Could You Have A Future In Farm?

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What does a graduate role in farm practice offer?

Something I hear often from soon-to-be-graduated vet students on their rotations or EMS at my practice (Westpoint Farm Vets in Chelmsford), is that they had not really considered farm practice as a viable career choice. When seemingly suddenly discovering aptitude for farm animal handling, and that their transferrable skills are easily adapted to common farm procedures, we often see some confusion setting in at the 11th hour – could this previously dismissed area of practice actually be more appealing than first thought?

The question for me is, why aren’t students seeing themselves as potential farm practitioners?

The 2022 FAVs survey highlighted some reasons why students did not see themselves as ‘fitting’ the farm vet type, with 57% suggesting that the farm veterinary profession is not particularly diverse. This is something I am inclined to agree with and would love to see change; I feel professions should generally reflect the societies that they serve, and with farm practitioners upholding public health – they should reflect their communities at large, not just the farming sector, which again, is not historically diverse itself.

Access and representation

Access to good quality farm placements (both preclinical and clinical) can be difficult, particularly when students do not drive. When we moved our practice, it was a priority to ensure that it was closer to public transport infrastructure, and I know there are many farm practices that also offer accommodation to try to give equal opportunities to those that cannot access rural areas easily.

When elaborating on reasons behind not feeling represented in the farm veterinary profession, many survey respondents cited that they felt the sector was male dominated and lacking in people from non-farming backgrounds. We can easily run statistics across farm practices to determine the gender split– but it doesn’t always settle the worry that women and non-binary individuals may feel like a consolation prize when arriving on to a farm.

I can cite dozens of women in farm who excel in their work, who are respected among clients, passionate advocates for farming and for farm veterinary work – but I can also, sadly, still read you recent messages from vet students who report that even their lecturers are stating that farm vetting is ‘not women’s work.’ It is not a mindset that I share, having worked in the academic, clinical and leadership spheres of farm practice for over a decade. It is also not a mindset that numerous clients, farmers, smallholders, clinical mentors, and other vets share, but I can appreciate how even one bad experience can taint an experience on EMS or at work and make one feel lesser. I can only implore those currently in the profession not to allow this kind of discrimination from colleagues and clients and encourage those who have even a slight inclination towards farm to give it a shot. Sexism is still there. It would be naïve to deny it, but so too are the tools and support to fight it, in the right practice, with supportive teammates and welcoming farming communities that see their vets as team members.

As for the farming background? I have yet to meet a farmer who minds, to be honest. Shared experience is a wonderful thing, but many farmers I have encountered really enjoy imparting knowledge of this aspect of their lives to those who did not grow up immersed in it. Frankly, most are just grateful that more people are taking an interest in the agricultural sector, regardless of their background.

How do you know where you’ll thrive?

So where, if you’re considering whether farm practice is for you, do you look for a practice that will foster your development and allay your fears of inadequacy within the agricultural sector? They’re certainly out there, so how can you look out for them, and what sort of questions should you be asking of potential employers?

Graduate training records

Look for practices with a proven record of training new graduates – if they’re still with the practice, this is a good sign. Is the practice happy with you speaking to them about their experiences? If so, this is a green flag.

Ask what sort of extra training or CPD you can expect in your first years – it’s no secret that opportunities for practice, on farm teaching have been patchy in recent years, so understanding how you might be brought up to speed and coached through this is important.

Out of hours

What sort of rota can you expect? Many believe farm practice to be inflexible and punishing when it comes to out of hours work, but I think emergency work is what best connects us to the job, and to our clients. I tend to have newer graduates on slightly higher on call rates while getting up to speed with emergency work, but once they gain more independence, this drops down to match the rest of the team. Have your on-call expectations set out ahead of time so you can plan your social life, downtime, and recovery.

Caseloads and Progression

What sort of caseload do you expect? Some areas might be almost 100% dairy focused, whereas others might not have a black and white cow for miles. Some practices have dedicated smallholder or commercial focus, and some, a glorious mix of everything. I advise casting your net wide initially to get a good feel for everything – you can remain a very general practitioner forever, or if you develop a specific focus – how might that fit in with your practice of choice? How do they currently support their team members with special interests? Will they, once you have GDP out of the way, consider supporting you through a certificate if that’s how you decide to further your career?

Your team

I firmly believe that the most important element of a practice is the team within it – they don’t all need to be best friends and constantly each other’s pockets, but they do need to understand one another’s strengths, needs and ways of working. Being able to interact with different members of the team on your interview will give you a solid picture of what it is like to work in the practice. Don’t be afraid to ask to speak with them – it’s a huge green flag if they’re involved in your interview process alongside the main employer.

There truly is so much more to being a farm practitioner than meets the eye – and I strongly suggest you keep those eyes open when you’re on your rotations and placements. There’s a reason why farm vets are generally the happiest practitioners, and it’s not just because we get the benefit of the great outdoors! I would love to welcome more curious, resourceful, and keen people into this exciting and varied but oft underrepresented branch of practice – so don’t be too hasty to overlook it.

Ami graduated from Liverpool in 2011 and has been in some form of farm work ever since, from a production animal internship at the RVC, a PhD in dairy cattle mobility, clinical teaching, farm and mixed practice. Ami is now clinical director of Westpoint Farm Vets in Chelmsford, and a member of the Farm Animal Clinical and Executive Boards at VetPartners. She is an RCVS Advanced Practitioner in Camelid Practice and is currently completing a master’s in marketing with the University of Glasgow. She is a BVLGBT+ committee member, on the RCVS Diversity and Inclusion working group, and Junior Vice President of the Society of Practicing Veterinary Surgeons.

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