Veterinarian uses program to pay college debt
TBO.comCAMDEN, S.C. - Veterinarian Justin Martin is up and ready for the new day before the sun comes up, even after a late night that took him to a gruesome scene where a donkey was attacked by several pit bulls.
Published: January 2, 2013
Published: January 2, 2013
That's fine with Martin, a veterinarian who's used to early morning with the animals back on his family's farm in Williamston, in eastern North Carolina. He doesn't seem to be the least bit groggy as he checks out the cows at farmer William Bailey's place near Lancaster.
"She's pregnant," Martin hollers after removing his gloved arm from inside a cow.
"She's open (not pregnant)" he says about another.
With beef prices high (because of high feed costs from the Midwest drought that wiped out the corn crop this summer) knowing how many cows are pregnant is worth a lot to a farmer like Bailey. It allows a farmer to get a mature, non-pregnant cow to market instead of feeding it pricey feed and waiting nine months before learning if it was worth the trouble.
"Farmers either learn to make do themselves or rely on extension a lot or talk to (state veterinarian) Boyd Parr," Martin said. "A lot is education … so they won't have as many problems, like improper nutrition."
Martin draws much knowledge from his childhood on the farm as well as his expedited three years at Clemson University and four years at the University of Georgia, where he got his doctorate in veterinary medicine.
That would seem to set him a nice career path in a field he loves. But despite landing a good-paying job in North Carolina right out of school, Martin started his professional career in a financial mess not uncommon in American today. He graduated from Georgia in 2010, thousands of dollars in debt.
An opportunity to make that go away led him to the Bailey's farm one chilly morning earlier this month.
Because of a growing need in rural counties for veterinarians, and in particular nutritional vets, a subspecialty of the field, the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture created the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment program several years ago. In exchange for repaying student loans to qualified veterinarians like Martin, the USDA guarantees that certain underserved areas get veterinary expertise they'd have trouble obtaining through the free market.
In fiscal year 2011, the program awarded $7.25 million to 75 applicants filling at least one shortage area in 35 different states. Martin received an award in fiscal year 2012. He and other vets in the program must perform 12 hours of qualifying feed animal work, which ranges from educational presentations on animal husbandry to ranchers at cattlemen meetings, or testing bulls before the start of a mating period.
It's a double blessing for Martin. He likes the work and he likes the idea of being debt free in a few years.
"It would've taken a lot longer (to repay without the program)," said Martin. "(The USDA) is paying $75,000 over three years (the maximum amount of a grant). I had about $120,000 worth of debt leaving school, so that helps out a ton.
"I'll still be continuing (to pay down the debt) after three years — my monthly payment is $1,400, it's like a house payment — but hopefully after three years I can be debt free."
Landing the post wasn't easy for Martin, or for the state of South Carolina. The USDA funds are limited. He had to get through a selective process involving more than 150 applicants for about 80 open spots.
Martin's strong background in farm animals, his desire to work with the animals and a strong recommendation from Parr, who's not only the state vet but the director of the Clemson Livestock and Poultry program, were likely reasons he was selected. He's the first pick for South Carolina in the program's three years.
Parr said Martin was a good choice, "because of his training, background and genuine love for working on livestock. For me that's the key."
"We needed someone to meet a need and serve something they feel called to," said Parr. "And (the government) can help take of their debt load."
Parr says the state has three qualifying areas for the program and hopes that next September he'll get another Justin Martin for another part of the state.
Martin, 27, works at the Camden Animal Hospital, along with his wife, Toni, a veterinary tech. The couple lives in the Cassatt community and hoping to eventually raise some cattle on their own.
Besides his assigned nutritional work, he works on dogs and cats and takes some of those late night calls to treat bigger animals like the donkey or horses in the area. He is the only dedicated food animal veterinarian in the nine-county Pee Dee region. It's a special, but critical, task he or others can perform independently from clinics since there isn't enough work to be a dedicated food animal veterinarian most places. He works in nutritional visits around his regular vet work.
Farmer Bailey, the man with at least one pregnant cow, said Martin's presence is much welcomed.
"He's been a godsend; we're glad to get him in here," Bailey said at his farm that's been in his family for more than 100 years and where he has a herd of 62 beef cows and calves. "We needed somebody. We just haven't had anybody who could come."
The Pee Dee region isn't the only one in the country that has such a need. According to the USDA there are about 150 others areas that need veterinarians like Martin to ensure farmers are getting the help and education they need regarding their goats, cows, pigs and other feed animals.
Suited up in coveralls, a shoulder length glove and cowboy boots — a reminder of his years spent team roping, which he still enjoys — Martin likes the challenging nature of his job the most.
"My favorite part of my job is that it's a mixed animal variety," Martin says in his slow twang. "You can get up one morning and you never know if you're going to do a C-section on a cow or cut a bone out of a dog that has a blockage in his intestine. You never know what you're going to get thrown."
For now, whatever challenge that's thrown to cattlemen and farmers in the Pee Dee, they now have a person to count on, Dr. Justin Martin.