October 6, 2023
Pictured in photo: (Left to Right) MFT VP & CFO Kristin Varnum, Adam Nordell, Johanna Davis, MFT President & CEO Amy Fisher, and MFT VP of Programs Adam Bishop at the closing for the purchase of Songbird Farm at MFT’s Belfast office
We have some big news to share. Almost two years after Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis of Songbird Farm learned that the soils on their farm were highly contaminated with PFAS chemicals, MFT has purchased the farm property. We plan to make the highly-contaminated property available to research partners interested in exploring the effects of PFAS contamination on agricultural production with an emphasis on soil remediation possibilities.
“When PFAS contamination was discovered at Songbird Farm, we knew that Maine farmers needed urgent solutions to the PFAS crisis – and we also knew that Maine was at the forefront of a national problem that demands investment in long-term research,” says MFT President and CEO Amy Fisher. “Maine’s prime agricultural soils are a finite resource and it’s not acceptable to lose our soils and farms to contamination. So, when Adam and Johanna approached us with the idea to sell the farm property to MFT, we saw an opportunity to build a pathway forward for Maine and other states.”
The Unity property has a long history with a “forever” view for farming. As some of you may remember, in 2014 Nordell and Davis found the 45-acre farm through MFT’s FarmLink service. Envisioning the Unity property as a permanent home for Songbird Farm and their family, Nordell and Davis purchased the property from retired Colby biology instructor and sustainable farming enthusiast Tim Christensen, who had mentored generations of farm apprentices on the land and hoped to see it remain in farming. Maine Farmland Trust simultaneously protected the farm with an agricultural easement to keep it available for farming in perpetuity.
Nordell and Davis operated a successful organic diversified vegetable operation at the farm for almost a decade, before discovering in late 2021 that their soils, well water, and blood showed high concentrations of PFAS chemicals. The contamination was a result of sewage sludge spread on the farm in the years before Christensen purchased it to build his home and vegetable farm. While many PFAS-contaminated farms have been able to shift their business models to mitigate the impacts of the chemicals to their crops and livestock, the severe soil contamination at the site presented an elevated health risk which forced Nordell and Davis to shutter their business and move offsite. The two have since become national figures through their advocacy for statewide and federal policy and research solutions for PFAS-impacted farmers and communities.
“We’re so grateful to Maine Farmland Trust for buying our farm, and to everyone at the state who has been working to help PFAS-impacted farmers find a path forward,” says Nordell. “For some of us, that means a path off of our contaminated farms. I’m grateful that my family can start to move on with our lives now. We’re obviously not the only ones in this situation, and I’m also grateful that DACF’s PFAS Fund provides a path for other impacted farmers to sell to the state if they need to.”
“It is still very, very sad to know that the land we farmed was so fundamentally violated by the sludge spreading,” Nordell adds. “We loved that place. Maine Farmland Trust is giving the farm a new life. Maybe it can’t produce food anymore, but it can still produce information that serves the broader farming community.”
With the purchase of the Unity property, Maine Farmland Trust is seeking agricultural research partners to explore long-term solutions for impacted farmers and farmland. The property offers an opportunity for researchers to test hypotheses outside the lab and learn how contamination and potential remediation and containment strategies affect soil and crops under real-life farm conditions. Research on the effects of PFAS contamination in agriculture can inform what types of agriculture may be possible on contaminated farmland, while remediation and containment research can contribute to possible decontamination and a return to agriculture over the long term.
“Maine Farmland Trust purchased Songbird Farm in order to create the opportunity for a research future there, while advocating for and supporting the development of a state pathway for more farmers with PFAS-contaminated land to sell their properties to the state if they need to. We are grateful for our outstanding partnership with the DACF and DEP, whose support and collaboration have been instrumental in providing relief to impacted farmers like Adam and Johanna. We applaud the state Plan for Administration of the Fund to Address PFAS Contamination, which includes a program to relieve farmers’ obligations to contaminated land, support for PFAS research, and the establishment of farm-based demonstration sites. Although the future holds uncertainties, our State colleagues are committed to navigating challenges with us,” says Fisher.
Maine Farmland Trust staff served on multiple subcommittees to help shape the implementation of the state PFAS Fund, contributing its experience with farmland transactions and supporting impacted farmers. In addition to its partnership with the State’s PFAS response programs, Maine Farmland Trust has partnered with Nordell and other advocates to increase regional and federal support and research for farms on PFAS-contaminated land. MFT has been working closely with Maine’s Congressional Delegation to advocate for a federal safety net in the Farm Bill for impacted farmers in Maine and nationwide who need to pivot their businesses, relocate from highly-contaminated farmland, and to fund critical research.
To build support and engagement for research efforts in Maine and beyond, MFT is co-organizing a series of academic research conferences to foster collaboration across state lines and sectors. A multi-day symposium at Michigan State University on October 22-24 will gather the country’s preeminent PFAS researchers, state and federal policymakers, Tribal representatives, and impacted farmers to share current initiatives and explore new ideas. A daylong regional meeting at Colby College on November 7 will build regional collaborations around research and actions initiated in Michigan and uplift local PFAS research efforts. Nordell will share his experiences as an impacted farmer and policy advocate as a speaker at both conferences.
“The more we dig into the PFAS issue, the more we realize that it is a national problem,” says Nordell. “I do not doubt that there are PFAS-impacted farmers in every state in the country. Farmers in other regions are not getting the help we’re getting here, and they are going out of business as a result. 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 and clean up the food supply at the same time. Imagine what a game changer it would be if that model was written into the 2023 Farm Bill.”
MFT is seeking research partners to utilize the property for agriculture-related PFAS research. For serious research inquiries, contact Danielle Olsen at email@example.com with a brief description of the potential area(s) of focus.
“PFAS chemicals are often referred to as ‘forever chemicals,’ but if we invest in vital research and safety-net support for impacted farms, they don’t have to be. While PFAS contamination has changed the vision of ‘forever’ that we had when Adam, Johanna, and MFT protected Songbird Farm together back in 2014, our commitment to the land’s agricultural future has not,” says Fisher. “This farmland can become a center for the kind of research that we need for the future of all PFAS-impacted farms.”