The owners of Songbird Organic Farm in Unity are pausing sales after learning the well water, soil and produce from their farm have tested positive for so-called "forever chemicals." Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The owners of Songbird Organic Farm in Unity, known for its heritage Maine grains, have stopped sales and pulled their products from store shelves after learning that the farm’s well water, soil and produce have tested positive for toxic substances known as “forever chemicals.”

The contamination likely occurred when the farm and primary lease field were licensed for the spreading of biosolids in the early 1990s, according to a letter owners Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis posted on the farm’s website.  

The biosolids are correlated to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, called PFAS, which have been strongly linked to health problems such as liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer.

At Songbird Organic Farm, the well water tested at 400 times the state’s recommended threshold for contamination, the farmers said.

“We are reeling from this news and are working to understand what this means for the safety of our products, the viability of our business and our health,” Nordell and Davis wrote. “We will be drinking bottled water and doing a lot of research in the months to come. We will also keep you informed as we learn more.”

The presence of forever chemicals has been making headlines recently in Maine, where authorities have been seeking to understand the breadth and scope of the problem that has percolated into the state’s water and food systems.

The PFAS chemicals are used in products like nonstick cookware, carpets, firefighting foam and fast-food wrappers. They are made to be exceptionally strong and resistant to oil and water, so they have a long life span. The chemicals got into the ecosystem when farmers fertilized their fields with municipal and industrial sludge that contained them.

Last fall, state officials issued an unusual “do not eat” advisory for deer killed in the Fairfield area after the forever chemicals were found in the animals. They believe the deer were exposed to PFAS when they foraged on affected farm fields.

Fairfield is one of 34 towns across the state where the Maine Department of Environmental Protection will test for PFAS contamination in the soil and water. The effort will concentrate on sites where industrial waste, sludge and septic tank sewage were spread as fertilizer.

Unity, the home of Songbird Organic Farm, is another town listed as a high-priority testing site.

Songbird Organic Farm in Unity, which is known for its heritage Maine grains, is pausing sales after learning that their well water, soil and produce have tested positive for “forever chemicals.” Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Long before Nordell and Davis purchased their land in 2014, sludge had been spread on the fields. The couple bought it from another organic farmer who had just received a “dire cancer diagnosis,” and decided he wanted to spend his last months with his children, according to testimony Nordell gave this week before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee of the Maine Legislature.

The farmers were among 50 or so people who spoke Monday about two pieces of proposed legislation that are aimed at closing loopholes in the state’s regulation of PFAS chemicals.

Nordell told lawmakers that he and Davis have set deep roots on their land, building new infrastructure and making improvements. In 2018, Davis gave birth to their son, “who lives immersed in the farm and drives tiny toy tractors through the dust in our greenhouse,” he said.  

Late last fall, a customer told the couple she had spotted their farmland on the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s map of licensed sludge application sites.

“We were terrified,” Nordell said.

They hired a private soil scientist to test their well water, soil and vegetable plant tissue for PFAS chemicals, and just before Christmas, all three samples came back positive.

The Maine Center for Disease Control ran blood tests on Nordell and Davis that showed they had estimated PFAS levels at around 250 times the level of the average American.

“What does this mean for our health? What does this mean for our child’s health? Are we willing to put future generations at risk when we don’t know,” Davis said in her testimony. “We can’t keep doing this.”

Nordell said the couple was struggling to see “a path forward for our farmland, our business and for our family.”

“Unfortunately, we are not alone,” he told legislators. “There are going to be more farms and rural Maine residents affected by this.”

Efforts to speak with Nordell and Davis Tuesday were not immediately successful. On their website, they told customers that the announcement is not a product recall but rather a “precautionary product pause while we gather more [information].”

Because of the apparently low risk level, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has advised Nordell and Davis to leave their grain products on store shelves.

“Still, we need to test our own wheat, rye, oats and flint corn before we resume our grain sales,” the farmers wrote. “If you have our products at home, you might refrain from eating them until we learn more.”

They said they understand that PFAS chemicals represent a long-term exposure concern rather than a single exposure risk.

“I can’t tell you how heart-wrenching this is for us to learn and now to communicate,” the farmers wrote. “In a world where we can all buy conventional produce and out-of-state organic vegetables and grains at a cheaper price any day of the week, the one currency we have as local organic growers is our transparency and the trust of our customers.”

It’s hard for them to visualize the future of their farm business right now, they said.

“But if there is a future for Songbird Farm, we think transparency is the way to get there,” Nordell and Davis said.