PFAS Shut Maine Farms Down. Now, Some Are Rebounding. | Civil Eats

PFAS Shut Maine Farms Down. Now, Some Are Rebounding.

In the aftermath of state testing that revealed dangerous levels of forever chemicals on some Maine farms in 2021, organizations, farmers, and Indigenous communities are creating blueprints for recovery.

Upland Grassroots Hemp Farming

Until a few years ago, Songbird Farm in Unity, Maine, grew wheat, rye, oats, and corn, as well as an array of vegetables in three high tunnel greenhouses, and supported a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program for over 100 customers. It was a successful farm, says Adam Nordell, that supported he and his wife Johanna Davis, their two children, and an employee.

“The business was working,” Nordell says. “We were hitting our stride.”

But at the end of 2020, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection tested their farm and found elevated levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly called PFAS, PFOS, or forever chemicals—and found them in shockingly high numbers. Forever chemicals have been linked to a number of serious health problems including cancer, reproductive issues, and liver and kidney disease.

Consumption of crops or animals grown on PFAS-contaminated land puts humans at high risk of illness. To Nordell’s dismay, Songbird Farm’s well water tested 400 times the state’s safety threshold of 20 parts per trillion.

Photo credit: Jenny McNulty

Songbird Farm (Photo credit: Jenny McNulty)

Maine had been spreading what is called sludge on its farmland and fields since the 1980s. The fittingly named sludge is a combination of wastewater and sewage, and its application on farms has been seen as a way to keep waste out of waterways and feed fields.

For years, application of sludge in Maine was regarded as safe, as it was in a number of other states; a 1994 booklet from the EPA claimed that the “beneficial application of biosolids to provide crop nutrients or to condition the soil is not only safe but good public policy.” The state later discovered, however, that the sludge contained harmful PFAS.

The sources of contamination were numerous. Once the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, many chemicals and toxins that had flowed freely from paper mills into Maine’s rivers started to be processed through sewage plants. Additionally, forever chemicals that appeared in cleaning chemicals, makeup, and nonstick pans made their way down household drains and ended up in local sewage plants.

The biosolids created as sewage breaks down can be used as fertilizer on farmland, a practice that the Environmental Protection Agency still touts as “beneficial,” even though spreading these highly toxic chemicals across farmland allows the compounds to leach into the groundwater, contaminate crops grown on the land, and affect grazing animals.

The spreading of sludge as fertilizer in Maine was documented thanks to licensing requirements to apply biosolids. In late 2021, the Maine DEP identified 60 sites where 10,000 cubic yards of biosolids were applied as fertilizer with homes within half an acre of the application, a practice the agency called “Tier 1” because it presented the highest risk to human health.

The state began testing soil and water samples from those sites, which included Songbird Farm, in the fall of 2021. In addition, it began to test more than a thousand sites with lower levels of contamination in 2023. While the affected sites are situated across the state, most are concentrated in agricultural areas.

By the spring of 2022, more than 50 farms in Tier 1 areas learned they had high levels of forever chemicals in their products, their fields, and their water. Some farms were able to stop production temporarily while they identified possible solutions. However, several farmers, including Nordell and Davis, were forced to close up shop permanently. Farmers were hurting, consumers were worried, and Maine’s food system looked to be in crisis.

“From an agriculture perspective, we want the soil to come out the other side usable and healthy. But in the meantime, we have adopted the truism that PFAs do not have to mean the end of a farm, and there may be alternative options.”

While the Environmental Working Group has estimated that over 2 million acres of farmland across the United States have been spread with sludge, only Maine and Michigan have done significant testing for chemical contamination of farmland. The spreading of sludge as fertilizer remains legal in all U.S. states aside from Maine, where it was outlawed in 2022.

Scientists are still piecing together what happened in the state, but it’s clear that some forever chemical contamination has also come from other waste materials, such as jet fuel and firefighting foam, particularly in Northern Maine, in and around the former home of the Loring Air Force Base.

Today, many of the Maine farms originally affected are operational again. While Songbird Farm is no longer commercially productive, Nordell now works for Defend Our Health, a local organization dedicated to removing toxins from the environment. A series of special fundraisers and an emergency relief fund helped to keep farms afloat in the aftermath of the discovery, and since then, some have changed what they grow or altered their crops. Others have been able to relieve the problem through water treatments and removal of affected hay and manure. And some are considering building solar arrays instead of farming.

“We are trying to be as optimistic as possible that there will be feasible scientific strategies in the future,” says Nancy McBrady, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (DACF). “From an agriculture perspective, we want the soil to come out the other side usable and healthy. But in the meantime, we have adopted the truism that PFAs do not have to mean the end of a farm, and there may be alternative options.”

First Steps: Supporting Farmers and Conducting Research

In January of 2022, as the level of contamination became clear, the Maine Farmland Trust, which holds easements on many of the farms that were directly affected by contamination, organized with the DACF and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) to work with the farmers who were now without a livelihood, providing them with income replacement for lost crops.

Financial support from the PFAS Emergency Relief Fund assists with direct monetary assistance and covers to cost of biosolids testing, health coverage for affected farmers, and has also been used to invest in infrastructure for PFAS relief and remediation.

“We provide a continuum of support,” McBrady says DACF’s Brady of the collective effort. “First and foremost, we are on the ground doing scientific analysis of the source of the PFAS with comprehensive testing that we pay for. This gives a blueprint of the situation and provides an opportunity to consider mitigation strategies such as changing the rotation of livestock, cleaning up the water, or trying a different crop.”

In addition to soil and water testing, the emergency fund also covers continued product testing, allowing farmers to return their goods to store shelves with confidence. In an effort to embrace full transparency, some affected farms even post their PFAS test results on their websites. Testing, however, is only the first step towards regaining use of PFAS contaminated farmland.

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“There isn’t that much great land for farming in Maine,” says Amy Fisher, President & CEO of the Maine Farmland Trust, referring to the state’s famously rocky soil. “So we cannot lose any of it to contamination. These farms have easements on them which permanently restrict development, so we have a long-term legal interest in returning these properties to agriculture.”

The trust also moved rapidly to learn more about the problem and potential solutions, reaching out to researchers and universities studying forever chemicals and the challenges of soil remediation.

“There are a lot of theories being tested. We are eagerly awaiting research breakthroughs that we can start implementing.”

Until Maine began its soil testing, there was little known about the extent of the chemicals’ impact on agriculture, and even less known about reversing those impacts. In July 2023, the Maine legislature passed a bipartisan bill to devote $60 million to a fund to address PFAS contamination. A portion of those funds was allocated to farm and soil research. Then MFT partnered with the University of Maine, Colby College, and Michigan State University to study the farmland impact of forever chemicals.

Michigan State University was already home to one of the premier PFAS research centers in the country. Maine was able to offer the researchers there access to a number of case studies of affected farm as well as areas of contaminated farmland on which to test remediation methods.

“There are a lot of theories being tested,” says Maine DACF’s PFAS director Meagan Hennessey. “We are eagerly awaiting research breakthroughs that we can start implementing.”

Methods of Remediation

Researchers are testing various methods of remediation in the field, including using biochar, a form of charcoal, to bind to the dangerous chemicals so they then be extracted from the soil, and absorbing the dangerous chemicals with plants that can then be removed, processed, and burned at temperatures over 2,730 Fahrenheit with special incinerators.

The hope is to help farmers continue farming despite PFAS contamination. “One thing that we recognized as we went was just how specific every farm is,” explains Hennessey. “A lot of farms may have a hot area, but it is pretty rare that the land is contaminated through the whole farming property.”

Hennessey also notes there are high-risk and low-risk plants. Plants that bear fruit, as well as garlic and asparagus, have a low transfer rate, which means even when grown in contaminated soils they do not contain high levels of PFAS.

Leafy greens, such as lettuce, have a high transfer rate and can easily carry dangerous levels of forever chemicals as can hay and grasses usedfor animal forage. Hay provides a particular challenge because it is often sold and transported to other farms where it is fed to livestock who spread the chemicals through their manure.

For this reason, McBrady adds, some farms are being encouraged to switch to grains, which are less likely to absorb PFAS. “We can fund a farm to switch from hay to grain cultivation, which requires new equipment, new storage, and new drying facilities,” she added. “In doing so, they now have a robust alternative feed supply and their impacted fields are still being utilized. That’s an example of keeping a farm and acreage in production with an alternative crop.”

On Contaminated Mi’kmaq Land, Hemp as a Solution

While farms around the state are adjusting to the new reality, in far Northern Maine in Aroostook County, a novel idea for soil remediation is in the experimental stages.

Upon the deactivation of the Loring Air Force Base in 1994, the state of Maine returned 800 acres to the Aroostook Band of the Mi’kmaq, a tribal community of approximately 1,500 people living in the remote Maine county. Because the area of the former air force base had been the site of firefighting foam testing and jet fuel spills, it was supposed to have been cleaned before being returned to the Mi’kmaq. But tests in 2020 showed levels of PFAS, PFOS, and heavy metals in the soil that were so high they have made the land unsuitable for farming, gardening, or human habitation.

Chelli Stanley and the organization she founded, Upland Grassroots, have been working with the Mi’kmaq people since 2019 to test fiber hemp as a crop that extracts PFAS from the soil as it grows. The organization, based in Limestone, Maine, is growing hemp on contaminated Mi’kmaq land with the assistance of tribal members.

Monitoring the hemp crop at Upland Grassroots. (Photo by Chelli Stanley)

Monitoring the hemp crop. (Photo by Chelli Stanley, Upland Grassroots)

“My initial interest was cleaning the environment in general,” Stanley explains. “Hemp is known for its soil-remediation abilities. We started working on PFAS, and just as the problem in Maine became evident, we were already looking for a solution.”

“We know that hemp is taking PFAS out of the soil,” says Stanley. “What we are working on now is the breakdown method.”

University of Virginia scientist Bryan Berger works with Stanley on the hemp project. “For the past two years, we’ve done greenhouse testing with hemp to see how much [PFAS] it can take up and how growth conditions affect it,” he says. “It is pretty remarkable how much PFAS you can put in hemp. It is levels that would melt our skin. It seems to have almost an unlimited capacity to absorb things out of the environment.”

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The challenge facing the scientists now is the removal of the PFAS from the hemp plants once they’re harvested. “This year,” says Stanley, “We’re sending samples to the University of Minnesota to test breaking [the hemp] down and turning it into biofuels.”

Hemp as an option for soil remediation has been slow to catch on in the rest of the state. Further studies need to be done and the process of complete soil rehabilitation would likely take several years. But the Mi’kmaq tribe understands the need for a longer timeline.

“This is an area where the air force was spraying PFAs for over 50 years,” explains Stanley, “so it doesn’t make sense that you can pollute for that long and have a solution in a very short time. [Mi’kmaq] Chief Peter Paul said this land will be with us forever, so if it takes a generation or two to clean it, it will be worth it for the people in the future.”

Holding on to Hope

The Maine DEP maintains a map of where the sludge was originally spread and continues testing farms where contamination is a concern. But for now, many of the experts we spoke to say they feel hopeful about what the future holds for PFAS remediation in the state.

“It’s important to realize we have over 76,000 farms in Maine, and the vast majority do not have PFAs concerns.”

“It’s important to realize we have over 76,000 farms in Maine, and the vast majority do not have PFAs concerns,” says McBrady of DACF.

Despite his own farm’s trajectory, Adam Nordell is proud of how Maine stepped up to support its farmers. “We embraced transparency,” he says. “Those who stayed in business won an incredible amount of trust, and several of them have actually grown their sales in the same year they had to stop sales—that’s an incredible success story coming out of a crisis.”

Songbird Farm (Photo credit: Jenny McNulty)

Songbird Farm (Photo credit: Jenny McNulty)

Nordell hopes other farmers, scientists, and NGOs can learn from what has transpired in Maine. “Other states are starting to test,” he says. “They need to be ready with a safety net when farmers discover they have contamination on their land, so people can stay in business.”

The organizations that originally banded together to handle the emergency response to the PFAS crisis have now shifted to searching for long-term solutions. And they remain optimistic that they’ll find them.

In late October, delegates from MFT and the three universities involved in researching farmland will gather in Michigan for the second annual symposium on the Current Knowledge and Application for Agricultural Production of PFAS, where they hope to encourage collaboration and present research on farmland remediation possibilities.

“Academics around the world want to work on this and solve these problems,” says Fisher MFT. “Connecting them to farmers is how we can contribute.”

Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is a freelance writer focused on climate change, sustainability, modern agriculture, and rural lifestyles. She is the author of two books on homesteading and lives in rural Maine with her husband and many animals on a restored farm. More of her work can be found at hostilevalleyliving.com and on Instagram. Read more >

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  1. Pat jones
    We are manufacturing Biochar in Greenville Maine.
    Let us know if we can help.

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