By Rosanna Bauman
It’s raining! It’s a nice steady drizzle that makes all the farmers with soybeans sigh in relief. It will probably delay the corn harvest a bit, but we really needed this rain for the fall grass growth and the soybean production. In Kansas we speak of rain in two ways: How much we need rain, and how glad we are to get it. There’s nothing quite as refreshing, I think, as the smell of rain. It seems to be a smell that everyone can appreciate-that delicate blend of moisture and dust, sky and earth. Folks in the city though, may not appreciate the smell of rain as much since it just stirs up city smells that are better off forgotten. Country-fresh air is much touted by those who live in the jungles of steel and asphalt, but do they know what all country-fresh air entails? Sure, there is the clean air free from smog, the fresh energy of green growing things, and the earthy smell of the soil and the warm scent of animals. But we also have the smell of wet, wooly sheep and dogs, we have horse apples, cow pies and rabbit raisins, there’s rotting grain, compost piles, and all manner or other smells that come with the birth and death of growing things.
Farmers need to have selective sniffers. They need to have a nose delicate enough to detect the smell of a ripe melon yet selective enough that the smell of animal waste is bearable. I can tell the minute I walk into a barn or room if there are mice around. I have a mouse sniffer born of a deep-seated disdain for mice. One of the first things I do when I check on the baby chicks is sniff the air. I can tell if even just one chick out of 400 has died by a certain smell in the air. This is extremely useful because marauding cats and rats will hide their kills, and if you can’t sniff them out, you don’t know that you have predators. A farmer’s good sniffer can save lives. We use our noses to check the grain and silage for mold or spoilage. Feeding spoiled grain to our livestock could kill them.
Honestly, taking a “nose-tour” of a farm is a very intriguing thing. It’s one of the senses that we neglect the most. A lot of people do know how beautiful farms can be, and what sound a cow makes, and how a tomato tastes, but how many have a clue about how a farm smells? This might sound a little repulsive, (who wants to smell cow manure?) but it really isn’t. Do you know how wheat kernels smell? They actually have a smell, somewhat floury and earthy. What about a fresh picked pear? To smell is to see in another dimension.
There is only one odor that I have smelled that truly made my stomach heave, but it was a stench created when something wasn’t operating on a hot day, so I wouldn’t mark it down as a typical farm smell any more that you would ascribe a sewage issue as a typical scent in a home. But I do know, without question, what is the worst naturally-occurring smell on a farm. That is a turkey vulture! As a farmer, I have smelled a lot of terrible odors, but none compare to the stench of vulture vomit. A vulture has an even worse-smelling diet than a dog does, and everyone knows how a dog’s breath smells! I suppose that vultures are a necessary stench of life, because they do dispose of the unwanted carrion.
The most surprising smell on a farm? A cow’s breath. If it’s a grass-fed cow that hasn’t been eating grain, her breath will smell sweet, like hay and grass and silage. It’s a lot better than a dog’s! The next question is, naturally, “What is the sweetest smell on a farm?” There is no one single winner, and there is no way to list all of the scent competitors. Who can say whether s strawberry’s syrupy fragrance is superior to a chick’s downy aroma? What ranks higher: the perfume of a wildflower or the comforting smell of sawdust? Which is more important: the smell of rich soil or the scent of rain?
Odors are surprisingly relative. Half of the things we would classify as a stink are simply new smells that we are not accustomed to. Burnt cookies wouldn’t smell so bad if we actually liked them blackened. Sweat used to be the scent of a hard worker, now folks relate it to poor hygiene. I was driving home the one day when I thought I’d put the theory to the test. Hanging my head out the window, I breathed deep. I smelled the tar on the asphalt and the diesel fumes of a passing truck. There was the sweet, dusty smell of a drying hayfield and the grassy, milky smell of a dairy farm. Then I passed a farm pond and caught a whiff of the moist, fishy scent before it was crowded out by the alkaline smell of the dust from the limestone graveled road. As each scent reached my nose, I sniffed appreciatively and though of the nicest things you could say about that scent. I was temporarily stumped, though, when I drove past the spot where a skunk had just sprayed. The most positive thing I came up with was to think, “Aahh, the nice citrusy (?!) scent of skunk!” It was a little stretch of the imagination to get that, but it worked amazingly well, just because it was so silly. Now, when I smell a skunk, I think of the ridiculous association I made of it with citrus fruit, and instead of reacting in a negative way to the smell of skunk, I am now amused. We were given our sense of smell to help us notice and appreciate the little things in life. Get outside my friend, and start sniffing!