this scenario was not a bank, but the federal government and a program that was supposed to aid farmers. 

The book not only documents the courtroom machinations of the case, but also Sarah’s struggles as a young lawyer with no courtroom experience. Sarah found inspiration in her family tree: her grandfather, Frank Vogel, was active in the Nonpartisan League in the ’20s and ’30s and was a trusted advisor to Gov. Bill Langer. Her father, Robert, was a prominent attorney who served as U.S. Attorney and on the North Dakota Supreme Court. 

Her NPL roots led her to focus on political science classes as part of the Honors Program at UND in the 1960s before earning a law degree from New York University. In addition to winning Coleman v. Block, Sarah is notable for being the first woman in U.S. history to be elected as a state Commissioner of Agriculture. She served two terms from 1989 to 1997. 

Sarah calls UND the “ultimate liberal arts university” and credits that background for her successful career. She says it is “extremely moving” to receive the Sioux Award for Distinguished Achievement & Leadership from her alma mater.

“I’m really grateful to the University for the support over the years and for the wonderful work it is doing. My time at UND was extremely helpful, even when I was Commissioner of Agriculture, because of the history and the knowledge and the skills that I had [thanks to her UND degree].”