Jon Higgins’ Career Path Led from His Family-owned Garage to the Barn
By Anna Reinalda | February 16, 2022
When Jonathan E. Higgins’ grandfather opened Belle Mead Garage on Route 206 in 1927, it was surrounded by farms of all varieties. “Higgins,” as he is called by local farmers today, stands at 5-foot 5 inches, and provides specialized veterinary care for the large farm animals, which typically tower over him.
Although his family tree is filled with auto mechanics who also sold Chryslers and farm tractors, Higgins felt drawn to livestock. “I like cows,” Higgins said. “I pumped gas when I was a kid, but then I got into the farming side of things, and worked on dairy farms up by the Duke Estate. There was a dairy there that milked about 200-head with a rotary parlor, which in the 70s was quite advanced. “The school bus dropped me off after school, I worked there, and I kind of got the farming bug.”
Belle Mead Garage is now surrounded by huge housing developments (Pike Run, Hallmark Homes’ Country Club Estates). Despite the decline of local farms in the area, Higgins is still in high demand. The number of livestock veterinarians who treat animals raised for food are becoming sparse. It’s hard to know whether the vets are disappearing because the farms are disappearing, or vice versa. “I just talked to a dairyman over at Middlebush – they’re one of the last dairies in Somerset County,” Higgins said. “There are only two in Mercer County: Cherry Grove and the prison farm.”
Cherry Grove Farm on Route 206 in Lawrenceville produces farmstead cheeses and meats. The prison farm is Jones Farm in West Trenton, where nonviolent inmates are given the opportunity to operate the dairy for both enrichment and practical purposes. “They raise the dairy and meat products for the state prison and hospital populations,” Higgins said.
Skillman Farm, once a 500- acre farm on Burnt Hill Road in Montgomery Township, was one of six dairy and crop farms run by Agri Industries, a self-sustaining branch of the NJ Department of Corrections that sells dairy and processed food products back to the department and other state agencies at cost-saving prices. The farm had been staffed by prisoners from the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in Burlington County, who were bussed in daily. The work was considered a perk for minimum-security prisoners. “There’s still a sign on Burnt Hill Road, with a picture of a Jersey cow on it,” Higgins said. “They made yogurt there because it was easy to package for the inmates,” he said. “Everything had to be the same size because otherwise you’d have fights. They even had to make ... evenly rationed steaks.”
The state-owned Skillman Dairy Farm on Burnt Hill Road is still standing, but is no longer in business, having closed in 2009. The fields and rapidly deteriorating buildings exist behind “No Trespassing” signs. Residents living in the Skillman section of Montgomery were wary of the prisoners on the farm, especially after one escaped, according to an archived newspaper article. For the prisoners, the chance to work on a farm was a great opportunity. Higgins remembered working with a fellow who used to manage the prison farm. He was not trying to teach inmates how to be milkers, but trying to instill a farm work ethic, Higgins said. “It was a real privilege for them to get to work, and if they’d get out of line at all they’d lose those privileges,” he said. “They’ve been good to work with. I worked on those farms for 30 years.”
While many farms saw changes in business over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects on operations at the West Trenton prison farm was pronounced. “The prison population has decreased a lot because of COVID,” Higgins said. “It’s cut down on both the inmates available to work and the demand for the product, so the current supervisor for all those operations isn’t necessarily getting rid of cows, but he’s backing off a little.”
Having grown up in Belle Mead, Higgins remembers the area prior to the development boom that has taken hold over the past few of decades. He recalled the site of Montgomery High School being a trade school for boys, and many farmers fields which have since become residential developments. “Now I live across the street from where I grew up,” Higgins said.
He lives with his wife Tracy in an old farmhouse on Mountainview Road in Belle Mead. Higgins’ grandfather Leroy was just a teenager when he opened the Belle Mead Garage. Later, his father, Roy “Murph” Higgins, who died in October of 2020, inherited the business. Higgins’ brother, Roy “Kip” Higgins, took over the garage in 1982 and now runs it with Chris Carnevale.
Higgins commenced an undergraduate journey on a pre-med path, and then switched to animal science. He was later accepted to a PhD program at the University of Vermont, where he earned his undergraduate degree in Dairy Science, but decided it wasn’t for him. He instead rented 160 acres close to his home and grew soybeans for a while. Higgins said what ultimately pushed him to make the jump from farmer to farm vet was the advent of new reproductive procedures. “The coming of embryo transfer … that’s how I started out in practice,” he said.
Embryo transfer is a process where a live embryo is pulled out of a pregnant cow and placed into a surrogate mother. This allows a cow with top genetics to yield more high-quality offspring than she would if carrying each pregnancy to term on her own. “I went out to Colorado State and learned how to flush cows and recover embryos,” Higgins said. “If you’re going to do [embryo transfers] for other people, you need to be licensed. So, I applied to Penn.” But even with his good grades and test scores, Higgins didn’t get accepted right away. Although he had plenty of experience in farming, University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine required a farm veterinary mentorship for applicants, which Higgins did not have. “That’s why I really try to help pre-vet students out now,” Higgins said. He often shows up for calls with a couple of young associates at his side.
He gained his veterinary license and launched Acorn- Embryo, LLC, now colloquially known as Acorn Farm Vets, in 1989. Higgins didn’t regret the detours in his higher education journey. “I think farming in between undergrad and going to vet school, just having that little bit of a break, was an advantage.” An important aspect of conducting business as a farm vet is being able to relate to livestock farmers and their concerns, he explained. “You don’t have to come from a farm to be a good farm vet,” Higgins said. “But you have to be able to speak their language.”
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Higgins remembered seeing many veterinary students who excelled in the medical practice, but couldn’t identify any of the crops growing on the farms they visited. Higgins explained that this is a big information gap, since most of the farmed crops that veterinary students encounter are for livestock feed, and livestock nutrition is vitally important to understanding both the health of the animals and the health of the industry. Higgins remembered a favorite Forbes quote: “Whatever you do – even if you’re a bum – be the best bum there is.”
He said that mentality both pushed him and gave him peace of mind in dialing in on the niche of cow reproduction. “It’s a lot to learn all at once, and so in this narrow focus that I had [dealing with cows’ reproductive health] I was able to do okay,” he said. Higgins said the farm experiences of his youth came in handy when he was first embarking on his veterinary career. “Having grown up here, I knew people in the area,” Higgins said. “So I’d start here and just build by word of mouth. I really don’t advertise too much because farmers talk.” Although he started out doing highly specific procedures, Higgins said over time he extended his practice to cover a wide variety of medical care, from injury emergencies to check-ups to minor surgeries. “You ought to re-pot yourself every so often,” he said. “I try to learn a new technique every year.”
Though Higgins’ word-of mouth clientele started out local, his radius of practice has spread far and wide. Beyond central New Jersey, Higgins’ work brings him to Northampton and Bucks counties in Pennsylvania, and to southern New Jersey. Even though he doesn’t start charging for time until he arrives at his destinations, he often clocks more than 60 work hours per week. Still, he considers this much more balanced than his younger days. “I’d be in Vermont one day and then down in the Shenandoah Valley the next,” Higgins said. “So, it seems nice just to be home at night.”
His range is so widespread in part due to diminishing numbers of farm vets in the state. “There’s plenty of equine vets,” he said. “Horses are a billion-dollar industry in New Jersey.” While there’s no shortage of vets servicing the state’s equestrian community, farmers may struggle to find vets for their animals. “The cow vets who were in [southern New Jersey] kind of disappeared, which you wouldn’t expect because that’s where the cows are,” Higgins said. “It’s kind of an underserved area down there. “10 or 15 years ago there was a big call about the shortage of food animal veterinarians,” Higgins said. “It’s not a shortage of food animal veterinarians, it’s mixed rural-practice veterinarians.” He said the prevalence of this shortage mostly affects smaller, non-commercial operations, like homesteads and family farms.
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Higgins hopes that with the advent of Rowan University’s new veterinary program, emerging farm vets will begin to repopulate the state. It will be the Garden State’s first veterinary school. “[Rowan has] been planning this for about three years and just formally announced it two weeks ago,” Higgins said. “They’re going to set up a regular four-year vet school with the first class coming in 2025.” He said Rowan will also be introducing a non-veterinary Animal Science program, as well as a veterinary technician program, an ambulatory service, and a small animal hospital. “It’s very ambitious, but we have people at Rowan who are really keen on … large animal practice.” Dr. Matthew C. Edson, owner of Rancocas Veterinary Associates will be the founding dean of the program, Higgins said.
Looking toward the tail-end of winter, Higgins is preparing for an influx of calls, as farmers start gearing up for the busy spring season. “Everything has its seasonality,” Higgins said. “The rush, rush season really is definitely February.” Despite the on-the-go nature of his work, Higgins says retirement isn’t on his mind yet. “After some calls you have to think about it a lot,” he joked. “You think, ‘I’m getting too old for this.’” But it doesn’t take much more than a snuggle from a calf or a successful round of pregnancy palpations to get Higgins’ head back in the game. Though New Jersey vets are dwindling, Higgins is here to stay.