City veterinarian bids farewell after three decades on the farm
This month’s column is a difficult one for me. As you may have read in the Independent, I am leaving practice in Vermont to teach at Oregon State. Although it’s an opportunity to use the wisdom I’ve accumulated in a, shall we say, less physically demanding way and for my wife and me to be closer to our two adult sons, I won’t deny I’m very sad to be leaving the people and places I’ve grown to love so much.
I’m a Midwesterner by birth having grown up in Indiana. I fell in love with animals while working at a zoo in my hometown and decided I wanted to be a zoo veterinarian. I spent a lot of time with the zoo’s vet, who also owned a local small animal practice. He told me (maybe just to get rid of me) that I should spend time exploring other fields within the profession and recommended a local farm practice. I never looked back. Farm practice, farmers and farm animals became my passion and it still is. I will forever be grateful to that vet, Dr. Larry Ackerman, a wonderful mentor who supported and encouraged an eager, young aspiring practitioner.
During my senior year of veterinary school I came to Vergennes for a two-month externship, spending time with an established practitioner and learning to apply all of the book knowledge I had stuffed into my head during the previous four years. I had only been to New England once, as a child, and wanted to see what life was like in another part of the country. Even though it was January and February, I immediately was enraptured and knew the great Midwest couldn’t hold me in for long.
After eight months in a practice in my home state I moved to Newport, Vt. (where, in my first year there, we had frost every month but July). Two and a half years later I was back in Vergennes and have been here since. What a wonderful place to spend a life.
Times, and farms, have certainly changed in the nearly 30 years I’ve spent in Addison County. Farms have grown and consolidated. Farmers have to do much more with less — or at least the same amount — money for their milk. Their skills and knowledge have expanded with their farms. Still, a cow is a cow, so she still needs to eat, needs a clean place to lie, makes milk and occasionally gets sick and needs a vet.
My practice has changed as well. When I started in Vermont I was much more reactive — examining sick animals and fixing them. Now the vast majority of my time is spent working proactively — keeping animals healthy and productive. Modern dairy farmers are already pretty good general practitioners and obstetricians. These days, when a calf is stuck and the vet is called, I know I’m in for an ordeal.
I have many people to thank for my fulfilling career, too many to name, but I wanted to be sure and acknowledge people like Dr. Roger Ellis, who owned the Vergennes practice when I was hired and remains a good friend and mentor. Wonderful dairy farmers like Panton’s Al Tisbert, Reggie Carpenter in Charlotte, and especially Pat and Pete Hatch in Ferrisburgh, who immediately trusted a green young vet and allowed me to succeed. I would also like to thank my editor at the Independent, John McCright, who has guided and encouraged my writing. My current clients make every (OK, most) days a joy.
I hope that this column has made a small dent in the gulf that has opened between food producers and consumers. I have attempted to show that production agriculture is not a bad thing; dairy farmers love their animals and want them to be happy and healthy. I wanted people to understand that dairy farming is a business, and businesses require a profit to be successful, so sometimes difficult decisions must be made. Farmers have much to work on especially in areas such as water quality and humane end of productive life care. Changes take time, however, and the industry is working hard to solve these issues. Believe me when I tell you that things are worlds better than they were when I came to the area in 1986.
So, late this fall my wife Nancy and I leave the people and places we love so much so I may teach future veterinarians to be as successful and happy as I have been. This move takes us from the west coast of New England to 50 miles from the Pacific coast. I hope I can be as influential in the lives of the young senior veterinary students I’ll be teaching as others have been in mine. Thank you, Addison County, for 30 wondrous and rewarding years.