Being a food animal veterinarian can offer a broader range of opportunities than the average American might think. We can shuffle papers for a big behemoth of a swine operation, sit behind a desk in Washington D.C., condemn carcasses at a CAFO, manage herds for 1,500-head dairy facilities, consult with family-run farms as they attempt to go organic or introduce chicken fanciers to the sweet mysteries of food safety.

One size does not fit all. The kind of species, size of operation and scope of duties can vary enormously. Which is a very good thing considering that I still harbor high hopes of a future career in food animal medicine...

...And yet I don’t see myself donning coveralls and a plastic sleeve as I preg check cow after cow. Nor do I fancy an avian pathology position or a regulatory post within the Federal government.

Same goes for most veterinary students. We’ve discussed the issues surrounding the dearth of food animal veterinarians here before and we concluded the following:

1-Vet students don’t tend to want to go rural (where most food animal jobs live)

  • Not when they grew up in suburbia (as did 95% of students these days)
  • Even if they did want to move out to the sticks, their spouses don’t...
  • Or rather, their spouses can’t afford to given that non-ag jobs tend to be scarcer further out.

2-Then there’s the issue of lifestyle to consider:

  • is a food animal career female friendly?
  • family friendly?
  • new grad friendly?

3-And the question of future opportunities (including future pay)

  • because some large animal veterinarians make a very good living but it doesn’t compare to what a board-certified neurologist makes...
  • nor does the range of future options for a cow vet in Vermont seem so vast as for a small animal intern in New York City.

4-Finally, there’s the obvious to consider: When an estimated quarter of this year’s crop of veterinary candidates has considered going vegetarian due to animal welfare concerns, is it not obvious that conventional food animal medicine is no longer in touch with the rest of the veterinary profession?

All of which makes for a scary future when it comes to food safety, biosecurity and public health in general. The small numbers of students graduating with an interest in food animal medicine likely means non-vets will take on these roles.

It’s not an easy problem to solve. There are a whole lot of issues we have to consider when it comes to filling the shoes of the current generation of food animal practitioners. Good thing is, it looks as if veterinary medicine’s on track to start addressing them.

Places like my alma mater are working on novel animal welfare initiatives that address swine confinement issues, for example. The Pew Commission has raised eyebrows and dollars for more of the same. Students with animal welfare backgrounds are starting to see food animal medicine––rather than shelters––as a place to make their stand.

But that’s not enough, you may say. Rural life is still an obstacle. The lifestyle issue is huge. Even if food animal welfare were not a big concern, we’d be in full-blown vet shortage within a decade. And we desperately need veterinarians to remain in the food animal game if we’re to keep our food supply safe. So what’s it going to take?

In the past, I’ve despaired over this point. I’ve worried that nothing could make a difference as long as the paradigm remained the same. I’ve fretted over the potential influx of corporate lackey paraprofessionals to replace veterinarians and the pharmacy industry-style downgrading of the veterinarian’s role in the context of industrial animal agriculture. I’ve even been known to say: “Money can’t fix this problem.”

But that’s where I seem to have been wrong.

The Federal government appears to be poised to put it’s money where its mouth is. Lots of it. More of it than I ever thought possible. Enough of it to raise my hopes that food animal medicine will continue to be managed by veterinarians. Veterinarians who might’ve otherwise eschewed a cow’s backside and outright rejected a challenging career in poultry pathology.

So what’s this game-changing deal? Up to $100,000 in debt relief over a period of four years. That’s $25 K a year for vets who spend up to 50% of their working lives furthering food animal medicine. That’s what’s being discussed. And, if approved, it’ll affect graduates as soon as 2010. In fact, it’s not just for new graduates. It’s for anyone with student debt remaining on their books. As in, people like ME.

Here’s where the optimist in me does a jig. Because this kind of money for food animal medicine means a broader range of veterinarians willing to enter a world formerly reserved only for the rural in origin and those seemingly pre-destined to step into a dying breed’s shoes. With this kind of money a fundamental change in animal agriculture––though far from assured––seems far more attainable than ever before.

It’s exciting, really. Enough so that I’ve taken to contemplating the possibility of a career in food animal medicine far sooner than I expected. Though I always knew I’d be headed this way, I didn’t expect to be tempted to throw my hat in the ring so soon. But then, it’s no coverall-wearing, pickup-driving, manure-slinging food animal job I have in mind. Rather, I was hoping they’d pay off my loans for my denim-wearing, hybrid-driving, laptop-hefting brand of backyard food animal consulting.

Hey, it “furthers food animal medicine,” does it not? And God knows I could use about $25 to $50 K.