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Pat Dunphy didn’t take a ‘kid takes over from dad’ route into agriculture. But the PEI farmer’s unconventional career path may soon be more common.

Dunphy earns a salary running a farm owned by outside investors while slowly building up his own operation on the side. Ask him what’s been the key and the 28-year-old gives an answer that some might find surprising.

“Looking back over my path, I’d say it’s all about communication and building relationships,” he says.

Dunphy’s certainly no newcomer to agriculture – his family has been farming in the Cherry Valley area on PEI’s south shore since the mid-1800s when his great-great-great-grandfather (also named Patrick Dunphy) emigrated to Canada in the wake of the Irish potato famine. His father grew seed potatoes, raised hogs, and had a cow-calf operation on 300 acres. But it was hard to make a living at that scale, and before Dunphy had finished university, his dad had traded farming for work in Alberta’s oil patch.

Although he worked on a neighbour’s dairy farm throughout his school days, Dunphy figured his future lay elsewhere. He was a top student in high school and when he graduated in 2002, he won a full scholarship to the University of PEI’s business school.

“Don’t ask me why I picked business,” he says now. “I was a chemistry and science kind of guy. I didn’t enjoy it at all and ended up only staying one semester.”

Not knowing what to do next, he spent a few months “trying to find myself.”

“But you can only do that so long before the bills come due,” he says. “So when I heard through the grapevine about this potato farm that was looking for a guy, I thought I’d give that a try.”

Along with potatoes, the farm also produced feed for the two owners, who both had their own separate livestock operations. It was Dunphy’s first experience cropping on a large scale and “the first time I realized that I really enjoyed crop farming,” he says.

“Then I thought, ‘If I’m serious about this farming thing, I’d better get an education.’ One of the partners who owned the potato farm had gone to Nova Scotia Agricultural College, and I thought I’d follow suit.”

Dunphy took plant science and headed back to the farm at every chance – not just during school breaks, but often making the seven-hour round trip on weekends when he could manage it. When he graduated in 2007, he asked the farm’s owners if they would rent him 20 acres and the equipment he’d need to seed and harvest a flax crop. And since all he could afford upfront was the inputs, would they also allow him to pay the land and equipment rental once the crop was sold?

“They agreed and I have to say that after that first crop, I was pretty much addicted,” says Dunphy.

This was also when he began to realize that relationships were going to be critical for him in his farming career.

“I know other guys had approached them in the past to do the same thing and they’d not taken them up on that offer,” he says. “I can’t say why I was given that chance, but I’m glad I was.”

Dunphy would go on to be promoted to field manager, while expanding his own farming sideline. His next crop was soybeans. That’s not a common crop in spud country, but Dunphy knew some growers were doing well with new varieties, so he rented land from his father and equipment from his employers, and worked his way up to 200 acres of beans. Along the way, he met two investors from the American Midwest who had bought land in PEI for which his employers did custom work.

“I just happened to say, ‘If you ever need any help with anything, give me a call’ – you know, the sort of thing you say to neighbours and such. Well, sure enough, that winter (in 2009), they gave me a call.”

Once again, relationships led to opportunity and Dunphy now grows 2,000 acres of soybeans and corn for his new employers, and crops 500 acres of his own (although he’s currently looking to buy land). He describes himself as more of a farm manager than a farmer and says it’s hard to imagine how he would be able to acquire the assets he’d need to establish his own operation.

“Would I be willing to go without the steady income of being a farm manager in order to go out on my own? I don’t know,” says Dunphy. “To do the kind of farming that I’m doing now – to have a large combine and pretty modern equipment – when you’re standing in my shoes, it seems well near impossible.”

But in the next breath, he says “maybe it isn’t.”

“I know here in PEI – and I would think in the rest of Canada – there’s a real shortage of young people in agriculture,” he says. “What I’ve seen is that the older generation is more willing than ever to welcome new ideas and younger people into their operation.”

There are also a fair number of young people, like himself, who want to farm for a living but don’t have an operation they can take over, says Dunphy, who is president of the PEI Young Farmer’s Association.

“I also know two fellows who were a year ahead of me in college who ended up doing the same thing that I am,” he says. “Their situation was similar to mine – the home farm wasn’t doing so good or there wasn’t room to bring on another person – but they’ve found a way to make a living from farming.”

How it will play out is hard to predict, but Dunphy says there are opportunities for what he calls “creative” approaches to farm transfers. Many farmers don’t have anyone to pass the farm onto, but don’t want to see an operation they’ve built over a lifetime simply wound down and its assets sold off.

“Farmers are a proud bunch and I don’t know that getting a cheque from selling the farm excites them that much,” says Dunphy. “If they don’t have a son or daughter or an in-law wanting to take over the farm, then bringing in someone would be the next best thing.”

Even though the costs of buying a commercial-sized farm are enormous, that’s not necessarily an insurmountable barrier if the owner is willing to stage that transaction over a long enough time frame, he notes. In Dunphy’s view, the tricky part is those other two things – relationships and communication.

The first partly depends on showing you have the necessary production and business smarts, but it’s also about things such as a shared passion for a farm and having a vision for its future, says Dunphy.

“I think for the older farmer, it would come down to looking at that person and being able to see an image of themselves if they were 30 years younger,” he says.

And then, when the time is ripe, the two parties need to talk about what might be possible.

“Getting an older person to talk about what they see happening in the next 10 years or so can be like pulling teeth,” he says. “But that’s where the communication comes in. You need to find a way to have those conversations.”

This is Dunphy’s sixth farming season and he says it’s too early to say if he might go that route. But he’s confident such opportunities are out there.

“Look at my situation – you wouldn’t have seen this sort of thing very often 20 years ago. But times are changing.”