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Financial Relief for Farmers Hit by Toxic 'Forever Chemicals' May Be Included in Farm Bill

By Teresa Homsi

Biosolids are a cheap, nutrient-rich fertilizer that have been applied on millions of acres of farmland across the country, but toxic “forever chemicals” are creeping their way into the fertilizer. A proposed federal provision aims to better protect farmers from PFAS contamination.

Elsa, Judy Hopps and Holy Smokes were just some names that adorned the tags on Jason Grostic’s cattle. He said naming the cows had always been a family tradition.

“My son comes down here at least every other day to pet them,” Grostic said. “Toby and Rockin’ Robin — he always calls them, ‘my best buddies.’”

But without warning, his livelihood was devastated when the state ordered him to shut down, citing high levels of PFAS in his beef and soil. Grostic has been using a treated sewage byproduct – known as biosolids – to fertilize his crops, which he then fed his cattle.

But the wastewater plant, which sourced his biosolids, was receiving contaminated water from an auto parts supplier. Toxic “forever chemicals” slipped through wastewater treatment and ended up in his fertilizer.

“There’s no mention of chemicals that will destroy your land, your cattle or yourself,” Grostic said. “... As a farmer, I have never intentionally wanted to poison my cattle or my land because it is my livelihood.”

Some farmers are now calling for expanded financial protections in the next farm bill that would help producers like Grostic get back on their feet. The U.S. Senate has now included a PFAS farmer safety net within their proposed farm bill framework, which would fund ag programs for the next five years.

“Two years, I fed these cattle under this seizure notice with zero income from my livestock, from my ground, making money off odd jobs, and for what?” Grostic said.

Testing and setting a limit on PFAS in biosolids is now the rule in Michigan, and other states in the Midwest are slowly following suit or awaiting federal guidance. But it’s been more than two years since Grostic was shut down, and he’s stuck on the brink of bankruptcy with roughly 400 acres of contaminated land.

“This is gonna be an issue that we can't ignore moving forward because we're learning more about it every day,” said Sarah Alexander, the director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

After her home state uncovered more than 70 farms with PFAS contamination, Maine set aside $60 million to support these farmers.

Alexander said the proposed PFAS relief act, introduced by members of Maine’s congressional delegation, would create a $500 million federal grant program within the farm bill that states could access and distribute to farmers affected by contamination.

“They're going to be offered an opportunity to have their farm bought at fair market value, so that they can start over somewhere else,” Alexander said. “And then other farmers (in Maine) have been able to get that direct income replacement and pivot their businesses.”

While PFAS in food may still be considered an “emerging” issue, Alexander said the scope could be massive, and states need federal support. Most wastewater plants don’t treat for PFAS, and biosolids have been applied on millions of acres across the country.

The association has also threatened to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if the department fails to implement federal standards on how much PFAS is allowed in biosolids.

“We're hopeful that having a safety net in place will allow states to start being a little more proactive,” Alexander said.

After being pushed back last year, the farm bill process is still in its early stages, but Alexander said it’s significant that the PFAS relief provision is being considered.

“The farm bill process is long and will inevitably result in compromises, but we think this is something that has universal support,” she said.

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