ST FRANCIS, Maine — Winter can’t come soon enough for the residents of a tiny St. John Valley border town who have spent the summer in what could be described as a Grade B horror movie.
Since May, parts of St. Francis have been under invasion by hordes of house flies that have foiled family reunions and prevented most outdoor gatherings on a roughly 10-mile stretch from the town line heading west past the public boat landing.
The town is tired of swatting flies, hanging fly tape and spraying chemical pesticides.
“We really started seeing it in 2007,” said Mary Landry, resident and owner of The Store on Sugar Shack Road. “We had a family reunion and put the food in the garage and that food was immediately covered in flies. It’s been getting worse ever since.”
Residents point to a poultry farm just across the river in Connors, New Brunswick, as the source of the flies.
“I’m ready to send this whole box down to the [Maine Department of Environmental Protection],” resident Karen Gagnon said, showing off a box filled with dozens of fly encrusted strips. “I hang them up at noon and within an hour or so, they are right full.”
Emails and phone calls on the St. Francis fly situation have continued all summer between residents and state agencies, but any real answers aren’t evident yet.
“We talk to the people at DEP, and they tell us they understand our frustration and that they are doing all they can,” Gagnon said. “They claim they are doing something about it.”
Nick Archer, the regional director for DEP at the agency’s Presque Isle office, has been the recipient of most of those emails and calls.
“We don’t deny there is a problem,” Archer said. “We are just having a heck of a time solving it.”
Archer said his office responded to the St. Francis residents’ complaints earlier this summer by sending staff members north to survey the situation along the St. John River.
“We had two of our guys who floated in a canoe down the St. John River and they encountered flies in St. Francis,” Archer said. “After my guys confirmed the presence of flies, I called my counterpart in New Brunswick, and they responded right away getting some issues cleaned up. [But] the problem is still lingering, and we are trying to figure it out.”
The problem, residents say, is the chicken farm across the river and the associated manure which they claim is the perfect breeding ground for the flies.
All calls to New Brunswick’s office of Environment Canada and Agriculture Canada, were referred to their office of public affairs in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
“A poultry specialist from the [New Brunswick] Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries visited [Connors] along with a rep from our environmental department, which had been dealing with [Maine DEP] about the problem,” Valerie Kilfoil, director of communications for the provincial agriculture department, said last week. “Our specialist concluded that the flies were not problematic in the poultry barns [and] the operations were clean and the companies were following proper procedures.”
Kilfoil did say officials observed manure piles in a surrounding field that were a breeding ground for flies, but those piles have been removed, but she was unsure who owned the farm.
On Friday, a representative with Groupe Westco, which operates a number of poultry facilities near Connors, confirmed it was not one of its barns.
“Over the past few years we have gotten complaints from St. Francis [and] fortunately the situation has been of short duration,” Matthew Randall compliance officer with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said last week. “Unfortunately this year there has been a greater intensity of flies over a longer duration.”
While his agency has taken the lead on trying to find answers for those residents, Randall said, “It is really beyond our jurisdiction at this point. DEP has worked closely with our department to see what we can do for the folks impacted, [and] we have been in contact with officials in New Brunswick but unfortunately, they are not seeing the same problem on their side.”
The fact that the source of the flies could be in one country but only affecting residents in another, complicates the issue, Randall said.
On Friday, Kilfoil confirmed her office received zero fly-related complaints from the Connors area.
“It really seems to be clustered in an area in St. Francis in close proximity to an area in Canada,” Randall said. “We went through a scientific process in our investigation, but our jurisdiction ended when the source was not identified on our side of the border.”
His jurisdiction may have ended, but not his interest in finding a solution, Randall said.
“These people are frustrated and are looking for us to do this or that and take care of it,” he said. “It’s just not that simple.”
Killing flies and talking about flies have become the two main St. Francis activities this summer, according to residents.
“You walk around in your house with a fly swatter in one hand and a vacuum in the other to suck up the dead ones,” Gagnon said. “But the more you kill, the more that come to take their place.”
Landry spends most of her day keeping flies away from customers at her store which also serves breakfast and lunch.
“This had definitely impacted my business,” she said. “Who wants to eat pizza while swatting flies away the whole time?”
She pointed to an order of french fries with cheese and gravy placed on a picnic table outside the store. Within 40 seconds, despite efforts to shoo flies away, the food was rendered inedible due to flies landing on and crawling over it.
Less than a mile down the road at Gagnon’s house, a cup of coffee left unattended for a minute on an outdoor bench had flies crawling around the rim and swimming in the liquid.
“My entire life is now spent fighting flies,” Pelletier said. “I spend a half hour before cooking any meal at home killing flies in my kitchen to make sure they don’t get in the food.”
According to Randall, new variables could be compounding the situation.
“Based on the emails I have been getting, the flies are starting to bite,” he said. “The housefly does not bite — it lacks the mouth parts to bite — so if we are starting to see a new, biting fly, there could be some other creature in the mix aggravating that situation.”
In addition, while the root of the problem could well be a poultry facility in Canada, flies easily could be breeding in Maine, thus making a local situation within his jurisdiction.
The trick now, Randall said, is to try to identify possible local breeding areas which could include any moist, damp, boggy area with moist, organic material.
“We do believe a facility on the other side may have played a role in this, and it has steamrolled into what we are seeing now,” Randall said. “I have no reason to believe our department, DEP and our sister agencies in New Brunswick are not putting their best foot forward to find the problem and correct the problem.”
In the meantime, Randall is asking residents to be patient and keep the faith.
“Everyone is really trying to pitch in and do the best they can,” he said. “Everyone has the best interest of those St. Francis residents at heart. We feel for them, we really do.”
Cooler weather is coming, Randall said, and that should knock the flies back for the season.
“But we will not stop trying to solve this mystery,” he said. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to find what is causing this and fix it so it does not happen again.”