Speaking out Profile: Farm activist Lou Anne Kling: From pastures to protests
Photograph by Rob Amberg
They weren't going to take that farm away from us and they weren't going to take it away from my neighbors either. It was deep inside of me." - Lou Anne Kling
by Mary Turck
In the 1980s, Lou Anne Kling advocated for farmers against abuses by the federal Farmers Home Administration (FmHA). In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Kling as the agency's national administrator of farm loan programs. Now, at 77 years, Kling has retired from her job as farm transitions coach for the Land Stewardship Project, and remains active in her community, as health allows, keeping a sharp eye on government shenanigans that affect farmers.
Kling's story begins on a farm near Granite Falls that her great-grandfather homesteaded after immigrating from Norway. "My childhood, to me, was the best ever," she says. Childhood ended early, when she dropped out of high school in her senior year to get married. She worked as a waitress, all the time knowing "that I was wasting time or wasting something because I could do more."
The marriage turned terrible, so she packed up her five kids and moved back to Granite Falls. There she met and married Wayne Kling.
"We were partners and I was a farmer just like he was a farmer," Kling says. "When I grew up, Dad was the boss and mother did the work. I wasn't going to be like that." Their family expanded with two more children.
During the 1980s, a national farm crisis gathered momentum, driving farmers into bankruptcy and off the land. Farmers were left with massive debt for operating loans and mortgages, at the same time that the worth of their main asset - their land - fell dramatically. In Minnesota, farm income dropped from $1.2 billion in 1980 to $208 million in 1983. The total number of farms in Minnesota dropped from 103,000 in 1978 to 73,000 in 1997, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center.
Kling's response was visceral: "By gosh, they weren't going to take that farm away from us and they weren't going to take it away from my neighbors either. It was deep inside of me." She and her husband had long been active members of Farmers Union. Now, with their neighbors, they planned a plow-down - plowing under one acre of growing grain as a protest against the government policies that fostered the farm crisis.
Kling was the only one willing to put her phone number on the press releases. Her mother-in-law began writing her name: Mrs. Wayne Kling, but Kling said no. "I said I'm not his hunk of property. I have a name, I'm a person." As she recalls, her mother-in-law "about broke the pencil writing Lou Anne Kling," but eventually came around to claiming her own name, too.
From that 1980 plow-down protest, to standing on courthouse steps trying to stop farm foreclosures, to battling illegal Farmers Home Administration actions, Kling's activist career lasted more than 30 years. Her activism grew from the grassroots. A neighbor came over and "said he had a problem, a loan with the Farmers Home Administration, and they were going to foreclose." With her help, her neighbor won his appeal and stopped the sale of his farm.
"He told somebody else and somebody else and somebody else," Kling recalls. As she continued to work for farmers under threat of foreclosure by FmHA, she discovered "what they were doing to farmers, and how they had lied and cheated them." Government officials, from St. Paul to Washington, D.C., discovered Kling and her passionate, informed, effective advocacy. Her work, along with that of the first volunteers she trained, became Minnesota Farm Advocates, now part of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
As requests for training and advocacy rolled in, Kling traveled across the state and the nation. "It just would blow my mind," she says, "when I'd be standing up there telling a room full of bankers how they should do a cash flow for their farmers."
In 1985, country music star Willie Nelson organized musicians to stage Farm Aid, a giant benefit concert responding to the farm crisis. Together with legal aid attorneys Lynn Hayes and Jim Massey, Kling asked Nelson to fund "a farm law center where farmers could get help without cost and lawyers knew the right stuff." The Farmers Legal Action Group, funded by that first Farm Aid concert, still serves farmers across the country.
Today, Kling says, the farm crisis is "not a sexy, front-page issue," but it's real. She serves on the county food shelf board and says the food shelf sees at least 150 people weekly, in a city of fewer than 3,000 people.
Looking back on her years of activism, Kling says, "It was wonderful. It was hard. It was sad. You went through a real emotional turmoil, but it was really great to watch success."
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