Fred Stone hasn’t been able sell his milk since November 2016 because his longtime buyer said it was too contaminated with so-called forever chemicals.
But to the federal government, it isn’t contaminated enough to qualify him for a disaster aid program that’s supposed to pay farmers whose milk is polluted through no fault of their own.
And now, Stone says, he can’t afford to keep testing his milk, at $600 a pop, to show it’s either sufficiently contaminated for federal aid, or cleaned up enough to get back the Maine state dairy license he lost last year.
“I’m going to be running out of feed in the next four weeks,” Stone said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
It’s yet another blow for the 63-year-old dairy farmer who’s become a face of the yet-unknown damage to the nation’s food supply from the thousands of related chemicals known collectively as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Stone’s Stoneridge Farm is the first dairy farm in the U.S. known to be shuttered due to PFAS contamination from sludge he spread as fertilizer.
Stone stopped spreading sludge 15 years ago. But perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), the type of PFAS chemical detected in his milk, and others like it, remain for years in the bodies of people and animals, and they don’t break down in the environment. That means they continue to foul the milk of cows and heifers that graze the land.
The chemicals, used to make products as diverse as airplane braking fluid, semiconductors, kidney dialysis machines, and food packaging, are linked to increased risk of cancer and other diseases.
Eligible to Sell, But No One Buying
Maine’s contamination standard for PFOS or a similar chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in commercially marketed milk is 210 nanograms per liter. That “action level” determines when a dairy farm’s milk shouldn’t be sold, said Nancy McBrady, a bureau director in Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
Maine is the only state known to have set a limit for PFAS in milk. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with the Food and Drug Administration to determine a threshold for PFAS in milk in other states on a case by case basis, said Peter Cassell, an FDA spokesman. There is no federal standard.
Stone said the contamination levels in his milk were high enough to get farm aid, and help cover his expenses, in January and February 2019, after the Maine agriculture department pulled his license. But the most recent sample Stone sent to the USDA registered at 187 nanograms of PFOS, too low to qualify for the department’s Dairy Indemnity Payment Program.
“Your milk is eligible to be marketed commercially,” USDA said in a letter Stone received last month.
USDA doesn’t make its decisions based on the market, said David R. Lavway, executive director of the department’s Maine Farm Service Agency, which managed Stone’s aid request.
“We have nothing to do with whether somebody will or won’t buy milk,” he said.
Soon after the state revoked Stone’s license to sell milk last year, Oakhurst dairy in Portland, Maine, formally ended its dealing with Stone’s farm, declaring, “We had no choice.”
Stone this week said the obvious: He can’t sell milk no one will buy.
“The public doesn’t care what the number is,” he said. “They just don’t want to buy contaminated milk.”
Art Schaap, owner of Highland Dairy in Clovis, N.M., also can’t sell any milk because his cow’s water is contaminated with PFAS from uses at the nearby Cannon Air Force Base. He’s gotten aid from the indemnity program and is grateful for it.
But he’s angry that both he and Stone have had their livelihoods taken from them. Industries and the military that released these chemicals into the environment need to be held accountable, Schaap said.
Federal agencies are “not doing their jobs. They’re kicking the can down the road like this problem is going to go away,” he said. “This stuff just doesn’t go away.”
“The milk industry does not want this in their milk, period,” Schaap said.
“It’s unreasonable to expect a farmer who has lost their business because of PFAS contamination to come up with thousands of dollars for testing just to get disaster relief,” she said.
Pingree, a former farmer and member of the House Agricultural Committee, is exploring legislative and other remedies that include reimbursing farmers who have to pay for PFAS tests and lengthening the amount of time farmers could receive payments, an aide for her office said.
Designed for farmers dealing with short-term cleanup problems involving chemicals and pesticides, the USDA dairy program limits payments to 18 months, according to a June 2019 update of the regulation covering the program.
The federal program is a good idea but expanding it might improve it, McBrady, from Maine’s agriculture department, said.
States and, hopefully the federal government, will also have to invest a lot more money to test PFAS concentrations in food, water, or other materials, she said.
Maine’s PFAS Task Force is expected to issue its policy recommendations later this month, and those could include suggestions for how the state may help farmers, she said.
Meanwhile, Stone is appealing USDA’s denial.
The USDA could revise its decision if he submits test results for every month he seeks aid and if those test results document that the contamination in his milk exceeds Maine’s 210 nanograms per liter action level, Lavway said.
If Stone could monitor and document that he can consistently maintain a PFOA or PFOS concentration beneath that level, he could get his dairy license back, McBrady said.
But that takes money Stone doesn’t have.
Stone’s church, the Second Congregational Church in Biddeford, is hosting a GoFundMe page for him. To church Rev. Cat Anglea, Stone and his wife Laura are being punished by state and federal authorities for telling the truth about their PFOS contamination to the government and to the company that used to purchase the Stones’ milk.
“They have been treated like this is their fault,” she said. “It’s been heartbreaking to watch them go through this.”
As he runs out of money to care for them, Stone has had to kill 40 of the 90 cows he had last August.
Some, like one named “Weed,” nuzzle into his hands and follow him around the farm like loyal Golden Retrievers. He calls his remaining animals “cow families” because he knows their ancestors.
As to the last 50 cows, he said: “What am I supposed to do? Which ones do you want me to shoot? I can’t do that. I just can’t do that.”