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Amy Fisher is the president and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust.
PFAS chemicals are often referred to as “forever chemicals” — but they don’t have to be forever if we invest in research to discover ways to remediate contaminated farmland and establish safety net supports and business pivots that keep farmers whole and in farming. As the Legislature prepares to hold its June 12 public hearing on the draft plan for the $60 million PFAS fund established last year, we have the opportunity to implement solutions that advance the future of farming in Maine.
Maine Farmland Trust has participated on three of the four PFAS fund advisory subcommittees to create draft recommendations for how the fund can be used. Our PFAS response has been guided by several core principles:
Maine needs to do right by farmers. These are the people who feed us and drive much of Maine’s economy, and they are being affected by decisions made decades ago, over which they have no control. They are not at fault, and we need to help them stay in farming wherever possible in order to reach our statewide food security, climate and economic development goals.
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Maine does not have so much high-quality farmland that it is acceptable for us to lose any of it to contamination. In a state that is already losing up to 10,000 acres of farmland a year to a variety of development pressures, we must act and invest now so that affected farmland can return to agriculture in the future. Currently, soil remediation solutions do not exist — we must invest in research to create those solutions.
PFAS-impacted farmers need an easy-to-access safety net. While PFAS contamination is a serious threat, in many cases farmers can keep farming if they have the time and resources to make necessary pivots — and navigating this safety net should not be an added stressor.
Along with the key health care supports for impacted farmers included in the draft plan, these proposed recommendations provide a vital pathway for Maine’s farms to emerge from this crisis:
Establish supports to give farmers time to make the changes they need to remain in business. Farm business pivots and infrastructure changes take time to implement. By providing income replacement funds, compensation for infrastructure investments and PFAS-related operational costs, loan assistance, marketing support, relocation support and free technical assistance — with “navigator” staff available to guide them through these resources — farmers will have the means to adapt when they are unable to operate their businesses as normal.
Release farmers from debt obligations to contaminated land so that they can move forward with farming in new locations, and compensate farmers who want to stay on their land with payments to take contaminated land out of production. With broad eligibility to receive compensation from the state for the purchase or long-term rental of contaminated farmland, farmers will have the freedom and means to move forward and stay in production in a way that works for them. In turn, state-owned contaminated land can be used for solar energy production or to establish on-farm PFAS research stations that facilitate the discovery of remediation solutions and inform farm management decisions.
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Establish a competitive PFAS research grant program and on-farm experiment stations to explore the effects of contamination and remediation possibilities. Remediation research is in its infancy, and we must invest in this research now so that we can see viable and affordable remediation solutions within the next few decades.
Farms are critical to Maine’s economic development goals, our climate action plan and our food security targets. Maine has led the nation in responding to PFAS contamination by rallying to support farmers affected by PFAS, and our local food is safer and healthier as a result. Moving the draft implementation plan forward will do right by farmers, advance our plans as a state, and continue to position Maine as a state leading the way in prioritizing safe, healthy and local food.