Rare’s the keeper of livestock who doesn’t sleep easier at night knowing that the local vet is just a phone call away should any animal health emergencies arise. But according to a new report, that veterinary safety net is rapidly disappearing from large swaths of the U.S. countryside. Is farm country running out of vets?
Published by the Farm Journal Foundation, the report argues that, with the costs of vet school rising, more and more newly minted veterinarians are setting up shop in cities and suburbs, where incomes are higher than in traditional food-animal practices.
The numbers back up that claim. Four decades ago, 40% of newly graduated veterinarians started practices focusing on food animals. Nowadays, that figure is ten times lower. That leaves 500 counties in the U.S. without adequate access to food animal veterinarians.
The problem runs even deeper. In addition to creating shortages of the private practitioners that ranchers rely on, it’s also hollowing out the ranks of veterinary public health providers. Though less well known, these individuals are critical for maintaining food safety and preventing and mitigating animal disease epidemics – like the avian flu that has sent egg prices soaring over the last several months.
The report offers several policy suggestions to help reverse the tide of food animal veterinarians out of farm country. One of these would be to overhaul existing programs that help veterinarians repay their vet-school debt, by expanding funding and changing application criteria to make more vets eligible.
Other policies include offering more business support, such as increasing the funding for current grant programs, and establishing new, low-interest business loan programs for new food-animal practices. Additionally, the authors suggest, setting up programs to recruit more vet school students from rural backgrounds might help to stem the losses.
The report, titled Addressing the Persistent Shortage of Food Animal Veterinarians and Its Impact on Rural Communities, is available free in electronic format from the Farm Journal Foundation website.