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Did you know there's a vet shortage?

I consider myself less a fan of farming, food, or even system reform per se. And more a proponent of thinking about interconnected issues. Everyone should care--assuming you eat. But that's a difficult point to get across sometimes because people fail to understand the big picture when it comes to water use and farm runoff, the importance of saving bees, etc.. People stand in the grocery and think a little bit about food system ethics and purchase based on a combination of factors. My guess, however, is that very few people are thinking through the entire chain from picker to animal to owner on down the line. That's what I really enjoy.

Yesterday I read an amazing article about the veterinary shortage though. It was interesting on several levels.

More than 1500 counties in the United States do not have a vet. That's 44 states with at least one South Dakota alone there are more than 25,000 food animals without a vet. That's not just an economic and safety problem but an ethical problem as well. And the underlying issue is this--veterinary schools have remained fairly stable in enrollment or maybe slightly increased their seats. But most of the students going into veterinary medicine these days want to live in the city and treat companion animals. Nobody wants to go live in the middle of nowhere and take care of large farm animals. Instead of a nice office where cute dogs and cats come to you, you have to travel on country back roads and spend your day with your arm inside a cow. It's probably not going to make you rich because you see fewer animals a day. (There's a farmer shortage in the US, too, and these probably go hand in hand.) A program does exist to forgive student loans for those who practice in under-served areas, but that only goes so far.

Where my mind really was blown yesterday was when I started thinking about my love of science, our family's desire to live in a rural area, and our already-decided willingness to walk around in manure and do without a few comforts of civilization, if necessary. Maybe I'd be a good candidate to focus on animal medical care? The more I researched, the more depressed I got.

Vet school is definitely not super-friendly to non-traditional older students. Most reject any science courses you had prior to between 6-10+ years ago. Which means someone thinking about it will be completing pre-application coursework on the mere hope of getting in. They're highly competitive to the point of being nearly as selective as medical schools. Which got me thinking about all the organic chemistry and surgical skills one learns in this...we'll call it "clinical-focused" idea of animal health training. I'd actually hate that part. The irony is that I'd be fine with the day-to-day, boring work of checkups, births, vaccines, etc.. Why learn how to perform surgery on a cat if what we need in rural areas is someone to diagnose skin conditions in sheep?

The whole thing got me thinking about it from my view as a potential farmer. It's no secret that a good sheep vet is hard to find and it's on my list of requirements for where we eventually settle. But the sad truth is that for many farmers out there there is no choice. There is no lesser of two evils. In our heads we can debate the wisdom of "would you rather have an inexperienced, half-skilled doctor doing a procedure on your cow or would you rather have no doctor at all?" Reality for thousands of animals, however, is that farmers and ranchers are doing their best with even less training. Because they have fields to plow, equipment to fix, and don't really want to read up on bovine diseases.

Why are we putting up with this all or nothing approach to animal health? I think a very nice happy medium would be allowing some sort of apprentice or technical training for people who don't want want to pursue full veterinary school but would be willing to help out producers with medical advice when needed. I certainly imagine that those concerned with animals and animal welfare would be horrified to learn about some of these basics of the vet problem. It definitely helps explain why we have so many antibiotics in our livestock. Not only is their no oversight but maybe even nobody with the biological knowledge to treat the sick. Treat them all, because if there's a problem in the flock or herd there isn't a vet for miles that could do a darn thing about it.

For many of us who care about food ethics, you'll notice a pattern here of rural problems. Due to our population being not only removed from the production system into cities but a failure to recognize how one set of farming issues plays into another.