Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, is shown Wednesday outside her Portland office. The organization has helped establish a fund that provides support to farmers who’ve found themselves in financial hardship due to PFAS contamination. Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald

As state inspectors identify a growing volume of land and water contaminated by so-called forever chemicals, there’s a correlating number of farmers, food producers and others who suddenly face the prospect of having not only their homes and families affected, but their business and income as well.

In the past two years, forever chemicals, or PFAS, have been found in items ranging from the milk at central Maine dairy farms to backyard chicken eggs and even some produce.

“This impacts the farm’s water, it impacts their soil, it could impact the products that they’re growing depending on what they’re growing,” said Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “And that also impacts their health and their family’s health because they’re living on the farm, they’ve been drinking the water, they’ve been eating the food that’s coming from there, they’ve been working in the soil.”

There’s a growing need to test animals, produce, water and soil for PFAS but it can be expensive and people often need financial help if they have to pivot their business and keep their family afloat in the meantime. A fund established earlier this year by Alexander’s association and the Maine Farmland Trust helps provide that aid and so far has disbursed over $300,000 to assist farmers.

“There is an added layer for our farmers that are dealing with this, in that their livelihood depends on the land and what they’re able to grow on that land,” Alexander said. “So even though it’s personally affecting them, because they’re living there, it also affects their business and the viability of their business and the future of their business.”

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are a group of artificial chemicals created in the 1940s. The chemicals can repel both oil and water, which has made them useful in a wide variety of consumer products. But they don’t break down in the environment or in the body, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” The PFAS contamination in Maine has been linked to the spread of sludge, a wastewater treatment byproduct.

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The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is working to test sites across the state where sludge was spread, and as testing expands, more and more farms are found to have high levels of PFAS.

The fund has three parts: one to provide money for farmers to test for PFAS, one to provide income replacement to farms with high levels of PFAS and one to help farmers receive mental health assistance as they contend with contamination.

Alexander said money for the fund has come from individual donors, businesses and foundations like the Maine Community Foundation. By early April, $500,000 had been raised for the fund, and over the course of a month $315,000 in income-replacement aid was provided to farmers. Another $30,000 was allotted for testing.

The testing program is meant to help farmers get on top of the problem, Alexander said, instead of waiting on testing by DEP, which is focusing on sites where sludge was spread. On average, the fund will grant a farm $1,250 for testing.

For those farms in needs of aid, the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry refers farms with high levels of PFAS to MOFGA and MFT, and the fund offers weekly payments to help pay the bills while recipients figure out what to do next.

The size of the farms impacted by contamination varies greatly and the amount of aid given to a farm depends on its annual income. So far this month the average weekly payment for a farm is $4,750.

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The state government is working on creating its own income-replacement program, Alexander said. Once that effort is rolled out, the MOFGA and MFT initiative would be used just until a farm is able to get signed up for the state program.

“Every farm is different, and every situation is a little bit different, and those solutions take time,” Alexander said. “And so what we’re doing is creating a safety net for these farmers that find contamination so that they have a little bit more time and a little bit more flexibility with having some income coming in so that they can figure out what’s next.”

The third portion of the fund is focused on mental health assistance and provides $500 grants. It is coordinated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network.

For Adam Nordell, who owns Songbird Farm in Unity with Johanna Davis, the fund provided stability for their family while they figured out how to refocus their business.

“It’s helped reduce our stress load considerably, it’s been an enormous help in a time of great uncertainty and financial stress,” Nordell said.

The pair decided to have the farm tested for PFAS after a customer told them that sludge had been spread nearby, long before they owned the property. Tests for soil and water came back with high levels of PFAS, and the chemicals were found to be present in some of the produce grown on the farm.

After getting results back, Nordell and Davis decided to pull their products from stores, and the income-replacement program gave them time to adapt.

“The level of support that we’ve received from our community has been huge,” Nordell said. “Early on, there was a meal train — people were bringing meals to our door — and people were checking up on us all the time. It’s been pretty incredible, the amount of community and institutional support that we’ve received.”


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