DUNSEITH, N.D. — Dwight Coleman could do little about the drought and early snowstorm that devastated his wheat crop two years in a row. But when the federal government came to take his land, he fought back.
The Farmers Home Administration, the agency that farmers turn to as a last resort for financing, started foreclosing on Coleman's 480-acre farm in 1981, just two years after he began farming.
But today, Coleman is still busy tending his 107 cows near the Canadian border, and his name has become synonymous with a class-action lawsuit that has blocked FmHA from foreclosing on nearly 90,000 borrowers since 1983 and has expanded farmers' rights.
Coleman, 42, owes FmHA $405,000, including $277,300 that is considered delinquent principal and interest on 10 different loans he got to buy his land, the agency said.
Other than making a payment to refinance a loan for some cattle with Security State Bank of Dunseith, Coleman has not written FmHA a check since 1980.
"I could lose (the land) overnight. It could all be gone tomorrow," he said recently.
State FmHA Director Ralph Leet insisted that the agency is obligated to try to get its money back.
"If we feel we can get a repayment somehow, we shouldn't let the taxpayers down," he said.
Coleman, angrily claiming that FmHA never gave him a chance to get on his feet after a two-year spell of bad weather, joined eight other North Dakota farmers in the lawsuit against FmHA in 1983.
As a class-action suit, Coleman vs. Block eventually pitted thousands of other financially pressed farmers throughout the United States against then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary John R. Block.
The lawsuit continues in a federal court in Bismarck, but FmHA borrowers already have won significant victories from U.S. District Judge Bruce Van Sickle.
Van Sickle stopped all foreclosure action since 1983, ruling that:
- The agency should let borrowers defer loan payments if they are in financial trouble because of circumstances beyond their control.
- One of the agency's foreclosure forms is unconstitutional in that it denies borrowers due process. The agency still has not drafted new forms that satisfy Van Sickle.
- Foreclosure proceedings were confusing to farmers. Van Sickle required the agency to give delinquent borrowers 30 days' notice before starting foreclosure.