Al Gustin

Forty years ago, in the spring of 1983, a noon luncheon was held in Mandan to recognize the North Dakota Farmers Home Administration Farm Family of the Year.

The Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the lender of last resort for farmers and ranchers. Farmers or would-be farmers who lacked equity and were too great a risk to get credit from traditional lenders could get a reduced-interest farm ownership or operating loan from the FmHA. Later, when they became established and more credit worthy, they “graduated” from FmHA to other lenders.

These graduates were success stories, and I felt they deserved recognition. In 1980, I suggested to my employer that we sponsor a FmHA Farm Family of the Year award. Meyer Broadcasting and the state office of the FmHA both bought into the idea. Each of the six district offices nominated farm families for the award. A panel of three, non-FmHA judges made the selection, and the winning family got a plaque and statewide recognition at a luncheon. The governor came. It was a big deal and very good.

 By 1983, the farm economy had already begun to struggle. In my remarks at the luncheon, I said, “What better time to recognize success than when ‘making it’ is a real accomplishment.”

 But things got really ugly in the years that followed. The farm economy tanked. Land values plummeted. Farmers lost equity. Many were denied credit. Foreclosures were common. In her acclaimed book, “The Farmers’ Lawyer,” attorney Sarah Vogel, who later would serve as N.D. agriculture commissioner, writes about her protracted legal fight to save FmHA borrowers from foreclosure. Vogel ultimately won an injunction on behalf of FmHA borrowers nationwide, guaranteeing them due process.

Not long ago, digging through a file cabinet, I came across a folder labeled FmHA. In it were my notes surrounding the FmHA Farm Family of the Year program. It’s the part of the FmHA legacy that many people don’t remember – the good part.

Al Gustin is a retired farm broadcaster, active rancher and a member of Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative.