Farms play a critical role in our beloved state. Our rocky but fertile pasture and cropland soils are rich cultural and natural resources. Unsurprisingly, when it was revealed in 2019 that some (less than 1%) of Maine farmland had been spread with sludge containing “forever chemicals” — collectively called PFAS chemicals — a sad and fearful wave of concern rippled through the farming community and across the state. The contamination of good soil that has the potential to grow wholesome food is a profound loss to farmers and all Maine citizens. We need our soil and we need our farmers.

Fred Stone pets Marybell, a swiss limousin calf born in December, at his Arundel dairy farm. Stone’s farm was among the first in Maine to shut down because of PFAS contamination from the spreading of state-licensed sludge. “The contamination of good soil … is a profound loss to farmers and all Maine citizens,” Jacki Martinez Perkins and Annie Watson write. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

PFAS contamination is complicated in many evident ways — chemically, economically and biologically — but we must also consider the social impacts. PFAS contamination is very emotionally taxing for farmers whose land has been or may soon be affected. Farmers build businesses in concert with their land. “Contaminated” is not a word any person wants to hear about their home, let alone the wondrous matrix of life and pulverized rock called soil. The level of cognitive and emotional strain that PFAS contamination places on farming communities should not be underestimated, especially since farmers and farmworkers already experience high levels of stress. Stress in agricultural communities can lead to poor decision making, higher risk of physical injury on farms and farmer attrition. In fact, farmers face higher suicide risk than most occupations. Healthy farmers and farmworkers are crucial for healthy food systems and healthy communities.

We work with a group of nine agricultural service providers from university, nonprofit and governmental entities who joined forces to support PFAS-affected farmers in Maine. Funded by the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in the Northeast, our group focuses on projects that address the well-being of PFAS-affected farmers and improves their access to supportive resources of all kinds. Early on, we advocated for mental health awareness on state-led response teams. We wrote and distributed 1,800 copies (in English and Spanish) of the first pamphlet of PFAS information aimed at farmers in the state. We provided funds for five farms to have their water, soil, forage or milk tested six months before the statewide system was launched. Farmers who participated in this early testing reported that receiving helpful guidance and early testing reduced their stress greatly. We wrote a Guide to Investigating PFAS Risk on Your Farm that has been downloaded over 8,000 times. We have completed an informational brochure that farmers can share with concerned customers.

This important work is funded by the 2018 Farm Bill, which established four regional Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Networks. FRSAN-Northeast, renamed “Cultivemos” (“We cultivate”) in 2021, is a value-driven network, emphasizing collaboration, resiliency and being informed by farmers and farmworkers. The goal of this network is to ensure that agricultural communities have increased options for access to supportive services where they live and where they work. Cultivemos has broadened coalitions, deepened understandings and provided essential resources to support wellness and mental health in Maine’s growing agricultural communities.

This spring, Congress is working to write the next five-year Farm Bill, a notoriously gargantuan and multi-faceted piece of legislation. Cultivemos is the story of how one relatively small apportionment of federal funds reached into Maine and supported a wide-ranging response to the nationwide issue of PFAS contamination.

Cultivemos has uplifted the importance of farmer mental health, an issue often shrouded in stigma. Health and wellness among agricultural communities is essential for the health and success of farms, households and businesses in Maine and beyond.

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