POLO, Ill. — Brian Duncan speaks for himself, but his words echo the members of Illinois Farm Bureau.
“I’m hopeful,” he said.
Duncan is hopeful about hot dogs and bacon and what the demand will be for the pork he and his pork production partner produce.
“I’m hopeful with these vaccines. I’m hopeful that people will get out and get consuming. I’m hopeful that the consumption patterns will ramp back up. But let’s see how this all plays out. When people get comfortable again, they will get moving. I guess you can describe me as hopeful, but a little bit cautious,” he said.
The vice president of Illinois Farm Bureau spent around 160 days a year, pre-COVID, on the road, traveling around the state and meeting with members and hearing their perspective on issues from local concerns to national legislation and global issues.
When it comes to perspective, Duncan brings a range of perspectives to the role he’s had since December 2017, when he was elected.
“I think I bring a pretty broad perspective to leadership in the organization. I bring the perspective of a multi-generation family farm. I bring the perspective of the next generation, of bringing the kids back to the farm and the livestock perspective, as well as row crops,” he said.
Duncan is an independent pork processor and 2020 is not a year he’ll look back on fondly in that job. He transitioned from farrow-to-finish to wean-to-finish four years ago.
Duncan and another Polo-area farmer, Keith Poole, are partners in the hog operation. They raise around 70,000 pigs a year that are marketed to JBS in Beardstown, Illinois, and Indiana Kitchens in Delphi, Indiana.
“Being an independent is a pretty tough place to be right now,” Duncan said.
Even with its difficulties, Duncan said he prefers being independent.
“I like calling my own shots. There used to be great opportunity to make money. If you took the risk, you could generally get the reward. I always liked negotiating with packers. I always enjoyed being in charge of my own destiny. Maybe that just suits my personality better,” he said.
Duncan has spoken up about the need for price discovery and market transparency, a hot topic in 2020 and one that continues to be at the top of the priority list for the livestock industry.
“I think there’s movement to level the playing field. I just don’t know who’s going to be left by that time, if and when we can get it leveled,” he said.
Duncan said his family and faith are his foundations, whether he’s working on the farm or on the road on behalf of Illinois Farm Bureau. He and wife Kelly will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their first date this fall. They were married in 1988 and have four children.
It’s a source of pride for Duncan that all of his children are either involved in the farming operation or connected to agriculture. Duncan’s son, Levi, and his wife, Lydia, farm with him.
His daughter, Sara, and her husband, Carl, live nearby, and Sarah does bookkeeping for Brian and also works on a dairy farm near Forreston. His daughter, Emma, and her husband, Danny, and their daughter, Ivy, live in Freeport. Emma works as the head bookkeeper for her father.
Brian and Kelly’s youngest daughter, Molly, is a junior studying agronomy with an environmental emphasis, at the University of Illinois. Duncan laughs that Molly “inherited the crazy ag policy gene” from him.
“She really likes policy and politics, but she likes farming and agronomy, so we’ll see where that takes her,” he said.
All of their children were homeschooled by Kelly until they left for college.
“We’ve had a lot of fun adventures as a family with that,” Duncan said.
He also attributes the family’s strong religious faith. He serves as a ruling elder at Forreston Grove Church near Forreston.
Duncan started farming after graduating from Sauk Valley Community College with a degree in social science.
“I’m really proud of that institution. I’m fortunate to be able to give something back and serve on the SVCC board of trustees,” he said.
His path in Illinois Farm Bureau started around the same time. He and Kelly served on the IFB’s Young Farmers Committee, now the Young Leader program.
But even before that, the Duncans were a Farm Bureau family.
“Dad was on the county Farm Bureau board. My mom was on the Women’s Committee. I got involved right away and came up through what was then called the Young Farmers program,” Brian said.
He served on the state Young Farmers committee, on the Ogle County Farm Bureau board and then as president of the Ogle County Farm Bureau for 13 years.
The county Farm Bureau system throughout the state remains close to his heart.
“The counties are the heartbeat of the organization. That’s really where the closest connection to the member happens. We are a member-driven organization, grassroots, we always like to say. The counties occupy the space closest to the member and that’s really the heartbeat of the organization,” he said.
The part that many members don’t see is the time commitment required of the leadership positions, whether at the county or state level.
“It is basically a full-time job, between the day and night meetings and the travel,” Duncan said.
His family and a team of farm employees help make it possible for him to be away from the farm — before 2020, that is.
“Along with my family, I’ve got a great team of employees here on the farm who really stepped up and my partner in the hog operation really stepped up, so I am really fortunate to be in a position where I could step up and travel and make the commitment to the organization,” he said.
Duncan was well used to working remotely via computer before the pandemic hit. The marketing and logistics work he does for the farm can be done from wherever he finds himself.
“When COVID hit, I went from traveling the state almost every day to here I am at home. Fortunately, my wife was nice about it. I’m looking forward to getting back out and about when we can safely do so and reconnecting and continuing those connections and friendships with the membership and doing the work of this organization. It really is a labor of love,” he said.