Clayton's Favorite Story of 2022

PFAS Contamination and USDA's Lack of Engagement

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Jason Grostic's cows are tame and relaxed on his small Michigan farm. Feed grown on his farm is contaminated, and he's having to buy feed for the herd he can no longer sell. Grostic filed lawsuits in August against a Michigan auto supplier over chemicals that contaminated the sewage sludge he had applied as fertilizer on his farm. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

Editor's Note:

The turn to winter traditionally has us thinking back over the year that was. Here in the DTN/Progressive Farmer newsroom, we're also prone to look back on the accomplishments, the challenges, and the things that didn't turn out as planned. In that vein, we again asked our reporters and editors to look back at some of their favorite stories from 2022. The pieces range from hard-hitting investigative journalism, to heart-tugging stories of loss, to the fun discoveries that can be found on farmsteads and small towns. We hope you enjoy our writers' favorites, with today's story by Chris Clayton.


OMAHA (DTN) -- Favorite articles are great when you can point to that inspiring young farmer you wrote about, a road trip, a new innovation in the industry, or a great opportunity for farmers.

Sometimes, however, a journalist also has to point out that we don't live in a fairy-tale world.

In May, I wrote about how USDA appears to be ignoring the risks of farm contamination by "forever chemicals" through sewage sludge applied as fertilizer. USDA's press office declined to respond to my request to interview USDA staff, forcing me to file a Freedom of Information Act request to receive some information from the department.

My main article here revolved around a small cattle producer in Michigan, Jason Grostic, who built a local business direct marketing beef from his cattle -- until Michigan regulators told him he had to stop selling beef and couldn't get rid of his cattle either.

"Grostic's 300-acre farm was shut down after Michigan officials concluded his water, his ground, his feed and his cattle were contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances -- known as PFAS, PFOS or PFOA chemicals. The acronyms encompass more than 5,000 various manufacturing chemicals that are created to be more resistant to heat, water or oil. The traits that make those chemicals great for manufacturing have a side effect. They are called "forever chemicals" because they don't break down, but instead remain in the environment and tend to accumulate in soil, water, animals and people," I wrote in my story.

PFAS chemicals have been linked to higher levels of certain cancers such as kidney and testicular cancers, lower fertility in women, higher rates of diabetes, liver damage and problems with immune systems.

PFAS contamination is often found in water systems. States such as Michigan have been finding high volumes of PFAS chemicals in city water and wells. But along with that, PFAS chemicals attach themselves to biosolids such as sewage sludge, which is how farmers in a few states are learning that their soils are contaminated.

When I met Grostic in May, he had been shut down by the state for at least six months. A puzzling aspect of the situation was that USDA wasn't involved in helping out. But Grostic's farm was far from an isolated incident. PFAS contamination has complicated farming throughout Maine -- a state where lawmakers now have banned using sewage sludge on farms. Maine's congressional delegation has been all over USDA asking for help. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to help her farmers.

"We are dealing with a teeny, tiny tip of the iceberg here," Pingree told DTN. "I think, unfortunately, Maine and Michigan are two of the states where we have been responsible and supportive of our farmers and worried about our consumers. So that's why we are moving forward on this, but it's like pushing a boulder uphill to get the sort of understanding and cooperation around the country, or from USDA, to be able to support our farmers."

FOIA records sent to DTN in August from USDA stated the following:

-- PFAS in livestock is an "emerging concern as a source of dietary exposure to humans."

-- There have been relatively few investigations over PFAS in livestock.

-- The Natural Resources Conservation Service does not have any PFAS experts.

-- NRCS policy actually prohibits the agency in assisting with the removal of hazardous waste material.

-- Few studies have been done on safe PFAS concentration levels in soil.

-- APHIS does not have any authority since PFAS is not a disease pathogen.

-- The Department of Defense has taken a greater lead than USDA in providing details on contamination to agricultural producers near military installations.

In October, Maine's entire congressional delegation introduced a bill, "Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act," that would provide more testing for soil and water, blood testing and help farmers relocate if the farm is no longer viable. The bill would also provide some education for farmers and create a task force at USDA to address PFAS contamination nationally.

EPA has declared two widely used PFAS chemicals as hazardous materials -- perfluorooctanoic sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid -- under the Superfund law. But sewage sludge is applied on as much as 20 million acres of land, according to the Environmental Working Group, and so far, USDA has largely stayed quiet.

In the omnibus spending bill that passed Congress just before Christmas, Pingree secured $5 million in the bill to help farmers whose land has been contaminated by PFAS. The law allows USDA to test soils, water and agricultural products for PFAS, at the request of an agricultural producer, as well as indemnify farmers for the value of unmarketable crops and livestock related to PFAS contamination. The law also requires USDA to establish a threshold for PFAS contamination in products.

PFAS contamination isn't going away. They are called "forever chemicals" for a reason.

See, "Michigan Farm Is Cautionary Tale of PFAS Contamination and Sewage Sludge Fertilizer,"…

Also, "EPA to Declare Two PFAS Chemicals as Hazardous Materials, but USDA Quiet on Farm Risks,"…

Freedom of Information Act documents from USDA:…

DTN Field Posts podcast on PFAS…

Chris Clayton can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton