It’s five in the morning in Grand Falls, New Brunswick.
Tints of daylight start to streak over the sky as Jessica Toner stands in her kitchen with a cup of coffee, mentally organizing her day. Silence looms in the room as she enjoys the brief moment of peace. It’s just a matter of time before the calls start flooding in and her attention will be pulled in multiple directions for the rest of the day. However, this short period between night and day is hers and hers alone.
Although the scene of enjoying a cup of morning coffee before heading off to work might be familiar to young people her age, Jessica Toner deviates from a typical morning schedule when she heads to her family’s potato farm and packaging plant, Toner Farms & Produce, for work.
There’s no business-casual attire.
There’s no workday seated in front of a computer.
And there’s definitely no nine-to-five hours, especially when the harvest is in full swing.
Toner’s job demands a knowledge of farming in the modern era as well as the know-how to operate a successful and thriving business. A unique blend of two professional worlds, she's a helping hand wherever she’s needed: a business-savvy professional and farmer rolled into one.
Wasting the morning is not an option. By 6:30, Toner is on the floor making inventory lists and ensuring the belts and lacings of the machines are all running smoothly for another full day of processing the endless flow of potatoes due to roll through for packaging. Every few minutes, her phone buzzes with another small fire to put out: troubling weather conditions, equipment breakdowns, or her cousin, Luc Gervais, managing the day-to-day of the potato farm itself, giving updates from the acres upon acres of tubers growing in the fields. There always seems to be a race against time at Toner Farms & Produce.
The morning vanishes in a loud, mechanic whirlwind of packing machinery. “It’s hectic, it’s loud, it’s fast-paced,” says Toner. “Your adrenaline is sky high, and it’s amazing!” Her hours are filled with monitoring the entire operation without a hitch. The last thing she wants is to send off an order short of product. “These are the times that it’s crucial to be on your A game,” she says.
Farming, packaging, business — she needs to be on top of it all.
When she was a child, Toner never knew the intense dedication it took from her father, uncle, and grandfather to run the family business.
Dating back to the early 1900s in New Brunswick, Toner’s great-grandfather began growing potatoes and created T.M. Toner and Sons. As ownership of the farm was passed down through her grandfather and later her father and uncle, it grew from 250 acres to a 1,300-acre establishment. Her grandfather even expanded business dealings into the automobile sector after starting a car dealership in the 1960s that is still run by the Toner family in New Brunswick today.
“He was ambitious, hard-working, wise, calm, and extremely generous. He always wanted to see everything grow.”
As the ‘80s rolled around with advancing technologies in equipment, Toner’s father, Tom, and her Uncle Jim carved out a niche market for themselves in agricultural processing by integrating better storage ventilation into their farming practices and created the offshoot of J.T. Toner and Sons.
It seemed the passion for growth was everywhere in this family.
Despite the success of the businesses, Jessica didn’t seem to hold any interest in carrying on the family tradition of operating the farm. “I never thought it could be something I could take over, since female role models in the farming industry were not very present,” she recalls. With the lack of female representation in the field — literally — the thought of owning and running the farm in such a male-dominated industry did not seem appealing, and so she turned to job prospects beyond farming.
Her first summer job was as a receptionist at a local campground. Forging a path away from the farm, Toner was making her own money and on cloud nine. Insistent on proving her independence beyond J.T. Toner and Sons in her adulthood, Jessica gravitated toward the other half of the Toner family’s trade: automobiles.
“When I was in university, I was eager to learn the car business, so my summers were spent working for my uncles at their dealership. I started in the wash bay and eventually worked my way up to a service advisor,” she says. “I had the hope of owning my own car dealership in the future.”
After obtaining a Bachelor of Commerce degree, Toner moved to the opposite side of the country in British Columbia and started working at a car dealership. Despite finding success in her field, the passion she once felt for her job was fading fast. Growing up and seeing her father approach farming with the same enthusiasm and vigour each day was something Jessica had wanted to emulate in her own life, but what could she do?
“My father introduced the idea that perhaps I should come back to Grand Falls and give farming a try...to which I rebelled again at the idea, but he soon drew a different picture of farming which I wasn’t familiar with.”
Women were slowly breaking onto the scene. Toner’s distant cousin, for example, was establishing herself and gaining respect among those in the business. Tech and science were now huge factors as well; in the planting season, GPS systems were utilized throughout the planting process. Most of all, farming was a business in which one needed to know how to manage, profit, and diversify with the ever-changing markets — and that was right up her alley.
Maybe this was something she could do.
In 2009, Jessica returned home to oversee a food-safety program and test the waters of her newfound career path. She found that the passion for the work came effortlessly.
Faced with a steep learning curve, Toner blended her knowledge of successful business management with chemistry, plant biology, physics, and tech integration. “Recently we have been seeing a lot of drone technology being used to map soil and plant health,” she says. “It’s nice to see technology moving in the direction to improve plant health, which in turn improves our yields and quality.”
The learning never stops.
Together with Luc, the two manage the ups and downs of the lifestyle as a team. Their strengths and weaknesses perfectly complement each other, and they couldn’t love it more, because just liking the job in this field will not cut it.
Liking the job doesn’t get someone out of bed at 5 a.m. and work for seven days a week during peak season.
Liking the job doesn’t motivate someone to stand outside in -40-degree Celsius weather loading potatoes in a snowsuit.
Liking the job doesn’t give someone the last boost of energy to make it through the day.
It’s the passion that makes all the difference for Jessica. “If you have the drive to keep going when the day is difficult, it’s those days that make you realize what you’re capable of.”
Loving the job will make you start and finish the day with a smile on your face.
Loving the job will let you see your hard work pay off by feeding millions of families.
Loving the job will give you the physical and emotional strength to face any challenge head-on.
Along with reigniting a passion for her career and feeling the same pride that her father felt in her own work, Toner has gained something more priceless: the value of family. Managing Toner Farms and Toner Produce is a joint effort for the entire family and everyone else involved. Finding happiness and passion wasn’t about breaking away and being independent but rather knowing when and how to rely on others to create a valuable team.
“You can’t do it alone. You need to surround yourself with great people. Right now, we do have a great crew. We couldn’t ask for better.”
Opportunities for women in farming continue to open up every day.
With each harvest that passes, the stigma of a “boys club” vanishes more and more. As for Toner, she doesn’t look at it as being a female farmer at all; she’s simply just a farmer with the same goals and struggles as the next one a few miles away.
In an age when people are taking an interest in where their food comes from, Toner believes this is the time to clear up misconceptions about the stereotypical uneducated farmer in coveralls while bringing to light the possible career paths open and available to anyone interested. “I think education is key to breaking the stigma,” Toner says. “It would be great to see agriculture be part of the school curriculum, so young [people] realize at a young age that being a farmer is quite feasible.”
This could be a turning point and a chance for growth in the field as the technology continues to alter and benefit the farming industry. Very much like the physical growing and cultivation on Toner Farms and Toner Produce, education is the key to establishing people from a range of backgrounds, areas of study, and genders in the field.
It’s 6 p.m. The machines have whirred to a halt for cleaning and maintenance.
The packaging plant seems like a different world without the soundtrack of production resonating everywhere as the floor is reset for the next day.
Luc is loading the last shipment of the day for McCain Foods into a potato truck, and Jessica rolls up her sleeves and throws on a pair of gloves to help out until the last load is gone and rolling down the road. Another exhausting but invigorating day behind them.
There are no major problems or setbacks that need to be addressed before the morning. As the sun sets over the horizon, she takes a drive through the fields. It’s not so much a survey of product but more of an admiration drive, a lap of pride around the land that her family has worked over and over again. She gets out and stands among the rows to grab a small potato tuber from the ground, enjoying a final moment of peace in a day wrangled by chaos and demand.
Looking out onto the horizon, she can’t help but smile when the thought of tomorrow’s exciting unknown creeps into her mind.
Design by Marjan Farsad for BuzzFeed