The smells of a farm

by Sherrie Kelly

Perhaps you are not aware, but farms often get a bad rap. In my experience, there are certain pre-conceived notions about the countryside that “city slickers” often have, without having actually faced a farm. Knee high mud, filth, annoying noises, and dangerous creatures and machines name a few. Smells in particular are said to be rampant, filling your nostrils and following you back to your house, your work, or your class. A friend of mine was driving a group of – her words – “sorority girls” out to an area farm; she told me that a key phrase she heard on the way there was that, “Farms, you  know, smell.” I couldn’t agree more.

Ok, hold on. I know that you’re probably thinking, “Wait, you live on a farm. You’re so used to it. Why would you agree?” I am not here to disprove that farms, do indeed, smell. I am here to prove that it is good.

Today I woke up early to visit the pigs for a few minutes before going to class. Those two sleeping beauties; they rushed me as soon as my feet hit the backyard grass. The point is, though, that watching the pigs was not the only thing I was doing. It being a chill November morning, there was an overwhelming aroma surrounding me. It filled my lungs; it was fresh. Hard to describe, this was the crisp, clean scent of cold, frosty air. Ice crystals scattered the ground, and this smell was a sign that winter was here, and not hiding it. A wonderful morning refresher.

As I re-entered the house, Ben moved around the kitchen, preparing breakfast for the house’s community meeting. No scents abound yet, but the kitchen is the place to be when apple cider, apple sauce, or any other apple-tastic products are being boiled and preserved. Heavy and sweet, those beautiful perfumes greeted me often last week. They stood as wonderful signs of preparation, signs that there were enough apples to last us through the winter, and that those living here in January will be able to curl up with a warm cup of cider when the ice-bombs fly. Of course, those apples had to come from somewhere.

While we at the Sustainability House haven’t yet planted apple trees, there are plenty of other food plants around, and one of my personal favorite arenas rich in smells is… the garden! Dirt, soil, mud – whatever you call it (a dangerous, gross, bacteria infested substance, as a friend of mine once did) – it definitely contains one of the best bouquets on any farm. One Thursday, as we scrambled through the rows to discover potatoes, I could smell the pungent soil, the cool rain, and the crunchy spuds that we mistakenly stabbed.  Or, if your nostrils just aren’t digging (no pun intended) the potato extravaganza, how about taking a whiff of another famous root crop, garlic! Have you ever pulled fresh garlic from a garden, only to discover that potent bouquet of soil and mouth-watering allium? The distinct fragrances of an outdoor adventure are not ones to be missed.

And of course, I couldn’t forget the chickens. My excursions this week involved feeding, watering, caring for, and generally hanging out with these lovely creatures, and my olfactory experience was not unpleasant. I have heard so often that chicken coops will smell bad, but I have a tip: If your coop smells so strong that you can’t be in there, something is wrong.  Both chicken houses here consist of a deep litter system, which is one of the healthier forms of bedding. Deep-litter setups encourage constant layering of hay over the last batch of feces and food.  Despite how this may sound, this practice does not actually lead to toxic odors – it leads to excellent bacterial growth. Living in a house with thick layers of mud, poop, and hay also keeps the birds warm. All that bacterial growth releases heat. And any worry of wind blowing up through floor crack is soothed by the six inches of home-grown insulation. So maybe, yes, a teensy bit of ammonia floats to your nostrils. Just remember: Not all farm smells are bad smells.  Besides, have you ever smelled a chicken? Their warm feathery bodies are a bit dusty, but, in my opinion, they smell downright cozy. Those multiple layers of feathery fluff help keep that good smell in.

In addition to animal-centered chores, I emptied the compost bucket and turned the pile this week, something each of us here does on a daily to weekly basis.  One of the main arguments against compost piles in residential areas is that they “stink up the whole neighborhood.” Similar to chickens coops, when maintained in an unhealthy manner, compost piles do stink. However, the compost system here not only doesn’t stink, it actually smells decent. What is key is remembering that underneath those rotting pineapple heads and that moldy block of cheese, there are some magical processes occurring. That old banana? It’s becoming soil!!! How cool is that? Because that compost might include some busted eggshells, it will soon be responsible for that wonderful garden-potato-garlic scent!! (See paragraph six)

So what I’m saying here may sound a little convoluted, but bear with me.

Fresh apple sauce, grass-based chickens, compost piles, dirt, gardens, and root vegetables – these are all signs of sustainability. Hence, the smells of each of these farm components are also signs of sustainability. Ponder this: freshly hung laundry is a more sustainable practice, and smells great.  Laundry dried in a machine is much less sustainable, and causes stinky pollution. I think that in our age of going, going, going, we often overlook beautiful little treasures, such as good smells. Here at the farm, those little packets of fragrance are not overlooked, they actually signify something. They signify a step in a socially, economically, and environmentally healthy, aware direction. So just remember: the next time you get a whiff of homemade bread, think about the broader picture. Wonder at the smells. Marvel at the implications. Chat about the sustainability.