Quick Wits, Grit, Guns ‘N Roses

Lou Anne Kling’s Legacy of Saved Farms & Saved Lives

One day several years ago, western Minnesota farmer Lou Anne Kling was helping a financially-distressed chicken producer who was at risk of losing his operation. This was sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, and Kling had already spent countless hours on the telephone, in the car, in rural government offices and at her own kitchen table helping farmers who were threatened with foreclosure, often as a result of incompetent, and sometimes illegal, actions on the part of the federal government’s Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), which at the time provided loans to farmers and other rural residents. Kling had a reputation for being a tough, no-nonsense negotiator and fighter for the rights of farmers, one who often knew regulations as they pertained to agricultural lending better than the government’s own experts.

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But on this particular day, Kling was in a bit of a panic. She knew something wasn’t fair about this particular case, but she just couldn’t put her finger on it. So, she called a friend of hers, Jim Massey, an attorney who was key in founding Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG), a nonprofit law center that provides legal services to family farmers. Massey told Kling that if the poultry firm the farmer was raising chickens for owned the birds, then the company had a fiduciary responsibility to make sure the farmer was financially successful.

“I didn’t even graduate from high school—I’d never heard the word ‘fiduciary,’ ” recalled Kling several years later while sitting at the kitchen table of she and her husband Wayne’s farmhouse outside Granite Falls. “So, as we were driving along, I kept saying to myself ‘fi-du-ci-ary.’ I had to get that word in my head. I felt like a lawyer saying, ‘You have a fiduciary responsibility.’ Apparently, that word has some power, because it worked.”

That story, in a nutshell, describes why Kling was so effective at helping save family farms: she wasn’t intimated by government officials or corporate lawyers, knew when to ask for help, and could think fast on her feet. And she really, really cared for people, especially family farmers.

“I like people and I have a sympathy for people who are hurting,” she told me on a rainy autumn afternoon in the midst of harvest season. I feel fortunate to have had this conversation with Lou Anne. She died a few months later at age 77, leaving behind a four-decade legacy of activism and public service. It’s no exaggeration that directly and indirectly, Kling’s actions resulted in at least 10,000 Minnesota family farms not going under in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

She did this by discovering that the FmHA was not informing farmers of their legal options to stay in business. While digging through regulations and files, she also figured out FmHA staffers in rural offices were not even following basic guidelines, putting farmers in such severe dire straits financially that some took their own lives (the FmHA was rolled into the Farm Service Agency in 1994). Kling and veteran farm activist Anne Kanten went on to launch the Farm Advocates Program, a Minnesota Department of Agriculture initiative which provides one-on-one assistance to farmers who face crisis situations caused by financial problems and natural disasters. The program has become a model for similar initiatives in other states, as well as internationally.

Kling later spent a short time as the state director of the Minnesota FmHA office and for eight years was in Washington, D.C., under the Clinton Administration, where, among other things she developed a Farm Service Agency outreach program focused on minority farmers and ranchers. Lou Anne was particularly proud that while in Washington she was able to set up an Advocacy Program for Native American tribes and that she helped change the law so that when reservation land was foreclosed on, it couldn’t be sold outside the tribe.

Over the years, Lou Anne worked with numerous Land Stewardship Project members and staff. In particular, she and LSP organizer Paul Sobocinski were deeply involved with the family farm advocacy group Groundswell. More recently, she served as a “transitions coach” for families LSP was working with who were transferring their farms to the next generation. Overall, the kind of activism people like Kling participated in served as an inspiration for LSP’s grassroots organizing efforts to develop leaders in rural communities through neighbor-to-neighbor connections.

Nearly to the end of her life, Lou Anne was fighting for the survival of family farms. When I sat down to talk to her, she was working with a Wisconsin dairy farmer who was having problems with the Farm Service Agency. She was almost giddy over the fact that this work had prompted a member of Congress to get involved, and that while working on this case she had come across some helpful regulatory language that had somehow been overlooked previously.

“After all these years, why had I not seen this regulation? I was just dumbfounded when I read it,” Lou Anne said.

Despite her failing health, Kling spent over three and a half hours talking to me about the 1980s “farm crisis,” government policy, her own struggles and what gives her hope. In fact, as the conversation stretched toward late afternoon, she seemed to actually become increasingly energized. Here are a few highlights of that discussion:

Public Actions-Private Talks

Lou Anne believed in cutting through the rhetoric, and getting at the heart of what the problem was. She also learned early that public actions can prompt people to share private problems and concerns.

On July 4, 1980, she and Wayne plowed down an acre of small grains on their farm in front of the media to make a point: with grain prices where they were, they were better off financially destroying the crop than trying to sell it for rock bottom prices. The “plow-down” gained national media attention and helped publicize the plight of farmers as a result of government policy and corporate control of the markets.

But just as importantly, Kling was suddenly seen as a leader locally and regionally in a budding movement to fight against the demise of the family farmer. Soon, a local farmer approached her quietly to talk about his financial problems as a result of a loan the FmHA was calling in.

“I said, ‘I don’t know FmHA rules, but it doesn’t sound right to me,’ ” she recalled. “So, I drove up to the local FmHA office and the loan officer had gone home for dinner and the secretary said, ‘I’m probably not supposed to do this, but I can let you look at the file.’ So, she laid that file out in front of me. Inside I found the banker’s letter and all these other letters. I found a copy of the check. I found a copy of the endorsement. I found all this stuff. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘there’s a little hay to make here and I used that material to make a case.’ That loan officer did not dare move on the farmer after that.”

As Lou Anne puts it, things “snowballed” from there after that, and she ended up helping countless farmers in a similar fashion.

Overcoming Obstacles

Lou Anne left high school without a diploma, got married at 17 and had five children before a divorce. She remarried and had two more children with Wayne. She said she regretted not finishing high school, and that’s why she always pushed her children so hard to get as much education as possible.

But she never felt a lack of schooling held her back, even when she was in Washington, D.C., surrounded by officials that were walking around with impressive academic and professional credentials. Kling claimed she wasn’t good at math but learned how to decipher complicated financial statements. She also seemed to have a natural knack for reading through the densest regulatory language and interpreting it. Lou Anne had something that compensated for her lack of fancy diplomas: a passion for helping people get a fair shake.

“My sympathy for people comes from the help I was shown when I was trying to get out of that awful marriage. My daughter gave me a card, and it said, ‘From where you came, to where you’ve gone, is remarkable.’ And so, I think that had a lot to do with what drove me—you see someone hurting or someone needing help, and you gotta go there.”

Teaching Anyone About Ag

Kling had always felt that the general public didn’t know enough about the critical role family farmers play in our communities and the economy. That’s why she believed in undertaking actions that would get the media’s attention, like the July 4 “plow-down.”

In 1985, her ability to explain the ins and outs of agriculture was put to a real test. That year, musician Willie Nelson held his first Farm Aid concert in Champaign, Ill., to raise funds for initiatives that supported family farmers (initial funding for FLAG came out of that concert). Prior to the event, Lou Anne and others rode on a train with Nelson from Sioux City, Iowa, to Champaign. She later gave a press conference with one of the groups performing at the concert: the rock band Guns ‘N Roses.

“I had to explain to them all this farm stuff and what to say, and then I appeared with them,” she recalled with a laugh. “They were really good listeners.”

Pushing the Pencil

Kling said that no matter what the circumstances—helping farmers negotiate with government loan officers, giving advice to a neighbor or coaching families that were transitioning to the next generation—one thing always remained crystal clear to her: the value of good record keeping. Kling said she had repeatedly seen the benefits of writing things down and tracking expenses and income, especially when financial difficulties began to emerge.

“It goes back to my grandpa. I found his old box of receipts—it was just little folded up pieces of paper,” she said. “Bad record keeping is a huge problem because farmers just want to farm, and not write anything down. Farmers get a little upset with me when I say that, but it’s true. That’s why it’s important programs like LSP’s Farm Beginnings got started. Somebody’s got to teach them this stuff—I don’t have time!”

What Gives Her Hope

Kling said she wouldn’t have worked so hard to help family farmers if she didn’t still see opportunities in agriculture. The increasing control of our food system by corporations is troubling, she said. But she sees hopeful signs that more non-farmers are realizing that supporting more family farmers on the land is important for the land and communities, as well as our food system.

“A lot of the stuff Land Stewardship is doing is hopeful—preserving the lands and helping small farmers get started and educating everybody in alternatives,” she said. “People are becoming a lot more aware of the land and that we can’t keep abusing it.”

2 Lives Saved in One Night

Kling was the first to admit that her passion for saving family farms took a toll. Before the Advocacy Program was made a part of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, she was traveling around helping farmers pretty much on her own dime—a significant burden for her and Wayne since their farm was also being impacted by the bad agricultural economy. It also exacted a physical and emotional price.

“It was so much emotion,” she recalled of those meetings in farmhouse kitchens and government offices. “My first heart trouble was from that because I lived on cigarettes, Coke and hamburgers. I didn’t have time to stop and eat.”

But she had few regrets, especially given that there were times those sacrifices literally saved lives. Once Kling was meeting with a financially troubled couple in her home. The husband was crying, and was so upset that he was wondering out loud if things would be easier if he no longer was alive.

As if things weren’t stressful enough, the telephone rang. It was a neighboring farmer Lou Anne had helped out of a bind in the past. He was struggling again, and wanted to thank Kling for her past help. But, he said, he couldn’t fight anymore. He was going to take his own life that evening. She had seen enough farmers follow through on threats to know such talk couldn’t be taken lightly. While Lou Anne kept the distraught farmer on the telephone telling him why life was worth living, she wrote a note to Wayne telling him to go to the farmer’s house and take the local pastor with him.

“And I kept him on the telephone as long as I could, and he finally said, ‘Now I know why you’re talking so much—your damned husband just showed up,’ ” recalled Lou Anne. “And so, I turned back to this couple in my house, and the guy’s smiling. And he said, ‘I knew I was here for a reason. I heard your conversation and of course that’s me. I’m not that stupid that I’m going to die.’ He went the next day and sat down with his banker. He got everything worked out. They’re still farming.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter. Lou Anne Kling is featured in the Farm Aid documentary Homeplace Under Fire (www.homeplaceunderfire.org).