Oct. 6—Maine Farmland Trust has purchased a highly contaminated organic vegetable farm in Unity with plans to turn the 45-acre property into an outdoor lab for researchers studying the impact of forever chemicals on agricultural production.
The farming advocacy group bought Songbird Farm last month from Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis for $380,000, according to county records. The couple had been farming the land for seven years when they discovered in 2021 that their soil, well water and blood had high levels of PFAS chemicals.
"I'm grateful that my family can start to move on with our lives now," Nordell said in a written statement about the sale. "It is still very, very sad to know that the land we farmed was so fundamentally violated by the sludge spreading."
The first tests at Songbird found high levels of contamination in the well water, and then in some of the crops. They considered only growing and selling crops that tested for safe levels of PFAS, but the final domino fell in early 2022 when tests of family members' blood showed extremely high PFAS levels.
"We loved that place," Nordell said. "Maine Farmland Trust is giving the farm a new life. Maybe it can't produce food anymore, but it can still produce information that serves the broader farming community."
The contamination at Songbird Farm was the result of sewage sludge fertilizer a previous owner spread on the farm years ago. The tainted soil posed a health risk that forced Nordell and Davis to close the farm. They now advocate for other farmers whose land is tainted by forever chemicals.
Maine is halfway through its review of 1,100 sites where sludge was used as farm fertilizer. It has found 49 farms with high levels of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a group of chemicals linked to slow fetal growth, thyroid disease, liver enzyme alterations and cancers.
As of June, the results weren't great. About 23% of the wells exceeded the state's interim drinking water standard (20 parts per trillion of six known PFAS chemicals). The soil at 39 farms exceeded the state soil screening level to grow hay or corn silage.
Maine Farmland Trust had helped Nordell and Davis find Songbird Farm. Its FarmLink program connects new farmers with retiring ones to help keep working farmland in production. The couple bought the farm from a retired Colby College biologist.
When Nordell and Davis approached Maine Farmland Trust with the idea of buying back the farm it had helped them find, the group saw an opportunity to help PFAS-impacted farmers and advance long-term scientific research in a national agricultural problem, trust President Amy Fisher said.
"Maine's prime agricultural soils are a finite resource," Fisher said. "It's not acceptable to lose our soils and farms to contamination."
Maine Farmland Trust is now seeking agricultural researchers who want to test hypotheses outside the lab and learn how contamination and potential remediation and containment strategies affect soil and crops under real-life farm conditions.
Research on the effects of PFAS contamination could reveal what types of agriculture will be possible on contaminated farmland, while remediation and containment research can contribute to possible decontamination and return the land to agricultural uses over the long term.
The state is hammering out its process to buy farms impacted by the PFAS contamination that resulted from its licensed sludge spreading program and for the establishment of farm-based PFAS research demonstration sites as it implements its $70 million PFAS relief fund.
The five-year plan to help Maine farms survive the fallout has an estimated $80.6 million price tag, including $30.3 million for financial support to farmers, $21.5 million to buy contaminated farms, $11.2 million for agricultural research and $7.3 million on medical testing and monitoring.
Maine Farmland Trust partnered with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to provide cash grants to help keep the first contaminated farms afloat, helped shape the state's PFAS relief fund and lobbied for federal help for PFAS-impacted farmers in the U.S. Farm Bill.
The first Maine dairy farms that discovered PFAS in their milk as early as 2016 had to suffer through the situation largely on their own, hunting for a source and then a solution to the contamination before they ran out of money, gave up and closed their doors.
But in 2021, when a second round of farms, including Songbird, began to announce they, too, had found high PFAS levels, groups like Maine Farmland Trust and MOFGA stepped in to help farmers while the state came up with its plan to help.
YEARS OF UNCERTAINTY
Nordell and Davis now work at Defend Our Health, a PFAS advocacy group. His family faces years of uncertainty, with PFAS exposure levels hundreds of times higher than the level considered to be dangerous. It could take 20 years before PFAS levels in his blood return to safe levels.
Nordell's blood had about 3,500 nanograms per milliliter of PFAS. His family tested at similar levels. One nanogram per milliliter equals one part per billion, which is equivalent to about one drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
PFAS are a group of over 9,000 manmade chemicals used since the 1950s in industrial and household products like waterproof clothes, nonstick cookware and firefighting foam. Studies show that PFAS is linked to cancer, kidney malfunction, immune suppression and pre-eclampsia.
Their long-lasting carbon-fluoride bonds break down slowly, making them durable and highly resistant to heat, corrosion, water and stains. They build up over time, in the environment as well as in people. They can be found in rivers, eggs, deer, breastmilk, blood and even rain.
Over half of the 5.2 million tons of sludge produced in the U.S. each year is applied to farming fields or forests, often for free or far below the price of chemical fertilizers. Before PFAS, it was seen as a win-win, saving farmers' money and closing the waste recycling loop.
In 1997, at the height of Maine's sludge spreading days, the state sent 48% of its 267,000 tons of sludge to farmers to be applied to the fields, turned 38% of it to compost, and buried the final 1% in a landfill, according to state Department of Environmental Protection records.
By 2021, the sludge numbers had flipped: Maine buried 82%, composted 11% and spread 6%. In 2022, after a string of farm closures, Maine became the first state to ban all sludge recycling. Some states, like California, ban sludge landfilling and require it to be spread to reduce methane emissions.