In her many conversations with livestock producers, agricultural researcher Sara Epp said the same key concern continues to surface: access to veterinary care.
It's a worry that affects farmers across the province, but it's even more pronounced in Northern Ontario, where it's generally acknowledged the problem is "the worst,” she said.
In 2020, she received funding for a multi-year study of the veterinarian shortage in Northern Ontario, and she presented her findings in Sudbury on Feb. 12, during the 2024 Northern Ontario Conference, taking place over two days at Science North.
"We wanted to know how bad is the issue and what are the solutions we can recommend to a variety of different groups,” said Epp, an assistant professor in the rural planning and development department at the University of Guelph.
Epp collected data through surveys and interviews with a number of stakeholders, but her presentation focused on insight from three main groups: veterinarians, producers, and students.
Veterinarians told her of various challenges in their field of practice, but perhaps the biggest is the far distances of travel between farms.
The Veterinary Assistance Program — a provincial initiative that reimburses veterinarians for travel expenses incurred while seeing clients — is “essential,” Epp heard, and if the grants were ever eliminated, it would largely make travel unfeasible.
It's more difficult to travel the North because of its vast geographic region, Epp heard, and winter travel in particular is dicey, creating a safety issue during inclement weather.
Many veterinarians said they wanted to retire, but felt unable to do so, because of a sense of duty and pride in their work.
“One comment we kept hearing is that we need solutions that are northern-specific,” said Epp, noting that a “one-size-fits-all” approach isn't helpful.
“The context in the North is so different that it just doesn't work.”
Among producers, there was concern that access to large animal veterinarians is very limited.
In some cases, Epp was told, producers — especially those who moved from southern Ontario to Northern Ontario — were asked by their veterinarians to sign a waiver acknowledging that they would not have access to veterinary care during an emergency.
“Imagine, for a veterinarian to have to require that, how daunting their practice must be, and for a farmer, the concern and the fear and the impacts, because at the end of the day, this is their livelihood,” Eppp said.
“There are, of course, issues involving animal welfare and the farmer as well, and to know that in an emergency situation you have no vet access was incredibly worrying for many of them."
Many farmers said that if the current veterinarian shortage doesn't improve, they would consider leaving livestock farming altogether and go into another area of farming, she added.
Students, too, spoke about challenges, both in the veterinary program and working in the field.
Many felt there was an expectation by producers that they have a background in farming in order to be properly qualified as a large animal veterinarian.
Those students who came from an urban background told Epp they felt a hesitancy or lack of trust from producers, which impacted their confidence in their abilities.
“For students with a genuine interest in going into large animal practice and wanting to work with farmers, they lacked self-confidence as a result of this,” Epp said.
“And so there needs to be a little bit of effort on the side of the farm community to potentially welcome these future veterinarians and to recognize that just because you have the privilege of growing up on a farm, that your credibility shouldn't be impacted by that.”
Students also said that faculty and professors promoted companion practice over large animal practice, because that's where students could make more money. It left many with the impression that becoming a large animal vet was not financially viable, and it's a viewpoint that's passed on to successive cohorts.
Finally, students said that they'd be more likely to do their externship — training alongside a qualified vet — in Northern Ontario if there were more incentives for them to do so, including scholarships or debt forgiveness.
In her recommendations stemming from the study, Epp suggested government look at introducing more incentives tailored to Northern Ontario.
The province's Veterinary Incentive Program, which was introduced by the province last year and offers new vets up to $50,000 to set up practice in an underserviced area, is “amazing,” Epp said. But it's open to anyone in the province.
“It isn't funnelling graduates to Northern Ontario,” Epp said.
She commended the College of Veterinarians of Ontario for its ongoing study into the veterinarian shortage and its look at whether registered veterinary technicians (RVTs) can be better utilized in practice.
But academia “needs to do more and needs to do better” to promote large animal veterinary care as a viable career instead of promoting companion care as the “easier” option.
“That's not helping students,” Epp said. “It's not going to benefit them in the long term, it's not going to benefit industry, and it's not going to benefit the university if all they do is talk about how to make money.”
Epp said she did welcome the announcement last spring that Lakehead University in Thunder Bay would be partnering with the University of Guelph on a new veterinary program that will increase the number of veterinary spaces — by 20 — for the first time since 1988.
Through the program, students will spend the first two years at Lakehead before completing their degree in Guelph, the idea being that more students from Northern Ontario would enroll and return after graduation to practice up north.
It's more initiatives like that, where collaboration is a priority, she said, that will help get a better handle on the vet shortage.
"This probably isn't going to go away quickly,” Epp said. “It's not going to get any easier without those interventions.”
The Northern Ontario Ag Conference is an initiative of the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance, with support from FedNor. It wraps up on Feb. 13.