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Dr. Keith Latson – Lessons on Breaking into the Ag Industry

October 26, 2020

Today, the World Bank reports the agriculture sector represents 28% of all employment globally.

While many people working in the agriculture industry were raised around animals and farms, there are others who do not have this background and, instead, learned from the ground up to start their careers. Dr. Keith Latson, a board-certified equine veterinarian and co-founder of FullBucket Health, joins us to share his experience of breaking into the agriculture industry at a young age with no prior experience. Dr. Latson discusses how those who might not have a past in agriculture can break through to build a successful career in the industry, as well as the importance of mentorship and being willing to say yes to opportunities that arise.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Dr. Keith Latson hosted by Brian Lawless. Click below to hear the full audio.

Brian:             Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us as we explore the challenges and opportunities facing the global food supply chain and speak with experts working to support a Planet of Plenty.


                        Today, the World Bank reports that the agriculture sector represents 28% of all employment globally. In the U.S., agriculture represents only 1% of all workers. Across most of Europe, agriculture hovers around less than 5% of all jobs. Many people working in the ag industry today were raised in agriculture, whether they showed animals, had a parent in the industry or grew up working on a family farm — yet there are others who didn't, who didn't have a background in ag, had to learn it from the ground up, and who also became very successful. So, the question for today is: How can young people who are not raised in agriculture break through to begin a successful career in the agriculture industry?


                        Welcome to an exciting episode of the Ag Future podcast. I'm Brian Lawless, North American brand manager at Alltech, and today, I'm joined by Dr. Keith Latson, a board-certified equine veterinarian and co-founder of FullBucket Health. Dr. Latson serves as NBC's on-call veterinarian for the Kentucky Derby and has even worked with Triple Crown winners across his impressive career. But unlike some in his career, Dr. Latson did not grow up in the world of agriculture, equine or animal health; he grew up as a military kid living all across the U.S. So, how did Dr. Latson even get into the world of agriculture? What is he doing now? And most importantly for our listeners, what lessons can Dr. Latson's story teach to those of you who are not in the agriculture industry today but want to work in ag in the future? I'm really looking forward to this. Dr. Keith Latson, welcome to the Ag Future podcast.


Keith:              Thanks, Brian. It's such a pleasure to be here with you.


Brian:             Someone wise in my life once said, "Begin with the end in mind," so I'd like for our listeners to know a bit of where your story not necessarily ends but is today. I think I stole a bit of your thunder in the intro, but what do you do for work these days?


Keith:              Well, that's always an interesting question to answer. After having quite a career at the racetrack as a veterinarian and a surgeon for Thoroughbred racehorses in Southern California, I left the racetrack for a life of entrepreneurship. That's been an interesting lesson to learn, entrepreneurship itself, as well as keeping that end in mind every time we start something new. There are so many lessons that had to be learned in building our companies and our brands that distracted us from that end in mind. So that, in and of itself, is a really big lesson to really focus on versus just learning. We've all heard it before, but oftentimes, it takes someone to reach out and say, "Hey, keep in mind why you started this."


Brian:             Absolutely. Yeah, the "begin with the end in mind" concept runs true through all of our career, not just in the beginning, and that's where I want to start right now. You were not raised in the ag or animal health industry. Can you tell us a little bit about how you were first exposed to agriculture?


Keith:              Sure. I grew up, as you said, as the son of a military officer, and so we moved every two to three years. There wasn't really anything in my life other than youth soccer and suburbia as a kid. Occasionally, we would go on field trips or something to expose us, in our schools, to agriculture or farms, those sorts of things. The real first trigger for me was, as a Cub Scout, we took a trip to Monmouth Park while we were living at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. Fort Monmouth is now closed for the military, but we took this trip to the barn area. As soon as I got there and saw the horses being saddled up and coming back from the tracks steaming with sweat, the first time I laid my eyes on a real, live, Thoroughbred racehorse, I thought it was the most impressive, spectacular athlete or animal I'd ever seen. That was the first time for me that I really got a taste of what else was out there besides what I was being exposed to every day as a suburban kid on a military base.


                        That really stuck with me as we watched the Kentucky Derby. That was really the only horseracing you could find on TV back then, when we had 26 channels in a wired cable box. So, the first Saturday in May every year, my family and I would watch the Kentucky Derby. There are so many of those races that I remember watching and seeing Bob Baffert cover his mouth with one finger when Real Quiet was running. There are so many of those experiences that I was watching on TV, and I wished that I could connect with that more. Ultimately, I did. I just didn't know how it would happen.


Brian:             Well, I can definitely relate to you on the fact that I grew up in suburbia and grew up playing soccer, and that the first Saturday in May was huge. I'm a Kentucky native, so I can definitely relate to those things. For you, what was the turning point where you said you took ag seriously or really jumped in in a meaningful way with the equine industry?


Keith:              Well, I think it was a stroke of luck, honestly. My dad was a Texas resident, and he told me I could go anywhere I wanted for college as long as it was in Texas. My sister had already gone to Texas A&M University for her freshman year of college while I finished high school, and I knew that I was headed west. We were in Georgia at the time. I knew that I was headed west for college, but I didn't know if that would be University of Texas or if that would be one of the smaller schools or whether it would be Texas A&M. Well, my first stop was Texas A&M in College Station. As soon as I got there, it was like being home. There were so many different, interesting people there. There were people in cowboy hats and Wranglers. There were people in flip-flops and cut-off jeans. You name it, those people were there.


                        As you wandered over from main campus to west campus, there was this whole area of animal science, veterinary school, and all of those things were there. I just looked around and it felt comfortable, and it felt like it fit. I didn't really realize that, after my first couple of years in engineering — slogging through an engineering program and not really knowing why I was doing it, other than that I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. I thought that that's a nice angle to take, bioengineering, as a launching pad into orthopedic surgery for humans. Along the way, I met a person named Amy Reed, whose dad happened to be one of the premier racehorse veterinarians in Louisiana. I needed a summer job and he needed someone who was willing to work hard six days a week, so Amy connected me with Dr. Reed. I got a phone call over Christmas one year and he said, "Hey, I hear you're interested in horses. I hear you love racehorses. I'd love to offer you a place to live and a job for the summer at the racetrack with me." I just said "yes". I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew I was willing to work hard and I knew it was going to be hot, but I knew nothing else. So, when I went for that first day at work, I knew that was it. I did not want to be in a human hospital. I wanted to be with the horses.


Brian:             If I'm hearing what you're saying, it seems like you said "yes" to a lot of different unique opportunities. You went to Texas A&M, the school in Texas you could go to. You said "yes" to not pursuing something that you thought you would in orthopedics, and then you said "yes" to this opportunity with Mr. Reed. At least to me, that jumps out as a really important point for those of us who are looking to get into agriculture: When you get the opportunity, even if you're working six days a week, you jump in. Maybe early on, when you're getting into agriculture, are there any other keys to success that maybe you would want to point out?


Keith:              Well, I think saying "yes" is the first step for a lot of people. It's really easy for all of us to sink back into our comfort zones and not really push ourselves into unique experiences or the unknown. For me, that certainly was the unknown, other than (the fact that) there was a person on the other end of that phone who made me feel very comfortable saying "yes".


I think the other thing, too, is just being willing to be a beginner. In these days, with so much information out there, it's really easy to get analysis paralysis, and we start looking for that perfect thing. I think if we keep looking for that perfect thing, we'll never uncover the other opportunities that are out there that may come to us from that unperfect thing that we've said "yes" to.


Certainly, for me, working six days a week, 13 hours a day in the Louisiana sun was not necessarily perfect by a lot of people's standards. There were certain things that I didn't like about the job, but it opened up this world to me (that) combined my passion for orthopedics and for building things. I grew up rebuilding motorcycles and riding dirt bikes, so it uncovered that opportunity to be able to put fractures back together in high-level racehorses. It uncovered the world of science behind the racehorse and the mechanics behind the racehorse to me. All of those things were topics that I was exposed to as an engineering student or rebuilding those motorcycles that I had no idea existed and I wouldn't have (known had) I not said “yes” to Dr. Reed. Certainly, I wouldn't have met the person who became such a great professional mentor for me through the years, not just through school and vet school but as a young professional veterinarian as well.


Brian:             Absolutely. You've touched on saying "yes" to these opportunities, but someone like a mentor has to provide those opportunities, and it seems like Dr. Reed was that for you. It seemed like there were a couple of different paths you were considering. I think a lot of our listeners would be at a point in their life where they'll be choosing, like you did with Dr. Reed. What made his mentorship or his impact on your life so attractive?


Keith:              There are a few things. One is he allowed himself to be a little bit vulnerable with me in that he was happy to talk about the things that worked for him and the failures that he'd had as he encountered his success, as he built his business, as he was trying to balance his family life with his work life, as he worked with difficult clients, as he celebrated successes with some of those clients. (It was about) really watching and learning and being open to me peppering him with questions about all of those things and about the horses just as I was learning about what are the common injuries of racehorses, what are our options for treating those injuries. And then, discovering what's beyond what we have today and what's possible, what's coming down the pipeline in terms of science, medicine and treatment that we may be able to use five, 10 or 20 years from now.


                        Now, I'm standing in a position where many of those things that were just conceptual 20 years ago, we're actually using every day. I think that's one of the really exciting opportunities that a lot of us as seasoned professionals within the agricultural industry, that's one of the opportunities that we have, is to help young people who are trying to break into this really niche world of agriculture and all of the different channels within agriculture. It's really an opportunity for us to reach out to them and help them imagine what the opportunities can be for themselves.


Brian:             Yeah. I like that point of being okay with being vulnerable. You've touched on this: Within two seconds in a Google search, you can be an expert on a given topic. I think having someone who's okay with saying, "I don't know how to solve this problem. I looked at all the answers, but maybe I still don't have them. They don't exist on Google" — and I think particularly for younger folks who are trying to get into an industry like agriculture. If you look in the U.S., we have 99% of the folks who would not be in agriculture and only 1% who would be in it. We make, I think, a lot of 99% and 1% comparisons, but I do think it takes someone getting involved in someone else's life to make that happen. Maybe now, as you're looking at the next generation, how do you think the industry should approach getting the next generation involved in agriculture? But maybe (also) talk about getting the next generation involved in the equine industry.


Keith:  Oh, there are so many opportunities for all of us who are involved at all levels of our industry, whether it's as a veterinary technician who is encouraging young people to come and shadow and say, "Hey, look at what I do for these animals that are sick. We're helping them get better. This is what I do every day.” It could be the scientist who is studying some of the new technologies in microbiome science. There are so many things out there. Even for me to just try and think about these things as you and I are talking, there are so many channels that it can be overwhelming to pick the few that we talk about, which makes me realize that young people who are exposed to all of these things, plus more, it can be so difficult for them, too.


I think the opportunities for us are to be open. Listen. If somebody reaches out to me on LinkedIn and says, "Hey, I'm really interested in knowing more about something. Can you help point me in the right direction?" This is somebody who has had the courage to reach out, has shown some real interest, and I'm going to respond to that because that's how I broke in.


I think it can be on an individual basis like that. I also think that some of the larger corporations and industry organizations — like the American Association of Equine Practitioners, with which I've been associated for many years — have created real opportunities to help people connect within their industries. I think it takes a young person being resourceful in looking for those opportunities or for those people who might be willing to connect on social platforms like LinkedIn. Many of us are not on Snapchat, Instagram and those places. I think that there's a little bit of a divide between how young people commonly communicate and connect and some of the more seasoned people in agriculture. So I think there has to be that open communication both ways and the willingness to take on a little bit of a mentorship role and take a chance on people, because when we say "yes" and they say "yes," the opportunities are endless.


Brian:             Yeah. I think you touched on something, (and) I just want to drive it a little bit deeper in, because I think you've touched a lot on what it takes to be a good mentor, but you just began to start on what you would look for in a potential mentee, someone who would be bold enough to reach out directly on LinkedIn. When you're looking at the next generation, what are you looking (for) in a potential mentee, someone that you would mentor?


Keith:              When I was young and trying to break into the Thoroughbred industry, I used to put my hands in my pockets. It was a habit that I had, and I didn't realize I had it. I didn't realize that I was communicating that. Maybe I wasn't sure of myself. Maybe I wasn't interested. Whatever that message was, it wasn't the message of, "Hey, I'm enthusiastic. I'm ready to do whatever it takes."


                        I think moving beyond constantly looking at that phone — move beyond that. Show that enthusiasm, that courage to reach out. Show that you don't have your hands in your pockets or that you're constantly on your social media. Look, let's work. Let's discover. Let's talk. Let's interact, because those human relationships are the things that I think we all really revel in. That's what drives us forward in our profession. That's what I'm looking for in a young mentee. I'm not looking for somebody who has already had a few experiences, has already taken a few chances. Maybe I'm the first chance that they've taken to reach out to, but certainly, if they're showing that enthusiasm and that they had researched multiple things around what I do, I'm willing to answer questions. I'm willing to point them in the right directions that they think they want to go.


                        Man, that's an exciting person, when they come to me. There are three or four who come to mind throughout my career that it's been really fun to watch develop from young college students who were doing something in a horse-racing club or Darley Flying Starts, some of these development programs. Young people who have reached out from those programs and said, "Hey, I've seen what you do. I'm really interested in it. Could I spend a day with you in your truck at the racetrack?" "Absolutely. Come on. Let me introduce you to some other people." And that really becomes their first working interview with me. Those are the types of things that I'm looking for.


                        As a mentee, I want to give them everything I can that is actionable and thought-provoking. If we both have done that for each other as mentor and mentee, I think we've really accomplished something together.


Brian:             Yeah. Seeing someone succeed who was a mentee of yours, I can only imagine it's just got to be so encouraging and must give you a ton of energy to keep reaching out to others, because it's not just being a mentor yourself. It's being a mentor to someone else.


It's interesting. You've touched on “no hands in the pockets.” Our (Alltech) owner and founder, the late Dr. Pearse Lyons, had a big thing of “no hands in the pockets.” That was just a bad expression of body language that didn't show enthusiasm, just like you touched on. So, I think there are some cool correlations there.


                        Moving us into maybe the last segment, the question, always, is: What's next? To you, what are some of the positive opportunities you see in equine moving forward?


Keith:              I've touched on it a little bit earlier. I think one of the most exciting things that we're seeing coming out in equine health — and this expands beyond just equine health and into total animal health — is the concept and the science behind the microbiome and the metabolome, the microbiome being the living organisms in the DNA that's within the GI tract and then the metabolome being everything else that's in there. Are there inflammatory mediators? Are there other things that can tell us what's going on with the overall health of an animal? And what the risk or health profile is of an animal.


                        I think there's so much on the frontier to be discovered there and to really discern how it relates, how each of those findings relates with not just equine health, but how those findings drive certain discoveries in human health, in pharmaceuticals, in supplements, in feeding, in wellness, in food as medicine, not just as a function of nutrition. I think that is such an exciting frontier where what we do in animal health and what we do in agriculture contributes so much to the overall health of the populace of our world. There's opportunity, on an individual scale, to greatly contribute to society and to our world in that way from agriculture.


Brian:             As a global animal health and nutrition company at Alltech, I could not endorse that statement any more. We have our researchers working on things from the microbiome, but we have people all throughout the process bringing that to fruition. We even take it into the human health side. I think that connection between the science that we do, connecting between animals and people, really just starting with the microbiome, is so exciting. I think the future is really bright for that.


                        What I'd love to do is just leave us with a specific takeaway for our listeners. Say someone has heard this (podcast). What's the first step someone who's interested in agriculture should take if they're not currently involved but want to get involved?


Keith:              Pick up the phone and connect with people. That is number one, even beyond a connection on LinkedIn, even beyond a colleague calling me and saying, "Hey, I have a niece or a nephew who is really interested in what you do." When I receive a phone call from a person or an email asking for a phone call from a person who is interested in what I do, who has researched what I do, I'm going to take that call. I think there are so many people within our industry, within agriculture, who would be so excited to have somebody connect on that human level to say, "I'm interested. I'm excited about what you're doing. I would love to know more about how you did it, how you got there and what's next for you, where do you go (next) from where you are." That is somebody that has a bright future, and they're showing it to me with their first action.


                        That's a difficult thing to do. I know a lot of people have trouble picking up the phone and making that cold call. It's not my favorite thing to do either, but it has created massive results in my life. I know other people whose lives have been changed by a single phone call. Pick up the phone and make a call.


Brian:             Keith, I think there could not be any better message and more clear message. If you're interested in getting into agriculture, pick up the phone. Call someone. Make a contact and go meet with them.


There's so much to unpack here. I think this has been extremely helpful for our listeners. Just maybe to sum up a couple of things that I heard (that) you said that were really interesting, point one just being to say "yes" to things. If you have an opportunity to meet and be mentored by someone, take them up on it. The second point being not only have a mentor in your life but be a mentor to someone else and be willing to receive that phone call that you just talked about. Beyond that, be willing to be a beginner. I really liked that comment because I think, in this Google age, we can all be “experts” within five minutes, but not really. So, with the point that Dr. Reed made of being okay with being vulnerable, I think that's a really important step for long-term success. Bringing it all together, show enthusiasm. Don't put your hands in your pockets. Be willing to take chances. Last but not least, pick up the phone and call someone. You'll be well on your way to a successful career in agriculture.


This is Dr. Keith Latson of FullBucket Health. Thank you for joining us on the Ag Future podcast.


Keith:              I sure have enjoyed it. Thank you.


Brian: This has been Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts and leave a review if you enjoyed this episode.