Bonita Mercer is a cattle farmer from Monetville, Ont., and a board member of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, a professional organization for family farm entrepreneurs. CFFO advocates on behalf of 4,000 farm families, advising the provincial government on policy solutions for a broad range of agricultural and rural issues.
Faith Today: Tell us what your life is like right now as a farmer.
Bonita Mercer: My husband and I have a cow/calf operation. We’ve been doing it for 41 years. We used to breed registered Percheron horses, but now we’re just down for cattle. We have calves in the spring and sell them in the fall. We are feeding people, eventually, but it all starts with the babies.
It’s amazing how even after so many years you never get tired of that miracle.
Farming has changed a lot. Back then, if you needed a new piece of equipment, you just called your bank manager. Now, young people have to go through a lot. That personal part of the financing piece is way more difficult, especially for new farmers wanting to get into it. That’s a big hurdle now. Farming practices have changed, same as everything else in life.
FT: Tell us about people wanting to get into farming.
BM: There are more and more. I was on a committee for the large animal vet shortage in Ontario with the University of Guelph. There are a lot of people who want to be called homesteaders. They have one or two cows, a couple of pigs, some chickens. It’s farming if it’s one cow or a hundred. There are a lot more homesteaders coming up. There are lots of southern Ontario people moving up here [about four hours/350 km north of Toronto], buying small acreages and farming.
We need to remember that is how all farmers started. Where I am we are five generations of farming, and that’s how they got started. They had one horse. They cleared some land. They had one cow for beef and milk, and they had some chickens. They are going back to how our great-great grandparents lived.
You must have a strong desire within yourself.
FT: What is the role of faith in farming, in your experience?
BM: I pray every morning, and not because I’m a good Christian. I’m always working at trying to be a better Christian. On the farm you never know what every day will bring. On a farm the unknowing is magnified because there’s so much life here. Every morning you wake up on faith that the cows will still be there. I’m always working on my faith. If I didn’t have any faith, life would be so different and so lonely.
You have a keen sense of God’s creation. When I think of how many calves we’ve had over the years, I still go outside and see how beautiful they are. The spiritual aspect of it is very real. It involves the realization of life and creation.
Our leader is the Lord. What does God say about what we should do about the land? About how we should plant? What should we do with our cattle? We go to God for the answers, not ourselves. God says to do right by your land, don’t squander it. Appreciate it. Respect it. Do what is right. Try to do the right thing, which means not hurting the land. You don’t just take a piece of land and deplete it. Those who deplete the land are not thinking about tomorrow and the next generation. How much do you really need?
FT: Can you tell us more about the work of the CFFO and the role of faith within that?
Those who deplete the land are not thinking about tomorrow and the next generation.
BM: We share our faith in common, and our faith impacts how we farm. The fellowship with one another is important. In terms of our activities, we sent a letter recently about the housing shortage. There is a lot of farmland going for development of houses. We wrote a letter asking the government to preserve farmland. We know it’s complicated because you also have to find a solution for the housing shortage. Yes, we need housing, but we can’t let development interfere with food security. It’s not a straight answer. We work along with other farm organizations and interact with politicians to answer questions like, "How will we get food down the road?" We need to think about the future.
In the CFFO we’re encouraged all the time to become more educated. There are always seminars and all kinds of educational opportunities available.
We all have the disposition that God is in our life, and that we are brothers and sisters. It doesn’t just sound like something nice to say.
There is always information available. If a new farmer had a question about anything, we have districts all over. You can go to people who are doing the same thing you’re doing, so there’s that interaction and connecting with other people. Networking is the biggest thing.
FT: Tell us more about some of the challenges farmers are facing now?
BM: There is climate change. The weather is unpredictable. Before you could count on getting your crop in with weather that was a little bit predictable. Now it’s not. You can have a drought and then too much rain. The weather is a big challenge.
You learn all about life in farming. Life is unpredictable. Same with farming. You work every day with what happens. You work with the cards you are dealt.
There is a shortage of abattoirs. It takes months and months now to process beef. We try to encourage the government to help out, to build more abattoirs, as they are government regulated. A lot of them are closed because of red tape.
We’re competing with big money too. When you talk about housing developments, for example, that is big money. We can say we want this land for farming, but then you have multimillion dollar companies saying they want that.
Another challenge is farm machinery. For the small farmer, if you have 20 to 30 head of cattle and are paying $30,000 to $40,000 for a baler, you have to sell a lot of calves to sustain that. You have to pay a lot to get the equipment. With dairy farming around here, the last number I heard was four operating dairy farms. There used to be around 40.
There are only two of us in beef farming in this area, partly because one has to have so many head to make it work. You can’t just have 30 head. You have to have a lot more cattle to just pay for that machinery. It’s done away with a lot of the smaller farms.
FT: What do you want people to know about farming life?
BM: That we work every day. Farmers work every day for the [improvement] of everybody, to provide food. A lot of people go to the store, and get their steak and vegetables, but do they think, Where did that come from? What did someone have to do to provide that food? I’d like for people to think more about where the food came from. We need to work together. It comes down to being aware of how dependent we really are on each other.
We share our faith in common, and our faith impacts how we farm. The fellowship with one another is important.
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FT: What do you think makes life different for a farmer who is also a Christian?
BM: We are accountable to God. When you’re accountable to the Lord, I wonder if you take life more seriously. I wonder if it’s more valuable to you because it’s not just about you. It’s about other people and the Lord. The best witness is you, and how you live and what you’re doing. You’re not alone. When you’re a Christian farmer, you are never alone.
It’s very rewarding. I still plow with a team of horses. My husband, of course, still uses the tractor. But there’s something about working with an animal and you are right there as the soil is being turned. You feel closer to God. How could you not? Just like in the city, when you look at your kids and think, Isn’t it just amazing? They are our kids and an extension of us.
It’s the same with farming. Our work is an extension of ourselves. Love is a strong word, but I guess it’s the right word. You feel the love of the world and the love of others through what you’re doing. Love is the right word. It’s like, "Lord, thank you. I love what is going on here." I guess love is the word.
FT: Tell us how farming has helped you in your faith.
BM: Farming has always brought me closer to God ever since I was a little girl. He’s everywhere. He’s everywhere in the city too. But when I hear the birds singing and see the cattle, I know we are looking after the animals and God is looking after us.
I’d love for people to know that they are not alone, especially in these times. If we could have more of a sense of togetherness, wouldn’t the world be so much a better place? We all like to be independent, but I don’t think we were meant to be so independent that we don’t need someone else. We need people we can trust, and they are out there. We need each other.
When you see something grow, something stirs inside you, and you feel a peace and a joy that even with everything going on in the world, there is something beautiful going on. When you give birth the whole world stands still. There is a peace and a joy that you can’t explain, but it happens, whether it’s a baby or a calf or a sprout in your kitchen window.
FT: When you meet another farmer, is there an instant connection?
BM: A farmer is a farmer. You can meet a farmer in Brazil and you feel the connection. It’s funny how all farmers seem to have the same inner spirit. You don’t farm for the money. You farm because it’s in your blood. It’s just something you’re driven to do.
My husband and I both always work off farm as well. A lot of farmers do. But you come home, and you farm because there’s just something about farming you have to do. You find that extra equipment, you buy that cattle. I look back now and think, How did we do it?
When you give birth the whole world stands still. There is a peace and a joy that you can’t explain, but it happens, whether it’s a baby or a calf or a sprout in your kitchen window.
God blesses you when you try to do the right thing. I speak to a lot of people who are discouraged. If you never get there, that’s not what is important. What is important is you’re trying. That’s all we can ask of other people as well.
Farmers have chores seven days a week. We have such strong routines that we can forget that life is always changing. When you’re farming you have to acknowledge that. You can’t stay stuck somewhere. You can’t be fixated on the good old days. You can remember them and learn from them, but you must be realistic and honest, and move with the times, but not by com promising your integrity. That’s complicated for all of us. We have to sit and think for ourselves.
FT: What is the inner spirit of a farmer?
BM: Commitment. They are committed to whatever they are growing and doing. That commitment is their passion. Our commitment to looking after the cattle is an extension of ourselves. It’s not just for us. It’s for the benefit of many. It’s providing a service. It’s providing food. I’m also a country singer, and as soon as I hear someone is a farmer I think, Another farmer! It’s like a beautiful song to me.
FT: Thank you, Bonita.