Two agricultural groups have created an emergency relief fund to help Maine farmers who have pulled their crops, livestock and food products off market shelves while testing for elevated levels of so-called forever chemicals.

Maine Farmland Trust and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association have raised $255,000 from several regional foundations to create a short-term financial safety net for the impacted farmers. The fund will keep them afloat until the state creates a long-term assistance fund.

“Farmers are now facing a threat that they never imagined when they got into farming,” said MOFGA director Sarah Alexander. “(This) contamination is a threat to the health of the people on these farms, this is a threat to the businesses they have built, and it’s a threat to our food safety.”

The fund will help pay for initial testing on farms that choose to do their own, rather than wait for the state to complete a years-long survey of potentially contaminated farms, and offer short-term income replacement for those the state identifies as having contaminated wells or fields.

To be eligible, applicants must prove they derive at least half their income from farming.

Forever chemicals, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl compounds, are long-lasting chemicals with a unique ability to repel oil, grease and water. They can be found in industrial products like firefighting foam, and common household items such as stain-resistant carpets, waterproof clothing and non-stick cookware.

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The state has estimated it will spend at least $20 million a year on its PFAS investigation of more than 700 properties where potentially tainted sludge was spread on fields as a fertilizer. This state-licensed farm practice dates back to the 1970s.

That estimate doesn’t include income replacement or farm buyouts, which the state has said it will do.

Applications for testing grants will begin on March 1, but the groups have already started helping out the first few farmers who have pulled their products out of circulation after lab tests showed their wells have been tainted by forever chemicals.

Farmer Nell Finnigan of Ironwood Farm in Albion, who stopped selling her winter greens after tests came back showing elevated PFAS in her farm wells, just got her first assistance check. She used the money to pay her employees and a few bills.

“I don’t know what we’d have done without it,” Finnigan said. “As farmers, you know to put money away to help you get through the winter, the hard times, but nobody could plan for something like this. And I have no idea when it will end.”

Indigenous growers will be prioritized when awarding the testing grants, organizers said. This particular kind of contamination has hit Wabanaki communities especially hard – contaminated leachate coming from a landfill in Old Town has contaminated the Penobscot River, they said.


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