Ontario Federation of Agriculture Director provides his analysis of how a vet shortage affects rural and remote communities of Ontario. Farms.com editor Andrew Joseph also offers his viewpoint for a solution.
By Ethan Wallace, Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture; and Andrew Joseph, Farms.com; Photo by Jorge Salvador on Unsplash
Rural and remote communities in Ontario are experiencing a shortage of veterinary access. What does this look like? It looks like waiting four hours or more for a veterinarian to come out to your farm – if they can come at all. It looks like being forced to euthanize livestock to uphold animal welfare standards, even though the animal could be treated if timely service were available. It also looks like veterinarians are exhausted, overworked and doing their best to provide farmers and their livestock the quality service they require and deserve.
Animals and animal-related agriculture are crucial to the economic stability of Ontario’s rural communities. Livestock farmers require reliable access to veterinary services to ensure strong health and welfare for their animals. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) recognizes and acknowledges that veterinarians play a critical role in the stability and viability of the agri food system. Vets are vital to ensuring farmers have access to the help and support they need for raising healthy livestock. Reliability and timeliness are key to the health and welfare of both the animal and the farmer.
On my dairy operation, our vet and dairy nutritionist are an integral part of our operation and necessary pillars to raising a healthy herd. Plain and simple, an operation is at an extreme disadvantage with a lack of access to veterinary services, which we see as a much larger issue in northern and remote communities. As farmers, we feel the pain that our animals feel, especially when we cannot find a solution to the problem or cannot access the services we need to be able to treat the discomfort our livestock are feeling. My livestock work hard for me, and in return it’s my priority to make sure my herd is comfortable, content and healthy.
Farming yields many stressors, especially during the intense growing season, and having sick livestock is the last thing you want to add to this list. It takes a huge toll not only financially, but also mentally. It can result in significant mental and emotional stress for the farmer. I’m lucky enough to feel a great amount of support from my vet who understands the surmounting pressures of farming and how difficult it is to see one of your animals suffering. As farmers and caretakers of our livestock, we do our best, but we don’t know everything about animal health, which can lead to anguish and extreme frustration. Bringing in a specialist to find a solution to the issue can be tremendously rewarding during these difficult times. However, if you cannot get access to a vet and you’re left waiting and wondering, that frustration escalates.
Generally, there has been a challenge in both attracting and retaining new veterinarians to work out of large animal clinics. Among a variety of other factors, the rural lifestyle may not offer the same level of attraction or amenities to a young professional as an urban centre. Unfortunately, these service gaps have resulted in a higher demand being put on the vets currently working in rural, remote and northern communities. Specifically in northern Ontario, this problem continues to grow. Clinics are spaced out across the region resulting in vets travelling long distances to visit farms, isolation and burnout trying to meet the demand needed to care for the animals. The shortage puts a strain on the entire agricultural community in these areas.
The Livestock Veterinary Innovation Initiative, which was announced by the Ontario government in 2021, was developed to help address the shortage issue and provide farmers with better access to veterinary services. The intent was to address the gap in veterinary care, particularly for large animal vets working in rural and remote communities across Ontario.
To help address the issue moving forward, it’s important that farmers, industry stakeholders, government, institutions and veterinarians work together to find a suitable solution. Identifying existing gaps, working on attraction and retention strategies for large animal clinics and exploring investment opportunities may be options to consider. A lack of veterinary care can be detrimental to rural communities and can leave farm animals, and ultimately the food system, at risk.
The industry encourages and welcomes new veterinary professionals to fill a growing need and support farmers across Ontario.
According to Farms.com editor Andrew Joseph, there is a solution—something that was used over 70 years ago in another sector, but could be revamped within the veterinary sector.
His late mother-in-law was a nurse, graduating as such in the mid-1950s. The nursing school offered her and other students a deal.
If they took the Public Health certificate education, tuition was waived. The catch—upon graduation and with a job guaranteed, they would be posted in a remote or rural community to provide nursing services.
For Joseph’s mother-in-law, she was posted to the rural community of Fort Frances, now renamed Thunder Bay, Ontario. She was expected to stay, he believes, a minimum of one-year, which she did as part of the deal.
The solution for the veterinary shortage, he offers, is to follow the nursing solution. While the burden of cost need not fall directly upon the school, accommodation and pay could be assumed by the school, a community looking for veterinary help, and the provincial and federal government.
Although it does not provide a permanent option for a rural or remote community, it could. At the least, a rotating veterinary school graduate is guaranteed a job upon graduation, with the option on both sides to continue the opportunity.
As well, with Doctors Without Borders, a similar action would take place within Ontario and other provinces to provide veterinary care for our rural and remote communities.
The Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) Programme offers an opportunity for recently graduated university students to go to Japan and team-teach English with Japanese teachers of English—without any initial training for a guaranteed one year, with options to continue in the same position up to five years. In this case, the community board of education pays for the foreigner to travel to and from Japan, is responsible for monthly pay, and looks after all housing solutions—for those teaching junior high school or elementary school students. For those team-teaching high school, the prefecture (province) board of education looks after the foreign teachers’ needs. The general idea behind the JET Programme is to provide native Japanese students with the opportunity to become more enthused with English as a second language. Joseph spent three years in Japan, at the time, the maximum amount allowed on the JET Programme, and admits it was a fun three years living in a rural community.
A more extreme solution is that followed by some European countries that mandate that all 18-year-olds must spend two years in the military. For these countries, it maintains a constant stream of individuals into the profession—even if it’s not voluntary. Joseph, however, does not suggest this as a viable option in Ontario, but merely mentions it to describe how personnel shortages are resolved elsewhere.
Excluding the military-styled option, the solution is incentive-based.
For rural and remote communities in Ontario, some sort of incentive-based solution can resolve the vet shortage.