Egide Dostie Jr. leans against a gate while one of his dairy cows waits to be loaded into a truck on May 26. Dostie lost his livelihood when his milk and Fairfield lands tested hot for PFAS contamination. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Egide Dostie Jr.

The fourth-generation farmer leaned against a largely empty barn, a stunned look on his tanned face, as five tractor-trailer trucks drove away from the Dostie Farm in Fairfield. Half of his herd of 345 Holstein and Jersey organic dairy cows was on board, heading to auction in New York.

It had taken an hour to lead the herd one by one up a makeshift ramp, clickety-clack, into the trailers.

“That sure was quick,” Dostie said, shaking his head. “Our family has worked a couple lifetimes to build up the farm, to build a way of life that could be passed to the kids. We were doing good, too, until the contamination got us. I thought we’d beat it, but it got us good.”

The 53-year-old was flanked by his 78-year-old father, Egide Sr., his brother Robert and his daughter Elise, a high school senior who had skipped morning classes to enjoy a final cuddle with her favorite cow, #955. Her older brother, Egide III, wasn’t there. He couldn’t bear to watch.

“What in the hell are we going to do now?” Dostie asked. “I just feel so empty.”


Only three years ago, this farmer had it all: a productive herd, a lucrative milk deal, a 940-acre spread with oodles of pasture, and enough profits from the sale of the farm’s development rights to Maine Farmland Trust to buy out his dad and keep the Dostie farm chugging for the next generation.

But that was before the family learned its farm had high levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The toxic chemicals had seeped into the soil and water decades earlier when a long-ago owner had used a sludge-based fertilizer to enrich the fields.

Those so-called forever chemicals would prove to be the Dostie Farm’s undoing.

Dairy cows stand in a holding pen at Dostie Farm before being loaded onto trucks for transportation to New York. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In October 2020, the family’s milk buyer delivered the news: Dostie’s milk was contaminated. It tested well above the state limit for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid – 640 parts per trillion when the state’s limit is 210 parts per trillion. Follow-up tests revealed that one of the wells, many of the pastures and even the Dosties themselves contained high levels of PFAS.

According to state officials, the Dostie Farm is one of at least 49 in Maine contaminated by PFAS from sewage sludge used to fertilize agricultural fields. It used to be a widespread practice, permitted by the state as a way to recycle municipal biosolids – and it still goes on in many parts of the country.

This large group of synthetic chemicals known for being resistant to water and heat can be found in common household and industrial products, from makeup to firefighting foam. It can be harmful to humans in trace amounts and has been linked to slow fetal growth, immune suppression and cancers.


The state is now investigating about 1,100 sites where state records dating back to the 1970s indicate sludge spreading was permitted. It’s a slow process: After a year, Maine has tested 182 sites, less than 20% of Maine’s known sludge-spreading locations.

So far, the results aren’t great. About 23% of wells exceeded the state’s interim drinking water standard (20 parts per trillion of six known PFAS chemicals). The soil at 39 farms exceeded the state soil screening level to grow hay or corn silage (6.4 parts per billion of PFOS – perfluorooctane sulfonic acid).

Contamination has so far driven four farms, including Dostie’s, out of business, according to information compiled by state agriculture and environment officials in response to questions for this story. The number of contaminated farms is likely to grow as this first-in-the-nation investigation of sludge sites lumbers on.

PFAS contamination is only the latest threat to an industry that has struggled with market volatility and financial pressures for years. About 20% of Maine dairy farms have closed in the past five years. The 200 that remain employ 4,700 people and pump $900 million into the economy.

Their economic role is such that just a week after Dostie Farm closed, Gov. Janet Mills joined with Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal to kick off the annual celebration of Maine Dairy Month by raising a glass of cold milk on the lawn of the Blaine House.

“Dairy farms are a cornerstone of Maine’s agricultural industry, of our rural communities and of our economy as a whole,” Mills said. “Whether you prefer milk, ice cream, cheese or yogurt, there’s a delicious Maine dairy product for everyone.”


Most of Maine’s dairy closures can be blamed on the same problems that plague all U.S. dairy farms: fluctuating milk prices, shifting consumer preferences, more competition, and the rising costs of electricity, feed, fertilizer and bank loans.

Given how hard it can be to keep a clean dairy afloat, many farms refuse to think about PFAS, much less pay hundreds of dollars to test for it. One of every four farms approached by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry has rejected or ignored the request, officials say.

The state can test a farm’s milk anytime it wants, but it can’t force the farm itself to submit to PFAS testing.

When milk produced by a neighbor’s farm tested positive for PFAS, the Maine agriculture department asked Dostie’s milk buyer, Stonyfield Dairy, to test Dostie’s milk, too. The company doesn’t normally test the milk it buys for PFAS, a company spokeswoman said – neither state nor federal regulations require it.

Dostie said he agreed to Stonyfield’s testing request knowing the buyer had a right to test what it was buying without even telling him, much less getting his OK. He wasn’t worried. He had not spread any sludge on that land. He ran a clean dairy. Everything was going well for a change.

Pigeons fly over Dostie Farm in Fairfield as Elise Dostie says goodbye to a Holstein before the herd is loaded onto trucks for transportation to New York. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Dosties rode an emotional and financial rollercoaster for two and a half years. Once the positive test came back, the state ordered them to dump the milk – their only source of income – while they looked for answers. It took 11 months to rid the herd of forever chemicals so they could resume sales.


That made the Dostie Farm one of Maine’s rare PFAS success stories, proof that a farm could recover after testing hot. But it came at a steep price. The family had to install a $40,000 water filter and buy feed to replace the contaminated hay and silage they could no longer grow on tainted fields.

Still, that wasn’t enough. Federal law requires organic dairy farms like Dostie to put their cows out to pasture where they can lead healthier lives. They hunted for workarounds and tried turning wooded patches into pasture, but couldn’t cobble together enough untainted grazing land near the barn to support their dairy cows.

The state eventually reimbursed the Dosties for the filtration system and some testing costs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Stonyfield covered some of the losses when the Dosties had to dump their contaminated milk. But no one knows how to remove PFAS from soil, at any price.

Without enough clean pasture, the Dosties realized their farm would no longer qualify as an organic dairy. To keep it, they’d have to shrink the herd to about 80 animals, close to a quarter of its former size. They would also have to move their milking barn or truck the cows back and forth to graze.

Without organic certification, their milk couldn’t fetch the high prices needed to pay down their $800,000 farm debt and cover their business expenses, especially if they couldn’t grow their own feed anymore or let their cattle graze.

The Dosties don’t want to give up, but they’ve tried other ways of farming their land – and those didn’t work. They used to run a conventional dairy operation, but price fluctuations left them unable to plan for the future. In 2013, they switched to beef, but soon that market was as volatile as milk.


In 2017, the Dosties struck a deal with Maine Farmland Trust to become what the organization calls a “forever farm.” They sold the development rights to the property and put a conservation easement on it in exchange for a cash payment they used to convert to an organic dairy.

It was the start of a new era of prosperity: The Dosties were finally making enough money to invest in the farm – installing comfort stalls for the milking cows, for example – and knock $75,000 a year off their debt. That ended with the discovery that a previous owner had spread PFAS-tainted sludge as fertilizer across many of the farm fields, back at a time when the Maine Department of Environmental Protection was telling farmers it was safe.

From that day on, the Dosties plowed through their savings while they searched for solutions to their PFAS problem. In 11 of those months, they had no income at all. Every new thing they tried came at a price. Reimbursement was slow, when it came.

Egide Dostie Jr. directs his herd of dairy cows toward a gate where a transportation truck awaits on May 26. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In 2021, state lawmakers created a $60 million fund to help PFAS-impacted farmers. Dostie hoped it would help him. Perhaps it could cover the cost to move his milk barn next to his clean fields or help him find a clean grazing area nearby so he could keep his certification and herd size intact.

But his hope dimmed in January when fund organizers told farmers at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show that they hadn’t finished crafting rules on how to divvy up the money between testing, remediation, farm research, health monitoring, farm conversions and state buybacks of contaminated farms.

Dostie stood up during the public comment period, publicly acknowledged for the first time that he’d tested hot, and begged the committee for help so he wouldn’t have to close. He didn’t identify himself, but all the farmers in the room knew who he was.


“Before the PFAS situation hit us, we had been shipping milk on the organic market for five years, and finally we were doing well,” Dostie said at the time. “Now I’ve lost my livelihood, which I love, and my children’s future, which we had planned and had been our dream our whole lives.”

He ended with a plea: “We sincerely request your support to help us recover from this devastating loss.”

Maine Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal has vowed to help Maine farmers hit hard by PFAS in any way possible. Fewer than 1% of Maine’s 7,500 farms have been impacted so far, but the threat to even a small number of Maine farms poses a threat to the state itself, she said.

“The closure of any farm due to PFAS contamination is tragic because every farm is important to our agricultural community and our state,” Beal said. “Few have had to close. That doesn’t mean others won’t have to … but the PFAS Fund is poised to soften the economic impact.”

Dostie quickly realized the PFAS Fund couldn’t move fast enough to bail out his farm. Even if all goes as planned, fund payments will not begin until this summer, at the earliest. And big-ticket items like farm conversions and buybacks could take even longer.

That doesn’t mean the PFAS-impacted farmers haven’t received financial help from the state. To date, the agriculture department has paid about $2 million to 17 farms to reimburse for wages and livestock lost to PFAS, testing and filtration, and viability grants to buy replacement feed, build greenhouses or change crops.


The Dostie Farm has received $177,924 in viability grants and $39,381 for the new water filter system, state records show. Most of the viability money went to buy clean feed to replace the corn silage, hay and pasture grass from the fields that were no longer safe to feed the cows, Dostie said.

The family began making plans to sell the herd after the trade show. On May 27, the Dosties gathered in the stands at a New Berlin, New York, auction house to watch the herd get sold off, one by one, to 15 farms from around the country. It took six hours. The average price was $1,500.

The family will use the auction proceeds – minus a 10% commission and a $16,000 truck fee – to pay down that $800,000 debt. Dostie Sr. will retire. Bob Dostie is logging. Egide Dostie III is now a truck driver. Elise will attend the University of Maine in the fall.

“I grew up knowing my future was here, on the family farm,” Elise said. “It’s hard to walk away.”

Dostie Jr. is toying with the idea of taking another shot at raising beef cattle, which wouldn’t require as much pasture. He plans to ask the PFAS Fund to pay the conversion costs. He has to find ways to reduce his debt, not grow it.

From left, Steven James, Elise Dostie, Robert Dostie and Egide Dostie Jr. watch as dairy cows are loaded into a truck on May 26. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Given his location on the electrical grid, Dostie could convert the property to a solar farm. He is talking with a solar developer about the idea, but he doesn’t know if the conservation easement on his property would allow a solar panel installation on what is supposed to be a forever farm.


The land trust that oversees the easement, Maine Farmland Trust, is sympathetic to the idea of allowing PFAS-impacted farmers to transition to solar if they cannot find a way to keep farming, noting that solar panels could be removed if scientists one day figure out how to rid soil of PFAS.

But many easements are funded with state or federal taxpayer dollars, either through the Land for Maine’s Future or with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and those dollars are intended to prevent the non-agricultural development of working farmland.

The trust says it will be up to the Maine Attorney General’s Office to decide if a solar installation would violate the terms of a conservation easement. A spokeswoman said the attorney general does not discuss hypothetical situations. The matter would likely be decided in court, she said.

Most conservation easements require the owner to keep the soil healthy. Critics say runoff from solar panels could lead to soil erosion, and panel leaks could contaminate the soil below. Solar supporters say the shade that panels offer keeps the ground below cool and moist.

Dostie said he will wait to see if the PFAS Advisory Fund Committee will fund a farmer willing to embrace solar, at least in those areas of a farm where PFAS has rendered the soil unfit for food crops or livestock, before he digs in on the limits imposed by his conservation easement.

“It’s not like solar is my first, second or third choice,” Dostie said. “But this land, it’s all I’ve got.”

A week after the auction, the revolving milking parlor was still, its production monitors dark. Gone was the squelching sound of work boots tromping across the muddy barn floor; it’s now a bone-dry dust yard. Even the telltale ammonia smell of penned-up milk cows is starting to fade.

With his barn mostly empty, Dostie Jr. isn’t farming anything anymore. He awakes at 3:30 a.m. out of habit, ready for the morning milking that isn’t going to happen. He wonders if it’s too early to mow some fields. He wants to keep the property neat.

“I just don’t know what to do with myself,” he said. “People tell me to enjoy myself, to make the most of not being so tied down. But what does that mean? Farming is all I’ve ever known, all I want to do. What’s a farmer if he’s got no farm?”

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