Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis walk alongside one of three greenhouses the operate at Songbird Farm in Unity. The couple has suspended plans to sell organic spinach and other leafy greens from their greenhouses this winter because of the discover of PFAS contamination on their farm. Credit: Kevin Miller / Maine Public

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Lily Carlisle-Reske is an organic farmer and law student at the University of Maine School of Law.

The first I heard of Songbird Farm was two years ago. A friend of mine at a property just down  the road from the farm where I work had been given extra seedlings from Songbird. He offered  me several of their heirloom corn transplants. The leaves were gorgeous and expansive already,  with dark red veins nestled into emerald leaves. In my personal garden they grew to produce  gorgeous, purple kernelled cobs, some of which I saved for seed and the rest I braided and hung outside my door. Last year, I grew even more of the special variety, saving seed again for the next  year.

A few weeks ago, Songbird Farm’s name jumped out at me on another farmer’s social media  post. Their land was deeply contaminated with per- and polyfluroalkyl substances ( PFAS), also  known as “forever-chemicals.” They would have to stop selling their product, halt production  and scrap their crop planning for the season. It was unclear whether their high quality, organic  produce and grain were contaminated.

This group of chemicals has been detected over the past few years, months and weeks on several  Maine farms, wreaking havoc emotionally and financially. PFAS are commonly used in a wide variety of industries, but recent studies have shown that the impact on the human body of high levels of exposure to PFAS can be extremely detrimental, perhaps contributing to chronic disease, lowered immune response and cancer.

For decades, the spreading of combination municipal and industrial waste products has been approved and coordinated by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which promoted the application of waste on farm fields as a nutrient booster for soils. Disastrously, these waste products had high levels of PFAS, levels which remain stubbornly high today in some wells, irrigation systems, fields, and now, farm animals and human bodies.

Last month, I testified in support of LD 2013, a bill recently introduced in the Legislature that would directly address the loss of land, animals, and livelihoods that the farmers affected by PFAS contamination are facing.

I testified for three reasons, all at the intersection of my identities as an organic farmer, a  member of the farming community here in Maine, and a part-time law student at the University  of Maine School of Law.

First, as a farmer, my heart breaks at the idea of finding out that the land you were stewarding,  and the wells you depended on for irrigation were contaminated with toxic chemicals through no  fault of your own. At the idea of having to cull significant portions of a herd, or carry on with  milking chores morning and evening, knowing the milk truck couldn’t come anymore because  my animals’ milk wasn’t safe to drink. I get chills thinking about the farmers I know who have no choice but to “wait and see” if they get sick, and how sick. The emotional heartbreak on top of the headache of financial logistics, from halting operations, to relocating your farm and rebuilding from scratch is devastating. It takes years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice to build a farm, build the soil and build a home. Years are effectively erased by the findings of  PFAS contamination.

Secondly, I was struck by the idiosyncratic legal problem these farmers will face if LD 2013  does not pass. Legal remedies exist but face significant hurdles involving cost, time involved in  bringing such a suit, statutes of limitations, and potential for recovering damages.

Lastly, I testified because the farming community in Maine is unshakably strong. When a manure spreader breaks in Whitefield, a fellow farmer in Kenduskeag is willing to spend the day hauling her old one down, so that the farmer with the broken spreader can finish their work.

When clouds  are threatening Down East after a long day of baling, the neighboring farmers will come over and throw bales all evening, to make sure they stay dry for the winter. When deer inevitably figure out how to get through fencing lines and munch thousands of dollars worth of newly transplanted  lettuce in Albion, there’s a farmer in Rockport with a couple extra seedlings they’ll happily hand over at the next farmers market.  

As a community, however, we can’t fix the problem of contaminated land, wells, food and  bodies. There’s nothing we can loan or give, no feat of manual labor or loss of sleep we can offer to help our fellow farmers finish or save their work. Right now, what we do have is LD 2013,  which I urge our state lawmakers to strongly support — until the cows can come home.