Financial relief for farmers hit by toxic 'forever chemicals' may be included in farm bill

June 18, 2024, 6 a.m. ·

Jason Grostic's cattle poke their heads out
Jason Grostic's cattle poke their heads out on a snowy February day in Michigan. Grostic has been caring for roughly 150 cows since the state shut him down in 2022 over PFAS contamination. (Adam Miedema, WCMU)

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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.

Jason Grostic, a Michigan farmer
Jason Grostic, a Michigan farmer, said he was on track to run a fully self-sufficient operation and open a storefront to sell his beef before PFAS contamination turned his world upside down. "We were going to be pasture-to-plate, we were trying to be those people," Grostic said. "And it never happened, and it never will." (Adam Miedema, WCMU)

“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.

A bucket holds name tags of cows
A bucket holds the name tags of all the cows that have died since the state of Michigan shut down Grostic's farm in 2022. He says the state gave him "respectable" money to purchase his cattle, but it's not a "settlement" for his livelihood. "(These animals) should have been taken to the stockyard, should have been processed, it's a whole lot of different things," Grostic said. (Adam Miedema, WCMU)

So far, Jason Grostic is the only farmer in Michigan to have been shut down. Although he doubts he’s the only one affected by contaminated biosolids, the state of Michigan calls it an isolated incident.

The state said because he was selling directly to consumers, the chemicals were more highly concentrated in his products, but there are no federal or Michigan food safety standards for PFAS in agricultural products.

Grostic said a safety net would have been a “game changer” for him.

He is currently in the middle of a lawsuit against the manufacturer that released PFAS into the wastestream. Grostic has also opened his farm up to researchers in hopes that more science can guide solutions for recovering contaminated farms.

“Why does corporate America get to walk away and farmers get the shaft?” he said. “It’s wrong — farmers aren’t doing this to themselves.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.