Turning Over the Fields
Pat Duncanson still lives in the house he grew up in and farms the same land his parents did. Now he’s preparing the next generation to take over the family farm.
Driving through southern Minnesota toward the farm of Pat Duncanson (B.S. ’83), it’s easy to get lost in the urban stereotypes of farm life: simple and solitary, attuned to the seasons, often hard and dirty, but ultimately beautiful. As I learned more than two decades ago, though, when I visited the farm several times for a lengthy article in this magazine tracing a year in the lives of three Duncanson families, the reality of farming is more nuanced and complicated. Farming is a life ruled by complex economics and changing technologies, by small decisions amplified over thousands of acres. As Duncanson enumerates at his kitchen table, the elements necessary to build a thriving farm sound like those for any business: continuing education, networking and information exchanges, marketing and financial savvy, and boldly grasping new technologies. “Those are all the things I learned to do at the U,” he says.
Then, as now, farmers like Duncanson hedge against variables like weather and fluctuating markets by pursuing complex strategies in land ownership and leasing, crop and livestock mixes, precision farming, and market timing. “My role has been evolving,” Duncanson says. “I spend time every day looking at the markets, reading, listening, in web meetings. . . . Lots of places have good weather and good land. It’s oftentimes the management and the people and connections that makes the difference” in having a successful farm.
In early April, the principals of the farm—Duncanson, his wife, Kris, and his nephews Karson and Kameron (B.S. ’06)—sat down with a facilitator for strategic planning, charting a course for the farm for this year and several years into the future. Duncanson’s older brother and business partner, Karl (B.S. ’80), died in a car crash in May 2015. Legally dividing the farm so that Karl’s sons can take ownership of his portion adds to the need for careful planning.
Although he is immersed in the management and marketing of the farm more than the day-to-day work in the fields, Duncanson’s iPhone rang several times as we caught up: his nephews seeking his thoughts on specifics for the impending planting. “I guess they think the old uncle has a little bit of wisdom accumulated,” he jokes.
The Duncansons have farmed for four generations, and the next generation will need to learn to sift through and incorporate increasing amounts of data from the computers now built into most farm machinery and new drone technology. “There’s so much data available right now that we’re still figuring out what to do with it all,” Duncanson says. He’s also watching for changes in pest and disease patterns due to climate change, while balancing the growing demand for corn and soybeans with ever-narrower margins and the needs of sustaining a healthy environment in southern Minnesota. “We have the recipe for a lifelong challenge there,” he says. “I’m not ready to step aside anytime soon.”
He feels there’s “a pretty strong likelihood” at least one of his four children, the youngest of whom is a junior in the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, will return to take up the profession. “Our family believes that it’s a good thing to do something else for a few years before deciding if this life is right for you.” His three older children work in farm economics, social work, and geology at present. Duncanson himself did something else, interning with then-Senator Rudy Boschwitz in Washington, D.C., before returning to the farm. He met Kris, who worked for Boschwitz on farm policy, in Washington. And while she dedicated herself to farm life and raising children in the 1990s, she used her political background to remain active in farming organizations and help educate others about agriculture. She is now a consultant working with agribusiness companies on policy and sustainability concerns and serves on numerous advisory boards, frequently returning to Washington. Pat, while busy running the farm, also volunteers with the University and other schools, believing the U is uniquely positioned to tackle coming challenges of food production, technology, and human and environmental health. He has served as chair of the U’s Regent Candidate Advisory Council and was recently elected to a term on the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors that will begin July 1.
“We want to keep our world big,” Duncanson says, recounting numerous foreign travels where he and Kris create and book their own itineraries, including recent trips to Cambodia and remote northern Peru. “I’m living in the house I grew up in, in a small town in the middle of the continent. It’s important to push the boundaries a little bit.
“I’ve lived a pretty good life in being able to do and see things that my parents’ generation could not have dreamed of.”