Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell, who own Songbird Farm in Unity, are trying to figure out next steps after finding out that their land has been contaminated with "forever chemicals." Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

UNITY, Maine — In ordinary years, Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis of Songbird Farm in Unity spend the quiet winter months preparing for the next growing season.  But this February, after Nordell and Davis spoke publicly about finding “forever chemicals” in their well water, soil and produce, their focus is elsewhere.

The couple is among the first Maine organic farmers to come forward about PFAS contamination. Now, instead of preparing for the spring planting season, they are propelling themselves into advocacy work.

“We’re really trying to push the policy end of this … That feels really compelling and a good outlet for our anger,” Nordell said. “It’s not an organic issue. It’s not a political issue. It’s health. Nobody wants their kids to be drinking this kind of water.”

In January, the farmers posted an emotional letter posted on their website to inform the public. They also testified before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee of the Maine Legislature, speaking in favor of legislation aimed at closing loopholes in the state’s regulation of PFAS chemicals.

Hearing their voices has been powerful, according to Sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Cumberland, who co-chairs the Legislature’s environmental committee.

“The weight of their story is so incredible. I think we just look at them and think what a courageous couple, to be willing to come today and share this terrifying news,” she said Wednesday. “They’re dealing with terror and trauma. And I think the message is, they are not alone … I get a call at least twice a week right now of another discovery.”

Nordell and Davis believe the contamination happened during the 1990s, long before they purchased the 20-acre farm in the heart of the central Maine farming community. Back then, both the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District and the Portland Water District applied for and received licenses from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to apply wastewater treatment plant sludge on the land.

After “forever chemicals” were discovered at this Unity farm, the farmers have been figuring out their next steps. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Treated sludge, also called biosolid compost, was widely used as a fertilizer. The practice was temporarily halted on farmland in 2020, after it was correlated to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, called PFAS. Those chemicals have been strongly linked to health problems such as liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer.

The water- and oil-resistant chemicals are used in manufacturing to coat clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, cooking surfaces, electrical wire insulation and fire-fighting foam. Starting in the early 2000s, most manufacturers voluntarily removed PFAS from their products. But they are still used in some non-stick cookware and waterproof clothing.

PFAS also have been widely used in the paper industry, and testing that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is doing now indicates that the state’s PFAS contamination problem is closely linked to its papermaking history.

“Farmland is not New England’s toilet,” Nordell said, decrying the practice of spreading the sludge. “This is industrial-level contamination, right here in rural Maine.”

Just in the last few days, two other area organic farms have made public announcements that they, too, have found PFAS on their land. The owners of New Beat Farm in Knox said last Friday on Facebook that some, though not all, of their fields had been spread with PFAS contaminated biosolids in the 1990s. They are able to keep farming on a smaller scale than before.

Meanwhile, the owners of Misty Brook Farm in Albion said that they are temporarily pulling their product from store shelves after their milk recently tested high for the chemical PFOS. Tests of the soil and water from the farm came back clean, they said, and have pinpointed the contamination to hay that had been brought into the farm and that their cows were eating at the time of the milk test.

Farmers like these need help as they navigate the stress and questions that come after the discovery of chemical contamination, Nordell and Davis said.

“That’s why the state needs to step up,” Davis said. “We’ve got to have help.”

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has provided a charcoal filtration system for farms with wells that test above the 20 parts per trillion drinking water screening level and for adjacent property owners with contaminated drinking water wells. Songbird Farm is among those that have received one.

But more must be done, Nordell and Davis said. They would like to ensure that there’s a safety net in place when the next farmers hear they have contamination.

“The one reason I want to keep talking is to support the assembly of the safety net, covering short-term, medium-term and long-term damages,” Nordell said.

At the state level, Brenner said that lawmakers are hoping to pass some farmer support programs that would offer short-term financial support and long-term health monitoring and other support. Some farmers she has talked to, including those with young children or who are pregnant, have PFAS levels in their blood that are higher than the levels found in people who work at chemical plants.

“These are folks who are going to need help monitoring for the long term,” she said.

That’s just part of what she would like the state to do. Ideally, Brenner said, the state could help farmers either pivot their business with a different product mix or create a relocation and buy-back program, so that they can start again on farmland without a history of sludge-spreading.

“We have plenty of clean farmland in Maine,” she said.

Brenner, a farmer herself, said that helping Maine farmers is critical. In recent years, the state has successfully recruited farmers and created programs to help them find land, write business plans and make capital improvements on their farms.

“We’ve done such a good job building the next generation of farmers. The last thing we want is to lose them,” she said. “And we have a history of long-term family farms that have a great heritage and communities that we also don’t want to lose.”  

But for Nordell and Davis, continuing to farm in Maine would be a steep uphill climb. At the moment, they are stuck paying a mortgage on highly contaminated land. And even if they leased clean fields off-site to grow vegetables and the grains they’re known for, their farm’s name now has been connected to toxic contamination. That perception could be very hard to change.

“If we keep farming, how do we tell that nuanced story at this point?” Nordell said. “Maybe what we clung on to when we made our public statement was that transparency is integrity. But it’s hard to see how we get to a future farming situation.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the department that is providing charcoal water filtration systems for wells that have been affected by PFAS.