Why can some farms smell so bad in the spring?

Sniff. Hey, do you smell that?

Consider yourself lucky if you do because it means you’re in farm country. Lucky you say? Uh, you do smell that right? Yes. Yes, I do. Farmers call it fresh country air. Some other folks just smell pew.

It’s funny how a little perspective can change the way someone sees or in this case smells things, isn’t it? On one hand, I’d be hard pressed to find an American who doesn’t want and appreciate what our farmers make for us. Most of us enjoy having beef, poultry, fresh veggies, fruits and of course bacon. On the other hand, you know, the stinky one covered in dirt, sweat and fertilizer, some folks hold their nose to what farmers have to do for us to eat. Doesn’t seem fair does it? After all, I suppose holding one’s nose from time to time in life isn’t the end of the world. I should know, I have four old dogs, but some people believe having to endure the smells of farming is just that, the end of their world.

In 1994 Virginia lawmakers caught wind of how different localities were using, restricting and penalizing farmers for routine farming practices some people  viewed as a nuisance so they created and passed the Virginia Right to Farm Act. According to Trey Davis, assistant director of governmental relations at the Virginia Farm Bureau, one of the reasons Virginia needed its own Right to Farm Act, and yes all 50 states have some version of this law, was because of the increased exposure non-farm folks were having to the sights, smells and noises people who have been around farming for hundreds of years knew were perfectly normal. “Just because someone moves to a rural or suburban area and they don’t like what a farmer is doing doesn’t make it a nuisance,” Davis said.

So why exactly do farmers have to use fertilizers that stink and have animals who refuse showers in the first place? The logic of keeping livestock out of your bathroom might seem obvious, but the annual spring spreading of nose hair-curling fertilizers might not be. So, I asked Dana Gochenour, senior conservation specialist at Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District, to clear the air for us.

“The reasons why farmers use manure to fertilize their fields can vary,” the lifelong sheep farmer said. ” If they raise livestock in a confinement situation, such as a dairy or poultry houses, then the manure is readily available and they have to do something with it anyway.  Manure may be a more cost-efficient alternative to commercial fertilizers.  Manure is also a source of soil-building organic matter, especially if it is mixed with bedding, such as manure from a bedded pack barn or poultry house.”

The smelly stuff is a great fertilizer, but the idea of using it just stinks. Aren’t there better choices? Sometimes, no there aren’t according to Gochenour.

“Most commercial fertilizers lack the distinct odor associated with manure or poultry litter, but may be more costly and lack the soil-building properties of organic sources, “ Gochenour said.

Still, there is some method to the madness of when and how farmers apply manure-based fertilizers to their fields to control the strength of its odor.

“If manure is incorporated into the soil within a few days of application that will both decrease the smell and also increase nutrient availability for the crop,” said Gochenour. “But if the producer uses no-till crop production methods, then their options for incorporating manure are limited because incorporation implies that the soil is being disturbed.”

Another option to manure is the use of bio-solids, but Gochenour said bio-solids are much more heavily regulated and not widely used in this area.

“In most cases bio-solids cannot be applied to the same field(s) more often than once every three years,”she said. “Also, there are restrictions on how closely they can be applied to things like property lines, wells, waterways and limestone outcrops.”

There’s actually quite a bit of science to how manure is used. You see, while manure may sometimes be called waste, to farmers it’s actually a commodity and placed quite purposely. Why? Gochenour once again gives us the scoop on, you know.

“Even manure has value, so farmers don’t just spread it indiscriminately on the fields,” she said.  “Most producers take soil samples on a regular basis so they know what nutrients are already in the soil, and follow a nutrient management plan so that they are not wasting time and money applying more nutrients than the planned crop can use.  That also ensures there are not excess nutrients leaching into groundwater and running off into our streams. The tons of manure applied per acre will depend on soil test results, crop needs, and the quantity of nutrients the manure provides.”

Every time you take a big ole whiff this spring try not to wince. The smells we have in farm country aren’t, by law, a nuisance. What they are in fact is an in your face reminder of the real science of proper soil and water management and proof of the hard work and sacrifice of our local farmers who are trying to give us clean, healthy and sustainable agriculture.

Try living in a world without farming, now that would stink.

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District. Contact him at 540-465-2424 ext. 104 or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.

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