Fighting for Nebraska’s farmers: Farm and Ranch Project hires new attorney

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers and ranchers were facing significant financial distress. A variety of factors, including the devastating 2019 floods, contributed to the economic downturn in which these once financially stable farmers and ranchers had nowhere else to turn. Earlier this year, one such family had what seemed like their entire life repossessed. They reached out to Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Farm and Ranch Project through the Rural Response Hotline for help.

“In the past, we would’ve been able to explain the debt collection process, do some education and research, and say, ‘this is what you’re looking at,’ and that’s all we could do,” said Michelle Soll, Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Farm and Ranch Project manager. “Now, we are able to get more involved by drafting documents, reviewing the repossession law, or representing them.’”

This change in service was made possible thanks to a disaster relief grant from the Legal Services Corporation. For the first time in many years, the Farm and Ranch Project will have its own attorney, something Soll says has been increasingly needed since last year’s floods.

“Prior to this attorney position, we could provide brief service, counsel, advice, and education,” she said. “We could help get them through a difficult situation, but now it’s to the stage where they need representation. Before this grant, we didn’t have the funds to take it to the next level, but that next level has been needed this last year more than ever.”

Hoping to help struggling farmers and ranchers is Phil Martin, recently named the new Farm and Ranch Project attorney. Martin, who has been a Legal Aid attorney since 2017, hopes to make a difference to those the program serves.

“I was interested in applying for this position because the farmers and ranchers were hit harder than anybody by the flood last year,” Martin said. “These are good people that need our help and work that needs to be done.”

The catastrophic flooding of 2019 was one of the worst Nebraska disasters in recent memory. Billions of dollars in damage affected the majority of Nebraska’s 93 counties. Many affected were rural residents who turned to the Rural Response Hotline for assistance.

“We have been receiving a lot of calls regarding financial distress,” Soll said. “They still have so many expenses from the flood clean up – loss of livestock or loss of farm ground.”

Since the farm crisis of the 1980s, the Rural Response Hotline has been a crucial resource for struggling farmers and ranchers. Maintained by a partnership between Legal Aid’s Farm and Ranch Project, Interchurch Ministries, Rural Response Council, Next Gen Project and Negotiations Project through Nebraska Department of Agriculture, and Nebraska Farmers Union Foundation, it is the longest, continuously running farm hotline in the nation. Soll has helped staff the hotline for almost 30 years, and in that time, she has seen a constant need for legal representation for rural farmers and ranchers.

“I’m a farmer’s daughter and farmer’s wife, and we also flooded so I understand the ag industry,” Soll said. “We’re starting to see a lot of mental health concerns. Individuals have anxiety, frustration or anger issues because it is a very trying time right now for farmers and ranchers.”

Soll is happy to welcome Martin to the Farm and Ranch team and eager to see what his position will bring.

“It’s an amazing step in the right direction,” Soll said. “He will be a wonderful asset to the Farm and Ranch Project.”

Legal Aid Executive Director Milo Mumgaard agrees.

“Through this unique work, Legal Aid is honored to bring the power of the law to the side of struggling Nebraska farmers and ranchers, and to do so in close collaboration with so many others,” said Mumgaard. “The program’s excellent work dates from the farm crisis of the 1980s to today’s crises arising from the 2019 floods and COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.  There’s no question the need right now for an attorney on the program staff focused on these issues is exceptionally critical. Phil’s work will not only benefit his low-asset, low-income clients, but farmers and ranchers facing high debt, low prices, and grim futures all across the state.”

And Martin is excited for this new opportunity.

“I am thrilled to be part of this effort,” he said. “I am always interested in branching out and learning new areas of law. But ultimately I’m most excited about the people, their stories, and trying to help make their lives a little better.”

For Soll, the addition of Martin makes a great project even greater.

“It’s like the topping on the ice cream. The ice cream sundae was all there, but we needed that topping. We needed that cherry to make our work complete.”

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