Homesteaders and small farmers are an optimistic bunch. They have to be.
Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell, who own Songbird Farm in Unity, are seen in this Feb. 10, 2022, file photo. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Homesteaders and small farmers are an optimistic bunch. They have to be. Every season they face challenging conditions largely out of their control from weather events to global economics.

Somehow, many manage to pull it off and end up with enough grown crops or raised livestock to feed themselves and members of their communities.

Looking ahead to 2023, there are three challenges in particular that Maine’s homesteaders and small farmers will face in the new year.

PFAS in soil and water

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, comprise a class of toxic substances that are found in a multitude of everyday items like water, stain-resistant fabric, nonstick cookware and personal care products. They are not easily broken down in either the environment or human body — which earned them the name “forever chemicals” — and research has linked PFAS to adverse health effects, including developmental delays in children.

An unknown number of acres in Maine, including farmland, were contaminated by forever chemicals when municipal sludge was spread as an agricultural fertilizer starting in the 1970s and up until the early 2000s. The chemicals are not going away anytime soon, so growers in Maine need to plan with them in mind.

“I think in terms of PFAS, knowledge is power and knowledge is king,” said Nancy McBrady, director of the agricultural bureau in the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “Homesteading and farming in Maine have such a future, but people need to be aware of and avail themselves of services to respond to and mitigate PFAS if necessary.”

Mitigations came too late for Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis. The soil and groundwater on their organic Songbird Farm in Unity tested positive for the toxic chemicals a year ago. The couple immediately stopped selling their heritage grains, and this week Nordell said he does not anticipate farming the land again.

Nordell, who joined the advocacy group Defend Our Health, specializes in helping farmers affected by PFAS. The group promotes environmentally friendly public policies.

“We need to keep the focus on PFAS,” Nordell said. “We need to work to make sure anyone who is concerned about PFAS in their drinking water or soils has access to testing. You can’t taste it, you can’t smell it [and] you can’t see it and you really need to know if it is there.”

Maine is fortunate to have a number of state and federal testing resources available to growers, he said. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection also has a database pinpointing areas of licensed municipal sludge spreading that can indicate if certain areas should be tested.

Exactly what people decide to do depends largely on their PFAS test results, according to McBrady.

Where detected, PFAS levels can vary in a farm’s water or soil, according to McBrady. The DACF can better pinpoint the danger areas and possible spots where it is safe to grow food through additional testing, she said.

Growers can also plant crops shown to be PFAS-resistant such as corn, grains, potatoes, fruit and root vegetables.

“There is so much clean land in Maine,” he said. “People say PFAS is ubiquitous and it is not — it is definitely too widespread but there is clean land in Maine and people should keep growing the vegetables and animals to keep feeding their families in Maine.”

Rob Johanson, co-owner of Goranson Farm, holds a handful of his best potato-growing soil near the Kennebec River in Dresden on Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Johanson said despite the good earth, he often gets too little — or too much — rain due to climate change. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Variable weather from climate change

Homesteaders will need to be more agile to meet the challenges associated with climate change, according to one of the state’s top climate experts.

“Weather is variable so we are going to have some dry years, some wet years, warmer and colder times,” said Tom Gordon, soil and water conservation program coordinator with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “But there is a general trend toward warmer weather in the future.”

More importantly, there is an active trend of dramatic variability in Maine’s weather with increasing numbers of droughts and heavy rainstorms. A single season in the state can include drought conditions and heavy rain storms, leaving growers figuring out how and when to irrigate or install drainage systems around fields, in addition to new invasive pests, increased disease pressures and unpredictable frost dates.

Melissa Law, owner of Bumbleroot Farm in Windham and member of the Maine Climate Council, has seen this firsthand.

“The inconsistent and extreme weather patterns over the eight years since I’ve been farming make it increasingly difficult to plan for the season ahead,” Law said. “We’re focusing as much as we can on soil health, which helps build resilience to these fluctuations.”

Farmers and homesteaders have always faced weather challenges. Climate change is a continuation of those, making it necessary to monitor their crops and the weather as best they can, Gordon said.

He recommends homesteaders and farmers refer to technical assistance and resources available through agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

In the short term, there are things homesteaders and small farm operators can do now to help mitigate some of those weather challenges and the place to start is on the ground. Law encourages growers to implement practices including no till planting, cover crops, adding compost to boost soil health that produces crops better able to withstand or recover from extreme weather events.

Going into the next growing season, Gordon said the time is now to start planning for any worst-case weather scenarios.

“When you are in the middle of it, it’s too late to plan for it,” he said. “Plan in advance looking at your water needs and what you will do to react to an extreme weather event.”

Rising costs

In 2022, the fixed costs associated with growing food or raising livestock on small farms and homesteads rose 5 percent following a 9 percent rise the previous year, according to the USDA.

In Maine, increasing prices of fuel, seed, fertilizer, machinery, spare parts and labor will take larger bites out of homestead and farm operating budgets.

Much of the blame for these increases can be placed on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions imposed by the United States, freezes in southern seed-producing states and ongoing recovery from supply chain disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The USDA has not yet forecast increases for the 2023 season, but costs are high at the end of 2022. Most farm implements run on diesel fuel, which is currently at $5.56 a gallon in Maine, according to AAA. That is up $2 a gallon from the same time last year. Regular gasoline is also up slightly — less than a cent per gallon — from last year.

The cost of fertilizing crops more than doubled in the 2022 growing season and, while those costs have dropped a bit, homesteaders and farmers will pay more for fertilizers in 2023 than before the pandemic.

In St. Agatha, Alex Zetterman last year scaled back on pig and poultry production on his small family farm due to costs. He was not ready to say it was the worst time ever to be a farmer in Maine, but he said people are finally paying attention to the plight of farmers.

“Some of the biggest things for me is trying to find the stuff that people use every day on farms,” Zetterman said. “Used tractors, new tractors, machines or pipelines for irrigation — you just can’t get them easily no matter how much money you have.”

Still, he plans to stay farming, just like hundreds of other farmers and homesteaders around Maine.

“I don’t think you have to be crazy to get into farming right now,” Zetterman said. “In fact, now may be a really good time to get into it since a lot of people are realizing the benefits of raising food themselves.”

Avatar photo

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.