No, you’ll probably never notice there aren’t enough vets in town ready and able to attend to Fluffy’s healthcare needs. But you can be sure the average livestock owner has to wait an increasingly long while for the vet to come care for his or her population of critters.

Imagine owning a 150-head dairy farm in Pennsylvania and realizing your vet’s just retired. He’s done. Not coming back. And there’s no young vet willing to come in and take over. The closest one’s half a county over and so overloaded with new farms who asked for her services before you did that you’ll likely be dipping and stripping teats on your own for the foreseeable future.

Preg checks? AI? Now where’s that pesky ovary? You’re on your own.

Why? Because your old-timer’s pushing sixty and can no longer shoulder the arthritis in his arm after 35 years of torqeuing it up a cow’s backside. His young associate left six years ago when she realized she was never going to pay off her student loans on the paltry winnings of each backbreaking farm call. And after she disappeared, things just got worse. The new grad pickings were just too slim for the $40,000 a year he was willing and able to shell out.

So where’s his ex-associate now? Off practicing pet medicine at some suburban hospital nearby where paying down $100 K in vet school loans is more doable, the physical risks less punishing and the schedule more amenable to raising a family.

Can you blame her? It’s not as if she doesn’t love the little ‘uns as much as any of her colleagues do. Cats and dogs can be every bit as stimulating as cows, you know. And the owners? At least they don’t haggle over every little farm call’s ins and outs after she’s driven ten miles out to see ‘em. At least these people show up—usually on time, even. And when it’s time to pay up they do so—or she refuses to see them the next time.

After all, she’s got plenty of takers in pet medicine. And they’re not stressing out over their vet bill’s impact on their family’s entire livelihood. Some even have insurance now so that any test or surgery she might need to perform doesn’t require a decision tree to sort out its advisability.

The tears? That’s new. But that’s the worst of it. And she’ll get used to it.

This tiny tale of rural woe has been repeated so often over the past ten to twenty years that it’s finally turned heads among non-vet citizens and lawmakers concerned for the safety of our food supply.

When fewer vets are there to attend to the animals, it doesn’t take much to recognize that disease is more likely to be overlooked, untreated and not necessarily noticed once the animal’s product is deep in the industrial food-processing machine. Can calamitous conditions for frequent food-borne illness be far behind?

I think not.

That why legislation has been enacted to fund a major loan forgiveness program for vets willing to work in far-flung rural locales tending to herds, flocks and other bevies of beasts destined to be consumed.

It makes sense. Ultimately vets are like everyone else. We look to our pocketbooks when making career decisions. And while vet medicine already attracts a cache of individuals well aware of their low income to debt ratio, some economic conditions have devolved well beyond even our most meager expectations.

I mean, even if you live out in nowhere where the cost of living is well below average, the price of gas and payments on $100K in student loans are the same countrywide.

Consider that the practice in the next county over is happy to pay you $10-40K more a year with more family friendly hours, to boot, and it’s no wonder  that US taxpayers will be shelling out a pretty penny to fund veterinarians who enter food animal practice.

And that “investment,” ladies and gentlemen, serves to bring you a cheaper slice of pork belly and a sub-ten cent egg. Question is: In so doing, are we funding the meat machine’s pumped-up profits or working harder than ever to keep food on the table for our American masses to consume?