Future Stock

It’s been quite a year for Danté. The young buck moved from a small farm in upstate New York to a lush Newport estate blocks from Bellevue Avenue mansions, where he enjoys great success with the opposite sex.

His rakish story, however, has an unlikely twist. Danté has fathered many kids — but they may not be born for hundreds of years. In the meantime, they’re having a chilly time of it.

Danté is a San Clemente goat and the father of many of the naturally fertilized embryos that make up part of a collection of cryogenically preserved genetic material from barnyard animals. He and his future offspring live on the private grounds of the nonprofit Swiss Village Farm Foundation (now officially called SVF), where a willow-lined driveway and historic stone buildings conceal what amounts to a high-tech Noah’s Ark. On a forty-six-acre site, one of the wealthiest women in the country is funding a unique project that aims to safeguard genetic diversity in livestock.

SVF is not open to the public. An electric gate controls access, and visitors must submit to biosecurity protocols. The fuss is because the foundation is a sort of seed bank for such meat-, milk- and fiber-producing animals as cattle, goats and sheep. If it works, say proponents, the bank could help offset the escalating loss of genetic diversity among commercial livestock. Out-of-favor animals, and their resistance to disease or extremes of temperature, could one day have the power to avert a disaster like the Irish Potato Famine. The world loses two breeds of livestock a week, according to the 2000 edition of the United Nations’ World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity.

The work done in this luxury setting is unique in a couple of ways. First, it focuses on so-called heritage breeds of livestock, using as a reference the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s list of endangered hoofstock.

Second, instead of preserving just easy-to-collect semen, SVF also harvests embryos, blood and tissue samples. And it backs it all up with extensive documentation in a package that’s designed to give the scientists of the future as much information as possible about what an animal might be useful for.

The project, say the foundation’s advisers, is the vision of Campbell’s Soup heiress Dorrance H. Hamilton, an avid gardener in her late seventies with a second home in Newport. Her daughter, Margaret H. Duprey, keeps Angus cattle on a farm in Pennsylvania and sits on SVF’s board of trustees.

When the property went on the market in 1997, a Newport City Council member asked Hamilton to save the land from development. Hamilton bought the property and began looking for a use for it.

“She was already interested in livestock,” says SVF director Peter Borden, who came on board to oversee restoration of the site. “Then Tufts University told her that she could go further than preservation on the hoof. She could do preservation in the tank.”

The foundation has built up, through gifts and purchases, 105 head of stock, among them black-and-white Dutch belted cattle (gentle and good mothers, they are long-lived and produce high-fat milk good for butter and cheese) and Tennessee fainting goats (fast-growing, prolific breeders that are naturally meaty). Two remarkable donations from private breeders on the West Coast make up forty-two Santa Cruz sheep, a good portion of the estimated 200 still alive. They dot the neatly tended, rolling pastures of this gracious property, animals that have otherwise almost disappeared from the American landscape.

Also here are three guard llamas, kept because “they are naturally aggressive toward canines,” says livestock manager Sarah LaFreniere — including the coyotes that dog the flocks of sheep and goats.

LaFreniere’s philosophy is that if you’re going to go to a lot of expense to save an animal from extinction, “It might as well be one that can give you something back.”

A former veterinary technician with the no-nonsense calm of someone who’s spent a lot of time with animals, LaFreniere started work at SVF nearly four years ago. With border collie Dakota at her side, she manages the herds and takes care of the foundation’s public relations.

Her background includes eight years volunteering at Roger Williams Park Zoo, where she worked with exotic hoofstock like zebras and antelopes. “I like the way they move, and the fact that they’re intelligent,” she says of the African imports. “It’s not like you just put them in a cage and look at them.”

It’s a good analogy for the animals at SVF, which are from breeds that mostly persevered with minimal help from humans. These breeds are called “unimproved” animals, meaning they have not been subject to modern breeding techniques. They were the stock that helped colonists settle the United States, brought from Europe to provide muscle, meat and milk on small homesteads. They suited an agricultural climate in which a few animals were expected to provide meat, milk and muscle.

“They’re good all-rounders,” explains LaFreniere as she leads me into a long, cool building, immaculately kept. An old piggery, it temporarily houses a small group of cute brown animals that band together as they eye me with mild alarm. They are San Clemente goats, one of several hardy island breeds that the foundation is interested in.

It’s speculated the goats were dropped off on San Clemente Island, off the coast of California, by Spanish conquistadores who wanted fresh meat to pick up on the way home. The voyagers never came back
and the goats flourished, adapting in feral isolation to their new home over the next 400 years.
The goats are tolerant of heat, able to survive on little forage, give birth easily and are good mothers, all traits often bred out of modern barnyard animals.

They are also critically endangered. Eradicated from their island home after conservationists determined they were bad for the ecosystem, they never caught on with farmers because they don’t meet the demand for high milk or meat production.

Even if the breed were to become popular, LaFreniere says, there’s still a point to collecting its germplasm. “We want to get their genetics in the tank,” she says, “because even if farmers pick up on them, they’ll be improved. They won’t be the same.”

In that sense, it’s too late for the Holstein. One of about six breeds of dairy cow that were popular until thirty years ago, says Tufts University scientist George Saperstein, it has now massively outstripped its competition to make up at least 90 percent of the United States dairy herd. Incredibly efficient at making milk, it also produces milk that’s lower in fat than, say, the Guernsey or Jersey, making it popular in our health-conscious society.

The Holstein is farmed intensively in areas with a far different climate from its original home in northern Europe. In dairy farms in the South, the animals are kept inside huge, artificially cooled barns. Their grain is grown on huge feedlots in the Midwest. They are inseminated by vets and need frequent deworming.

It’s the sort of story that scares scientists like Saperstein, SVF’s chief scientific adviser and chair of the Tufts University Department of Environmental and Population Health. Partly, it’s the complicated infrastructure needed to support them. But also, the nine million cows that make up the United States dairy herd — the number, says Saperstein, keeps shrinking as the animals become more efficient — are made up of only a handful of genetically different individuals.

“Put it this way,” says Saperstein, “each of those cows has one of six bulls in its pedigree.”

A lack of genetic diversity can mean inflexibility in dealing with change, Saperstein says. The two factors are a dangerous combination: “With climate change, disease, natural and unnatural disasters, you could easily see how our system could be disrupted.”

Not that anyone at SVF is criticizing modern agriculture. “Cheap food is what makes America great,” says LaFreniere. Saperstein agrees: “We live in a country where food is easily available, and we have that system to thank for it.”

Farmers and hobbyists were already attempting to get one or two breeds of goat off the critically endangered list in an ad hoc manner. What was new, says Saperstein, was the idea of “systematically saving the critically endangered breeds using cryo-preservation.”

It’s impossible, he says, to know how important the resource may one day be. But historically, livestock have been a vital part of any society. “They provide transportation, manure production, they improve grassland through grazing and can even prevent desertification,” he says. “And they are a food supply in case of emergency.”

SVF tries to ensure that critically endangered animals are sold to breeders interested in keeping the breed alive.

But if that doesn’t work out, they’re pragmatic. Staff members like to say, “If you want to save it, you’ve got to eat it.” SVF isn’t averse to a little commerce, or a good meal. With that in mind, it recently obtained a state license to sell meat to consumers. The meat, which is full of healthy omega fatty acids, tastes “way different” from grain-fed steaks, says Borden. It’s better marinated because this less fatty meat is tougher than grain-fed steaks. Traditional, long-cooking techniques, like braising and stewing, are also a good bet.

Animals spend about a year at SVF while veterinarians extract a wealth of genetic material. In general, the foundation aims to collect at least 200 embryos from each breed, representing the offspring of about thirty different females. It also needs about 3,000 samples of semen — known as “straws” — collected from eight to ten males. From this germplasm, in theory, the breed could be re-established within a single generation, should it become extinct.

The foundation also collects tissue cells and blood. “It’s just like any library,” Saperstein says. “You get lots of books because you never know which ones someone will check out.”

For instance, Saperstein says, it’s likely that future techniques will allow scientists to tell from a few tissue cells whether a breed has immunity to a given disease. SVF has its sights set on the twenty most endangered breeds of hoofstock and expects to spend twenty years on the project. Since it started work in 2002, the foundation has finished collecting information on three breeds and is working with another five.

It’s not a cheap undertaking. “They say it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to save each breed,” says LaFreniere.

The foundation maintains a staff of nineteen, some of whom live on the site, and pays Tufts University about $250,000 each year for advice on biosecurity, disease prevention and herd health, and veterinary work that includes the collection of embroyos and semen. Four Tufts faculty members are on the team. The foundation is in year two of its second three-year contract with Tufts.

SVF is coy about supplying final figures, but director Borden says the major expense so far has been restoring the grounds. Media reports of about $7 million to date are on target, he says.

Hamilton can afford it. Ranked 620 among the world’s richest people by Forbes in 2005, she possesses a fortune estimated at $1 billion. She is also a philanthropist, ranked forty-seven among the country’s most generous donors by The Chronicle of Philanthropy following a $25-million pledge to her alma mater, Thomas Jefferson University. (Through a spokesperson, Hamilton declined to be interviewed.)

But LaFreniere stresses that SVF is much more than the rich woman’s hobby farm that some media reports make it sound like.

 “I can’t overemphasize the importance of Mrs. Hamilton’s vision,” says Saperstein. “The thing I love so much is that we’re using high technology in a low-tech way, to solve a problem caused by technology. What we’re saying is, ‘It’s okay to go on with selective breeding, because we’ve got this stop gap in case it goes wrong.’ My personal opinion is that this will be the most important thing she leaves behind; her legacy.”
“I believe in the mission,” says Borden. “The bottom line is that this is for the future. There’s a simple formula for how to reawaken a breed should it become extinct, and we follow it.”

It’s been a learning process for Borden, once a contractor and builder of luxury yachts.

Borden has learned what it takes to run cryotanks, maintain historic buildings, build pastures and figure out what he calls “the Rubik’s Cube of animal storage.” In 2001, the initial work complete, he stepped down. “I assumed there would be someone better to run the project,” he says. But his replacement lasted only two years, and Borden ended up in charge again.

He’s developed his opinions about United States agribusiness. “Americans love diversity in their food,” he says. “There are thirty different kinds of orange juice in the supermarket. It’s inevitable that we’re going to want diversity in our animal agriculture, too.” He also defends SVF from accusations of weird-science elitism. “Some people think it’s funny that we have beautiful historic buildings and they’re not open to the public,” he says. “Frankly, it was a convenient place to build our site.”

In one of those beautiful buildings is embryologist Dorothy Roof, described by Saperstein as the hub of the operation. In a white lab coat, gloves and safety glasses, the former Harvard researcher tends to the shiny cylinders of three cryotanks, maintaining the germplasm  — frozen at minus 196 degrees Celsius in liquid nitrogen — and the database that accompanies it.

The steaming nitrogen can give the unwary a really bad burn, Roof says. But she’s not above having a little fun. She takes off her cryogloves and quickly dips a finger into the layer of swirling, freezing smoke, demonstrating how a thin layer of room-temperature air will, for a second, protect her skin.

The lab had accumulated 19,000 units of germplasm by January. The samples can’t be out of the liquid nitrogen for a second but are expected to last indefinitely. Temperature changes trigger automatic alarms that dial the cell phones of staff members.

If the power goes out, generators kick in within twenty seconds to power an alarm that notifies workers who can ensure the cryotanks are kept at a constant temperature.

Across a gravel walkway from Roof’s lab is the pharmacy, stocked with hypodermic needles and nonspermicidal lubricating jelly. Close to that, off the manicured lawn of the farm’s courtyard, is the old bull barn, now a state-of-the-art surgery with the capability to do laparoscopic surgery and evaluate the quality of semen and embryos.

Next door are the box stalls formerly used for draft horses, where beautiful old tack is still displayed. As the germplasm collection grows, says LaFreniere, it will probably come to occupy the large room.
The foundation has explored offsite storage of the cryotanks, LaFreniere says — “You don’t want all your eggs in one basket” — but is running up against the long-term nature of its goals. So far, it hasn’t found a suitably stable facility.

A little further away, across green fields, is a barn. It is home to several animals including the foundation’s two mascots, a Tennessee fainting goat and a Gulf Coast ram. Both were born from surrogate mothers of the same species but different breeds: Chip, the goat, from a common Nubian, and Howie, the ram, from a Santa Cruz. Both spent a few months in the cryotanks before being “reawakened,” as SVF staff like to say. They bed down together in a stall redolent of the fresh hay that lines it.

Give Chip a scratch and your hand will smell of goat for the rest of the day. It’s a pungent but not unpleasant smell reminiscent of an aged goat cheese. What lingers longer, however, is the sense of having been exposed to something remarkable, almost romantic, in the strange contradictions of the high-tech and historic, pragmatic and visionary, that make up this unusual project.

As Danté would say, may the romance — and all that goes with it — live on.