By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
If there are three facts Tonya Haverkamp will never forget, it’s these — eggs have six grams of protein, 14 nutrients and 70 calories.
Haverkamp is an egg and pullet producer, managing several barns owned by her father, Ralph Haverkamp located outside of Listowel. You may recognize her from Egg Farmers of Ontario advertisements, recipe segments on television shows like CityLine and radio shows. She’s an avid agriculture and egg promotor and her efforts were recently awarded with the “Get Cracking” award which she received at the Egg Farmers of Ontario annual meeting in March.
I met up with Tonya and her husband, Don Storey, at the layer barns outside Listowel on the edge of Wellington County to talk about her journey becoming a farmer and spokesperson for eggs. I was surprised to learn her dream job was actually to have a Spa on Wheels!
“I became an esthetician and then got my DZ licence with the idea to put a spa on wheels in 2000,” remembers Tonya. “I got my licence but no one would hire me to drive a truck.” In 2023 it might be a different story but 20 years ago, it wasn’t a common job for a woman. “They thought she was too small,” adds Don.
Instead, she took a job at Zehrs in Listowel and quickly climbed the ladder, moving from cashier to office clerk to manager to corporate work opening other Zehrs stores in the province. She liked the job and it gave her confidence working with people. “I wasn’t confident in front of people and that job got me out of my shell,” she remembers. “When you are hiring and training people, you need to talk!”
Meanwhile, her parents Ralph and Janet, had moved the eqq quota from the home farm in Milverton, to a farm in Strathroy, then to Listowel in 1999. Wanting a career change, she considered the offer to manage her father’s layer and pullet barns. She had been helping on the farm for years, picking up parts and bringing meals to the fields but had yet to make a move to full-time farming. “I had a lot of emotions,” remembers Tonya. “Fear was one because I did not think I could handle all aspects of farming, such as fixing broken equipment.”
So she started by doing books, ordering and managing and eased into the physical components of the job. It helped when an employee named Johnathan was hired. He was a handyman which allowed Tonya to focus on her skill sets, which were business and marketing. Don also helps when needed but has his own full-time job off-farm.
Tonya had always enjoyed working in the pullet barn, watching day-old chicks grow into healthy, egg-laying hens. As she worked in both the pullet and layer barns, she began to take personal pride in producing home-grown eggs and feeding Canadians. “Less than two per cent of the population are farmers,” she says. “People are so removed from how food is produced and I think it is so important to put a face to food.”
It’s something her generation is more aware of, she thinks, stating that farmers of her father’s generation generally aren’t as keen to get out in public and tell the farming story.
Don remembers an encounter they had with a man in Niagara Falls who asked, “are you really farmers?” When Don and Tonya confirmed it, the man was so excited to meet “actual” farmers and had lots of questions for the pair. It was an opportunity they took advantage of.
Tonya has also served on the board of Egg Farmers of Ontario. She’s been to Queen’s Park to promote agriculture and has toured Premier Doug Ford through the pullet farms.
Tonya says barn tours are critical to reaching consumers and helping them move past their worry of animals in housing. “I will ask visitors what they notice and they will say things like ‘it’s quiet’ or ‘the chickens are so calm.’” Visitors also note how clean the barns are and fresh the air is.
What makes Tonya’s story somewhat extraordinary is that during all her promotion work -- which required travel, time and energy all while still farming — she was facing her own health battle. Tonya was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. A lumpectomy in June was followed by a double mastectomy in September. In December of that year she had reconstruction which went well until 2019, when she underwent an implant exchange. A year later, she had fat grafting to further support reconstruction. In 2021, more cancer was detected which was removed. She is currently in remission.
“It has been a long bunch of years,” she says simply.
Through it all, farming continued because animals require care every day, no matter what else is going on. Raising pullets and producing eggs is highly automated but management is required to monitor the birds, lighting, feeding and collecting and pack eggs. Egg farmers work closely with feed companies to adjust the feed to the bird’s growth and production levels. Pullets move into the layer barns at 19 weeks and stay in the layer barns for 365 days.
The Haverkamps also raise hens for other layer operations and Tonya says it’s a source of pride for her to grow a bird that will “produce the best eggs she can” for other producers. Looking to the future, Tonya says she isn’t focused on ownership. “I’m a ‘do-the-work-and-get-it-done’ kind of person,” she says. “I don’t need to have ownership to take pride in what I do.”
Of increasing egg prices, Don says he still believes eggs are a “cheap protein” that can be used in so many ways to feed families. He and Tonya add that egg farmers are paid on a cost of production model, meaning as feed, labour and transportation prices increase, so does the cost of producing the eggs and therefore, their value.
Receiving an award for her efforts was appreciated but Tonya says it also makes her “extremely uncomfortable”. She would rather talk about the farm and the birds than herself and admits it’s kind of ironic that she would get an award for her volunteer and promotion work when, as someone who describes herself as “shy”, many times she would rather just be in the barn. Of being on television, being interviewed and meeting people she says, “I enjoy it yet I kind of hate it at the same time.”
Conflicted she may be, but Tonya’s ready smile and willingness to share her passion for eggs and agriculture has been noticed and honoured. ◊