Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell, who own Songbird Farm in Unity, sold their farm to be used for research after finding out that their land was contaminated with "forever chemicals." Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

A Unity farm that made national news when PFAS contamination shut it down was purchased by the nonprofit Maine Farmland Trust, which said Friday that it is looking for partners to study the so-called “forever chemicals” on the property.

Songbird Farm may be the first in Maine to serve as a model for farmers to sell PFAS-contaminated land in the future, including potentially to the state. 

“Maine’s prime agricultural soils are a finite resource, and it’s not acceptable to lose our soils and farms to contamination,” Maine Farmland Trust President and CEO Amy Fisher said. The trust bought the land with its own funds.

The farm’s owners, Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis, had been growing 4 acres of vegetables and 15 acres of grains on their 45-acre organic farm for about half a decade until 2021, when they discovered that their soils, well water and their own blood showed high concentrations of PFAS chemicals.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention ran blood tests on Nordell and Davis that showed they had estimated PFAS levels at around 250 times the level of the average American. The well water tested at 400 times the state’s recommended threshold for contamination.

The PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been strongly linked to health problems such as liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer. The contamination likely occurred when the farm was licensed for the spreading of sludge in the early 1990s, the farmers said.

Songbird Farm in Unity sits inactive after owners Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis discovered “forever chemicals” called PFAS in the property’s soil and water. The Maine Farmland Trust has now purchased the property with a plan to make it available for research that explores long-term remediation solutions. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Farmland Trust

The trust wants to attract research partners interested in exploring the effects of PFAS contamination on agricultural production and soil remediation.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry has launched a $60 million fund to address PFAS contamination on agricultural land and help farmers who have been exposed to dangerously high levels of the chemicals. Nordell said he is grateful that the PFAS fund will provide a path for other farmers with contaminated land to sell their property to the state. He and Davis have since moved off the land. 

From left, Maine Farmland Trust Vice President and CFO Kristin Varnum; the previous owners of Songbird Farm, Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis; Maine Farmland Trust President and CEO Amy Fisher; and Maine Farmland Trust Vice President of Programs Adam Bishop in Belfast at the closing of the organization’s purchase of Songbird Farm. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Farmland Trust

“It is still very, very sad to know that the land we farmed was so fundamentally violated by the sludge spreading,” Nordell said. 

The trust is co-organizing a series of academic research conferences to foster collaboration on PFAS across state lines. That includes a multi-day symposium at Michigan State University on Oct. 22-24 and a daylong regional meeting at Colby College on Nov. 7.

Nordell said PFAS is a national problem, but farmers in other areas of the country aren’t getting the help they need and are going out of business.

“Maine is creating a model that should inform how other states and the federal government can work together with the non-profit community to help protect farming communities from ongoing toxic exposure and economic devastation,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated an incorrect last name in a picture caption. It is Adam Bishop.

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...