Ask Kristin Weeks Duncanson what she does for a living and she'll tell you that, besides being a mom, she's a farmer. Not farm wife, not farm woman, but farmer.
Yet this unpretentious, dynamic young farmer is equally at home in the halls of Congress, discussing in detail such subjects as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the farm bill and biodiesel.
Duncanson, originally from the Twin Cities, had built herself a political career in Washington, D.C. She's now raising kids, crops and livestock with her husband, Pat, near Mapleton, MN.
“I came to this life the back way,” says Duncanson. “I started doing ag policy as my career out of college and now am living on a farm. A lot of people do it the other way.”
Doing comes natural for Duncanson, whether she's performing her duties as vice president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA) or as its guide through the tunnels and politics of Congress.
“Kris has been assisting and directing our leadership, backgrounding us on various issues,” says Jim Palmer, MSGA executive director. “She knows issues beyond the superficial.
“Because of her background of not coming from the farm, she knows a lot of the broader pictures involved. She doesn't look at agriculture as the whole pie but as part of the bigger issue agenda.”
One area Duncanson's been working tirelessly on has been the biodiesel effort, helping to educate farmers and legislators. But she's also been very involved in trying to get TPA passed through Congress.
“I think there was a view for a while that TPA was only going to benefit business, but it has amazing implications for agriculture. We've been calling congressional members and letting them know just how important trade is. There have been 130 trade agreements in the last two years and the U.S. has been able to participate in two of them because we haven't had TPA.
“This is what I tell farmers: ‘If you go to buy a tractor and all you talk to is the mechanic, he's not going to make the deal for you. He can't talk money. That's what's happening without Trade Promotion Authority.’”
In the early 1980s, Duncanson was a registered correspondent for former Minnesota Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, who, being on the ag committee, was heavily involved in ag policy. That's where she met Pat, a Boschwitz intern — and where she learned her way around Capitol Hill.
Once they married and moved to the farm in 1986, Duncanson thought she'd left ag politics behind. She jokes that her major contribution to her state association is her skill at finding her way through the maze of tunnels on Capitol Hill. But it's much more, says Sherry Lowe, MSGA director of communication. Her contacts in Congress have helped the state association be more politically savvy.
“She's been invaluable,” says Lowe, who worked with Duncanson the past two years to promote biodiesel. “She's got a lot of political finesse. She knows the intricacies of politics very well.”
Duncanson admits that she's not intimidated by the system or the process. “I really think it is a people-friendly process if you remember some simple things, such as not being afraid to formulate a letter and send it. And you don't have to have all the answers — but you do need to have an opinion.”
She enjoys working with the soybean growers. “I'm very proud of the things we've done as farmers, like the WISHH program (which promotes the use of soy products in developing countries). Trying to sort through the farm bill is frustrating, but it's got to be done.”
Duncanson wishes more people belonged to associations and played active roles in issues. “As the farming population shrinks, we need to have as many people as possible forming opinions and affecting policy,” she says.
Duncanson herself is becoming even more active in policy in general after being nominated as a Humphrey Institute policy fellow. The Humphrey Institute gathers 25-30 people from various walks of life around Minnesota. They hear about and debate issues ranging from foreign policy to domestic security.
“It's an opportunity to spend some time thinking and discussing in detail some policies that we may not run across in our daily lives,” says Duncanson.
“It's fascinating. I think there are a lot of things you can take back to agriculture. You take back that the farm bill isn't the only debate that Congress has to deal with. I kind of knew that because I've worked on the Hill, but it's easy to forget when you become immersed in what you are doing.”
Duncanson's priority, however, is her children: Ben, 13; Claire, 10; Sam, 7; and Gabe, 6. “We're very committed to pairing what we do to the needs of our kids. I always try to center things around how they are going to affect my husband and children.”
Besides soybeans and corn, the family raises canning peas, livestock and hogs. Most of these enterprises are in partnership with Pat's mother, Mary; his brother, Karl; Karl's wife, Jackie; and their kids.
As a former city kid turned farmer, Duncanson has learned a lot about the grassroots of farming. “Yet sometimes we think I bring the urban perspective to our farms — like about what customers are wanting,” she says.
Without the support of her entire family, Duncanson says she wouldn't have felt free to devote time to ag policy. “Pat makes it easy for me to go and having Grandma next door is very helpful,” she adds.