Half a dozen barns on a Benson farm 2,200 sheep – one of Vermont’s largest herds of animals – that are not raised for meat or fleece. The workforce of nearly 50 makes it an employer of choice in this rural corner of Rutland County. Still, it garnered little to no attention in Vermont for nearly two decades.
For locals, the business is no mystery. “Do you mean the secret farm?” Matt Barnes asked with a chuckle as he painted a wall inside the Benson Village store last month. Barnes said the owners had tried to be “low key” when they first arrived at Benson, but almost everyone in town is now familiar with the farm.
The owner is a medical diagnostics manufacturing company, the Binding Site. The private company, based in England and with offices in 10 countries, makes and sells kits that doctors use to diagnose conditions such as immune system disorders and multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood. The company is also investing in the research and development of new medical products, according to spokesperson Claire Cooper.
Benson sheep provide an essential ingredient in these kits: blood plasma. Sheep have been treated so that their plasma contains antibodies which, when introduced into a blood sample from a human patient, react to abnormalities and reveal the presence of disease. The name of the company, the Binding Site, refers to this binding reaction.
Why did a British company come to rural Vermont to raise sheep?
In 2001, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease swept across the UK, killing millions of animals, including those on a Binding Site farm in the north of England. Company officials feared the outbreak could continue across Europe, Cooper said. In Benson, a town of around 1,000, they found an old sheep farm and met some friendly locals, she said.
Benson Farm is the company’s only sheep operation. An office occupies a small white house on Route 144, a secluded road near Lake Hortonia. The site covers 650 acres, 618 of which are retained as farm and forest land by the Vermont Land Trust. The city values the property at nearly $ 1.7 million.
The liaison site initially refused a visit request from Seven days but later accepted.
Farm manager Dulcie Griffith, a veterinarian technician, began the visit to a laboratory building last week. Black boots and farm overalls hung from hooks at the entrance. Inside, workers loaded jugs filled with orange plasma into insulated crates for the weekly shipment from the farm to England, where diagnostic kits are made. Plasma pots were stacked up to the ceiling in a refrigerated area.
The room where the blood is drawn was white and freezing cold. A sign told employees not to give mutton grain to the five donkeys on the farm, even if the animals “tell you they want it” because the grain contains special supplements.
Griffith asked Seven days not to photograph the laboratory for the sake of the company’s trade secrets. She said lab workers are asked to sign nondisclosure forms.
The farm collected blood from 20 sheep that day. The number varies; superiors in England set the timetable, Griffith said.
When the sheep are one year old, workers divide them into groups and administer injections that cause the animals’ bodies to produce antibodies against one of many diseases, depending on the company’s needs. Blood can be drawn from an animal as often as every six weeks, but sometimes a sheep will go months without “donating” because its antibody is not needed, Griffith said.
Before workers draw blood, the sheep are given light sedatives intravenously to keep them calm. The process takes several hours; IV fluids keep animals hydrated. Once the plasma is separated from the rest of the sheep’s blood, the red blood cells are returned to the animal.
Griffith paved the way for a sheep “rest and recovery suite” outside the lab. “This is where they get their cookies and orange juice,” she joked, referring to the snacks given to human blood donors.
Some of the sheep stopped munching on hay and walked over to Griffith and a reporter and allowed themselves to be petted.
The five sheepfolds on the property were huge and clean, with plenty of room in each hay-lined pen. The animals appeared calm as they ate hay and roamed their pens. Griffith said sheep are kept indoors most of the time to protect them from coyotes and because fans keep barns cooler than the temperature outside.
When the sheep are allowed to graze outside, five “guard donkeys”, animals prone to bray loudly at the approach of predators, accompany them.
The company continues to expand its herd, buying sheep from local farmers and raising others itself. When sheep become ill or are no longer needed for antibody production, they are euthanized according to American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines, Griffith said. Their bodies are composted because the meat of animals raised for this purpose cannot be sold.
The animals are sheared a few times a year for their health; the company gives the wool to the shearer.
Griffith said the farm has never had any involvement with animal rights activists. She is confident that anyone who understands the high standards of animal care and the company’s mission to fight diseases such as cancer would support her work.
“Everyone is affected by disease and cancer in one way or another,” Griffith said. “It really gives a purpose to what we’re doing here.”
Conditions looked pretty luxurious by breeding standards, but it’s hard to verify the company’s record at Benson.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects animal-related facilities like this one, but it abruptly removed inspection reports from its website last year, citing court rulings and privacy concerns, the Washington post reported.
Seven days filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in May for binding site inspection reports. When the forms arrived last week, almost all of the information, including the type of inspection and descriptions of the results, had been redacted. An attached letter stated that the USDA had decided that “protection from licensee embarrassment or harassment” outweighed the public interest in what is happening there.
Kristin Haas, state veterinarian at the Vermont Agency for Agriculture, Food, and Markets, said her department does not exercise regulatory oversight over the liaison site, although the agency has provided a technical assistance on the farm. According to Haas, any animal welfare complaints against the facility should be directed to the Humane Society of the United States or law enforcement.
Barry Londeree, state director of the US Humane Society, said he was aware of only one complaint against the Binding Site, submitted last year via a now-defunct website, reportanimalcruelty. com. The anonymous pipe alleged that the facility was understaffed and the sheep were not getting enough water. Londeree forwarded the complaint to the USDA, but it never received a response.
Dave Martin, president of the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association, said he had not been to the farm but had never heard of complaints about animal care.
So who would oppose the work there?
Animal Free Research UK, a nonprofit that funds and promotes alternative research techniques, said Seven days in a general statement about the production of antibodies that animals suffer when their body responds to the initial injections that trigger the antibodies. The group recognized the historical importance of animal antibodies as the only method to detect certain cancers. However, the release says new lab technologies exist that make the use of animals obsolete.
But Binding Site spokesperson Cooper said there was no viable alternative to creating the antibodies. She said the company’s vaccines work just like a human vaccine and do not cause infections or damage to sheep. Having healthy, stress-free sheep is essential, otherwise the quality of the tests can be compromised, potentially affecting the end results for patients using the medical kits, she said.
In Benson, locals said they appreciated the farm’s presence.
The Binding Site is having a “very positive” effect on the city, according to Tory Tyminski, member of Benson Selectboard, who cited the number of people it employs.
To talk to other residents, Seven days stopped by Benson United Church last week, where, by a strange coincidence, the American Red Cross was collecting blood – for people.
“They were very low-key when they first arrived because it was weird. Now they’re more open about their work,” Norma Phillips said of the farm. As she ate cookies after giving a pint of blood, she added that it was “fab” that the company was hiring locally. Her nephew was hired as an electrician to wire the barns at the site, she said.
“I don’t see a problem with them,” said Bob Stannard, owner of Vermont Natural Beef, who was also donating blood. “I think it’s great to have a business like this in a city like Benson that employs people; it’s good to see that.” Friends who work there told him that the company practices humane handling of animals, he added.
A few miles away, Greg Fontaine, owner of the G&L general store, said workers at the nearby sheep farm stopped by regularly to buy his food and gasoline. When a reporter later returned to the store to buy gas, his wife, Lisa Fontaine, asked if any article would portray the bookbinding site in a positive light. Remember, she advised sternly, the farm is doing a “good job” in the fight against cancer.