A tribute to Lou Anne Kling was read on the floor of the Minnesota House last week as legislators passed a budget hike for Minnesota Farm Advocates. It said, in part:
"Lou Anne Kling has made an enduring impact on agriculture in Minnesota and across the country. … Over her several decades of advocacy, Lou Anne personally saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of family farms. "In some cases, she literally saved the lives of farmers who had become frustrated and did not think they had anything to live for."
Kling, a grass roots activist, national farm advocacy educator and former U.S. Department of Agriculture manager, died May 17. She was 77.
"She's a legend," said Randi Roth, who first met Kling as a law student in rural Minnesota in the 1980s, when the farm credit crisis caused thousands to lose their farms.
"I'll never forget the first day I met her," said Roth, a former director of the Farmers' Legal Action Group. "We drove to a farmer threatening suicide. She and another advocate sat with him and explained how the problem wasn't him, it was the farm economy. Then we drove to another farm, where the farmer had broken his back. ... She connected him to resources to fight foreclosure. … That's what it was like all summer."
The tireless Kling became a trusted farm adviser to state DFL leaders including former U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone and former Gov. Rudy Perpich, Roth said.
It was a surprising life journey for a farm girl from Granite Falls, Minn. Kling was born Aug. 14, 1939, to Lloyd and Alta Beito. She married at 17 and had five children before a divorce. She remarried and had two children with Wayne Kling, a nearby farmer who became her closest supporter.
Kling said they had a typical life until the farm economy collapsed. Neighbors were getting foreclosure notices from the federal Farmers Home Administration (FmHA). Lou Anne Kling later learned that the agency wasn't telling farmers their legal options to stay on the land.
She was among a group of farmers who planned to plow under an acre of grain to protest low farm prices on July 4, 1980. Ultimately, only the Kling farm, and that of veteran farm activist Anne Kanten did it. But the event drew major media coverage and created a partnership between two women who were Minnesota's leading farmer advocates.
"After the plow-down, a farmer came over and asked for advice," recalled Wayne Kling. "Lou Anne helped him. Then another came. Then another. It kept on going."
Kling became an expert in FmHA financing, negotiating settlements for farmers across the state. The map in her car had a dot for every visit and "there were dots all over the place," said daughter Shari Kottke of Walnut Grove.
Son Matthew Kling, of Lonsdale, said joining protests and visiting desperate farmers were the norm. "She taught us to stand up for ourselves," he said.
In 1992, Kling was appointed director of the Minnesota FmHA. In 1993, she was appointed deputy administrator of the USDA's farm loan programs. Working in Washington, D.C., she later developed the Farm Service Agency's outreach program, focusing on minority farmers and ranchers.
In 2000, the Klings returned to Granite Falls. She continued advising farmers, mentoring young advocates and serving on boards. Kling is one of the subjects of "Homeplace Under Fire," a documentary released this month by Farm Aid.
Susan Stokes, assistant state agriculture commissioner, said Kling and Kanten were trailblazers. "Every day I'm in this job, I think of them," she said. "They created the work of farm advocacy and trained others to keep it going."
Besides her husband, son and daughter, Kling is survived by children Carrie Anderson of Westbrook, Minn.; Butch Paskewitz of Beavercreek, Ohio; Susan Westbrook of Onalaska, Wis.; Michael Kling of Lewisville, Texas, and W. Mitchell Kling of Granite Falls, Minn.