DVM Newsmakers: Endangered in the USA

DVM Newsmakers: Endangered in the USA

Rural America fights for DVM: 'it's about the quality of life'
May 01, 2005

CLEARFIELD, IOWA—He sat in the back of the ambulance, sirens blaring — an odd time for reflection.

With nose and ear still bloodied, his mind darted between his 10-year-old son he left behind at the scene, and the reasons he couldn't control the hyperventilating and persistent numbness in his hands and legs.

"When you get into these communities, you pretty much know everybody. And everybody knows who you are," laughs Dr. J.D. Hensley.
The pain throbbed for J.D. Hensley, a 39-year-old mixed animal practitioner. It was a time that he questioned his life-long career choice of working as a mixed animal veterinarian. He was angered by the predicament and the need for a different head gate.

At the time, he didn't yet know that he suffered three facial fractures after a well-placed kick from a bull during a castration.

He fell unconscious; his head hit the back of the squeeze chute as he collapsed.

The look on his son's face told the story that day.

Hensley softly smiled as he recounts the story. His experience is pegged as one reason in a litany of factors fueling a major shortage of veterinarians in rural America. It's a physical job.

The apparent trend has become so problematic, veterinary officials are calling it a national security problem due to the important role food animal veterinarians play in protecting this country's food supply. (See related story,)

Despite the injury risk facing mixed animal veterinarians, Hensley believes that life in rural America has one big arrow in its quiver - it's called quality of life.

It keeps him in Clearfield, population 300.

There are no traffic jams; everyone in town knows each other, and this practice lifestyle is the last holdout to an idolized James Herriot practice experience.

"I guess the best way to describe Clearfield is that it's a friendly town. When you get into these communities, you pretty much know everybody. And everybody knows who you are," Hensley laughs.

He and his mixed practice colleagues in remote areas are becoming somewhat of an endangered species in the United States, so much so that veterinary leaders and lawmakers are scrambling to resolve the issue by funding the National Veterinary Medical Service Act, which would provide educational debt relief to graduating veterinary students if they choose to work in under-served rural areas. (See related story.)

The long-term trend is that America's rural infrastructure is aging and shrinking in numbers. Clearfield is living proof. The 2002 Census of Agriculture shows the average age of principal farm operators at 55.3, which has been steadily increasing. So has the percentage of farm operators 65 or older (more than one in four). Conversely, principal farm operators with average ages less than 35 (5.8 percent of the total) have been declining since 1982.

Hensley says people leave rural communities for the higher paying wages in cities, or sell farms to developers or consolidators because of tougher economic times. Conversely, land prices are going up due to investors plotting future bets on the next wave of urban sprawl.