Farmers facing PFAS pollution struggle for solutions

By Shannon Kelleher

When Jim Buckle and his wife, Hannah Hamilton, started their 18-acre organic vegetable farm in Unity, Maine more than a decade ago, they wanted to grow the healthiest food possible. But after a wholesale buyer asked them to test their operation for toxic chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in 2022, the couple was in for a shock.

The soil tests came back clean, as the couple expected. But Buckle’s heart sank when the results arrived for the well water they used to wash and irrigate their vegetables. Through no fault of their own, the farm Buckle and Hamilton had carefully cultivated for nearly a decade was contaminated with PFAS-laced sewage sludge that had been used as fertilizer on land nearby years earlier.

Faced with evidence that their harvests were also likely contaminated with potentially hazardous PFAS toxins, he and Hamilton made the decision to close down their farming operations, at least temporarily, as they wrestled with how they might clean up their farm and protect it from future contamination.

“We said, ‘wow, this is crazy. We actually have this problem,’” Buckle said.

About a year earlier, first-generation organic farmers Katia Holmes and her husband faced a similar crisis on their 700-acre Misty Brook Farm in Albion, Maine, where they raise livestock and grow grains. In their case, the well water was fine, said Holmes. But testing of their cows’ milk – and the hay they bought from a neighbor to feed the cows – came back with elevated levels of PFAS.

Further testing revealed that a previous owner of the Holmes’ land had spread sewer sludge on certain fields 20 years ago, leaving behind PFAS in the soil.

“We called all the stores and pulled all our products,” said Holmes.

Buckle’s and Holmes’ stories are, sadly, becoming more common.