American Agriculturist Logo

Brendan Holmes says his farm has been turned upside down after he discovered his milk and feed had high levels of PFAS compounds.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

April 25, 2022

6 Min Read
cows gated in pasture
CONTAMINATED COWS: Earlier this year, Brendan Holmes tested his Jersey cows’ milk and found high levels of PFAS compounds. For more than a month, he stopped selling raw milk and other products from his Albion, Maine, farm until he bought new cows. Photos courtesy of Robin Kerber

In a span of only a few months, Brendan Holmes’ thriving raw milk, meat and organic vegetable operation in Albion, Maine, has been rocked by fears that the products he sells may have harmful levels of forever chemicals in them.

"I didn't find out about these forever chemicals until last summer. It wasn't really something that was on my radar," says Holmes, who farms nearly 500 acres of owned and rented land, raises 150 head of cattle, and milks 80 Friesian sheep.

In a normal year, Holmes’ Misty Brook Farm grosses more than $1 million in sales. But for most of February and March, he didn’t sell a single product from his farm or in stores. That’s because he pulled all his products after tests came back showing very high levels of per- and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) in his cows’ milk and meat, as well as in the forage they were eating.

Holmes’ relationships with his customers are key to the continued success of his farm, and he felt it was necessary to bite the bullet and stop sales until the issue was straightened out.

"If you're in the direct-marketing business, you need to pull everything and only put it back on the shelf when everything has been tested and you know it's fine," he says. “I cannot run the risk of having to pull it two months from now and finally get my test results back and finding out, 'Oh that beef you've been consuming for the past two months has been contaminated; you can't eat that either.’ I'd rather pull everything, get good test results back and then put it back on the shelf.”

After adding up all the lost sales from his raw milk, beef and pork products; the contaminated hay that he couldn’t use; overhead costs that he couldn’t cover; and other costs, Holmes estimates that he’ll lose about $500,000 this year.

He says that a PFAS Emergency Relief Fund set up by Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has helped keep his farm afloat for the past couple of months, but it hasn’t covered all his costs.

His costly tale is part of the larger issue over PFAS compounds in soils and groundwater, and its potential impact on farms.

What are PFAS?

PFAS are manmade chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products — nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant carpets — since the 1950s.

They are referred to as forever chemicals because of their long-term persistence in the environment, especially around airports and military installations where PFAS compounds are often found in foam used by firefighters.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PFAS compounds are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in the environment.

Some scientific studies have linked PFAS compounds to higher incidence of certain cancers, high blood pressure and other diseases, but the Food and Drug Administration is vague as to what serious diseases could be caused by short- or long-term exposure to PFAS.

Finding the source

Not long after another farm in Unity, Maine, revealed that its soils had high levels of PFAS compounds, Holmes says his customers started asking him if his products were being tested for PFAS.

Holmes says that he tested his soils and didn’t find anything unusual. But when he tested his milk and forage, he says he was shocked. The milk, which he paid $500 to get tested, was more than three times the state’s recommended PFAS limit of 210 parts per trillion.

Although Holmes puts his cows on grass and raises most of his own feed, he still needs 1,600 bales per year to get through winter. About 300 bales came from a nearby farm that he later found out had biosolids applied to it for decades, and the soils there, he says, tested very high for PFAS. The source of the biosolids, he says, was a wastewater treatment plant that took in waste from a nearby paper plant.

He got his forage tested at a Belfast lab that writes USDA nutrient management plans and has a soil health lab. Holmes was told that normal PFAS levels in forage fall between 1 and 5 parts per billion, but his forage came back at 45 parts per billion.

He voluntarily pulled all his products from stores, and stopped selling meats, eggs, sheep’s milk and other products. For most of February and March, he was all but shut down while waiting for tests on his eggs and other products.

He got weekly checks from a PFAS Emergency Relief Fund set up by Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, but it hasn’t been enough to cover all his bills.

“If it wasn’t for them, I would be insolvent,” he says.

The state has proposed a $100 million indemnity program that would help farmers affected by PFAS contamination. Holmes says that he is hoping for money from the state to get his farm back on track.

Since shutting down, Holmes says he is slowly bringing the farm back. Earlier this month, he got a loan from a bank to buy 32 cows from another farm so they could start producing milk again. The cows, Holmes says, were tested for PFAS before he had bought them.

Brendan Holmes with one of his Jersey cows

STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE: Brendan Holmes says his farm may lose up to $500,000 this year as a result of not being able to milk his Jersey cows, and having to discard his animals’ feed and stored meat.

The original cows he still has, and Holmes says that he intends to “milk them out” for six months to ensure any PFAS compounds are out of their system, then put them back in the herd.

He’s also selling eggs again after a test came back negative. A group of his pigs also came back negative for PFAS, so he’ll have some pork to sell soon. But he says much of his inventory of pork and beef, nearly 5,000 pounds, will be thrown away.

And he’s still not selling milk from his 80 Friesian sheep as he is trying to milk those animals out first before selling milk.

Holmes says he has heard of about 40 other farms that have had issues with PFAS. He has between seven and 10 full-time employees.

His message to other farmers: “If I had a message for any farmer out there, I would tell them to take a sample. Test.” he says.

PFAS resources in Maine

According to University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection will be conducting soil and groundwater sampling for PFAS at 700 sites in the state that were licensed for land application of biosolids.

The first group of sites will be sampled by 2023 with the goal of all sites being tested by 2025. This will be done at no cost to landowners.

Also, if a farm is identified as having been “PFAS impacted,” the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry will conduct and pay for testing of milk, surface water, feed, soil, crops and livestock (postmortem).

The interim level for PFAS in water is 20 parts per thousand. Extension says that the ag department can install water filtration systems for farm wells that test above that limit.

Steps to determine farm risk

PFAS mitigation options

Understanding PFAS pathways

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like