The Best and Worst Smells On A Farm


Pat Leuchtman brought up an interesting subject when she reviewed my book, “Holy Shit,” on She reminisced about her early experiences on the farm and how much she liked the smell of cow manure in the barn when she was a child. Lots of us agree with Pat but it has been awhile since I’ve heard anyone praise the smell of manure right out loud. It got me to thinking about the subjectivity of nasal sensations. I wonder if you, dear reader, would agree with my list, below, of the worst and best farm smells, or if you have riper candidates.

The worst farm smells:

1. A bucket of decaying potatoes.
2. An egg so rotten that what remains inside the shell is just a rubbery, almost dry remnant of yolk.
3. Liquid manure slurry from factory hogs fed with a high soybean meal protein supplement. When this manure is being stored in underground pits, the odor will lay you out prostrate on the ground.
4. Buzzard vomit. I don’t know this from experience but my father always said this was “by far the worst smell God ever created.” If you are innocent enough to approach a buzzard nest, this might be your fate.
5. Rotting plant residue on a cabbage field after harvest.

The best farm smells:

1. Wild grape blossoms
2. Good quality hay curing in the mow
3. Freshly-turned, rich, moist soil
4. Air filtering through a woodlot in the spring after a rain shower
5. Blooming apple trees over an orchard floor of white clover.

The odor of barn manure after it has been soaked up and mixed with straw bedding and aged a bit is not offensive to me. It smells like money. As I try to show in my book, high quality manure is going up in value. That’s because commercial chemical fertilizer prices are skyrocketing. It takes about eight to ten tons of barn manure to fertilize an acre of corn adequately and its enriching qualities tend to build up over the years so that less becomes necessary. The cost of commercial fertilizers for an acre of corn is around eighty to a hundred dollars and rising. A cow produces annually about 20 tons of manure with the bedding, so as a replacement for commercial fertilizer on corn, that yearly output is worth something like $200. And that does not count the value of the organic matter in the manure. Agronomists haven’t figured out just how much organic matter is worth in dollars and cents. It is priceless.

But here’s the interesting thing to me. The more the manure pack ages and breaks down into humus, saving its plant nutrients from leaching or washing away when spread on the field, the better it smells to me. Would an agronomist allow me to say that the more my nose likes the smell of manure, the more it is worth?

This kind of evaluation works both ways. In my nose’s opinion, fresh runny manure from cows on a ration high in corn silage or from hogs deriving most of their protein from soybean meal, smells repugnant— much worse than cows on high quality hay instead of corn silage, or hogs being fed alfalfa meal for their protein instead of soybean meal. The corn silage and soybean meal diets produce chronic loose bowel conditions that can’t be healthful. Dare I say that the less offensive the fresh manure smells to me, the healthier is the colon from which it exits?


On our place the best smell is when the apples, crabapples and lilacs all bloom at the same time. The worst is the duck pen after weeks of rain. Sometimes the smells are competing to see which is the strongest- the good or the bad.

best: fresh mowed hay (mostly alfalfa)
worst: calf scours

Best smells: Lilacs on a warm spring day, oriental lilles in full bloom by the patio, blueberry blossoms. Worst smells: rotten brussels sprouts stalks in the spring and rotten potatoes. One of the smells I especially wait for every year is the wonderful scent of just tasseled corn. It brings the hope of a bountiful harvest and the beginning of real summer in my garden.

Worst: the skunk I shot by my back door. For weeks. Even now when it rains.

Best: Corn silage. May never smell it again but it was awesome as a kid.

For me, the best smell award is a toss up between apple blossoms and lemon blossoms. The lemon tree lives half the year inside the house, but I hope that doesn’t disqualify it as a farm smell up here in Massachusetts. It’s actually in full bloom right now in front of the large window in the family room. Ahhhhh!

There is no more heavenly fragance than that of the plum blossom.And the worst odor is that of slightly aged road kill-especially when I am out jogging and have to breathe deeply!

I slaughtered some roosters this morning, and found the smell of their guts slightly repulsive…. I don’t think it compares with the smell of a rotten egg, though. The best smell is the smell of a ripe apple just picked off the tree. For some reason my heart seems to quicken– perhaps in anticipation of the bite!

I love the smell of my goats in rut…and a skunk on the road. What is wrong with me?! Did you know that one in every thousand is physiologically incapable of smelling the scent of a skunk? I feel so sorry for that one. On the other hand, I hate the smell of hay at the bottom of the feeder after it gets wet and sits a little, oh my gosh, sends me running every time.

Your father was right about vulture vomit. It is an unholy smell, though I guess you can’t expect anything different from an animal that eats rotting carcasses.

I would add ripe strawberries, warm in the sun, and bonfires of “clean” wood/brush (I burn my wild blackberry clippings) to the list of “good smells”, and dead rat in a drain pipe to my list of “bad smells”. Compost that hasn’t cured properly before being spread has a pretty undelightful odour also. Your article and the comments make some fun reading!

Wonderful wits. Wonderful noses. I knew you guys and gals wouldn’t let me down. It is so much fun writing for you. Gene

Oh golly.. we had a hen lay a nest that went bad and that was a horrible smell. And it took us forever to find where it was – we followed our nose for sure. Our pigz got a powerful stank – even with their natural diet. The beez hive started to smell bad when they starting taking up the ragweed pollen (kind like old gym socks).

I like the smell of the hen house – but not the turkey house (or meat chickens for that matter). And I like the smell of tomato plants.

My favorite smell? The good earth.

thetinfoilhatsociety November 4, 2010 at 8:44 am

Goat during rutting season. Has to be on the list as one of the worst smells EVER. Love little kids, can’t be around daddy when he smells without retching violently.

I agree about the smell of manure being a statement on the health of the body passing it. Believe me as a nurse, I get my fair share of humanure smells and I would have to say that based on my experience, most of our population is a hospital visit waiting to happen.

Great conversation starter – in some circles at least.

Among the worst of my life was a large pile of moldy soybeans. A neighbor had rented the grain bin and piled them up by the side of the bin when he hauled them out. I assumed he was coming back to clean up his mess. He didn’t and they started to rot. I’ve never smelled buzzard puke but I suspect there are strong similarities except this was a hundred bushel pile of buzzard puke. It was horrible. It actually peeled off the galvanized surface of the bin where it was piled against it. Kind of put a damper on the relationship with that neighbor.

Among the best are the large old lilacs that we have around the house. A warm, slightly damp, spring breeze wafting the scent of lilacs makes you want to live forever.

An alternative title to Gershon’s diet book might be “My shit don’t stink”

Not literally related to farming… but it should be as farming is life and life is farming. The smell of breastfed human baby poop is not offensive in the least, especially to the mother… a formula fed baby on the other hand, a foul smell indeed!

Best smells: wild blackberry blossoms; the mint patch down where the big pond runoff flows; the scent of our stallion when you lean on his shoulder to chat. Worst smells: diesel exhaust (I suppose that’s technically not a “farm” smell but it still stinks); cow burps-even if she is grass/hay fed; the dog poop you just tracked into the house and which is now ground into the carpet!

Oh, yeah … one more bad smell. Blooming buckwheat. As for good smells … Cooking maple syrup in the spring and wild grapes might make the top!

Boy, will you get a lot of responses from this. We ALL have our worst smells. Mine include finding a rotten onion in the crate, the maple water we let sit in the pans over the summer to “clean” them out, and, yes, the rotting cabbage in the field! But this year we planted a ground cover called “Groundhog” which is actually a daikon radish (actually one of the best-tasting one we’ve ever grown!). I fear when these fields freeze and rot we may have to move out of the County for a while!

In Michael Pollan’s book, the Botany of Desire, smell and taste are certainly indicators of what is healthy. So if someone tells me to eat shit, I’ll ask for a smell of it first.

I love the smell of skunks in the distance. Especially just at the point you can feel it in the nose. A mild smell of manure is nice. The feedlots in Lamar, CO are horrible.

In my taste tests of soil, soil with almost no taste seems to be the healthiest. Soil with a good taste is alkaline. If it tastes sour, it’s probably too acidic. I don’t use manure, so I may change this habit if I start.

I’ve noticed that since I’ve started eating almost all organic food, my shit has a better smell and isn’t so runny. What works for cows probably works for people, too.

Maybe a good title for a diet book would be “Keep your shit in shape.” It would come with odor analyzer to give an early warning of any dietary problems and to report the results to the guberment so they can tax you on your emanations.

Great piece! When I was maybe twelve I managed to get “sprayed” on my temple by a skunk, so that would be my entry for worst smell. I might add, it also gets you on a lot of shit lists. I can’t argue with the good smells, but three weeks ago I was spreading cider pressings on our garden, and my landlady came out and thanked me for how I was improving her air quality, and she brought a bag of oatmeal/raisin cookies for me, warm from the oven. Life is good!

I love the smell of cow manure, mostly because I spent so many years visiting my grandparents in England who lived in a tiny village, just down the way from the farm where my grandfather worked. Yes, they were hay-fed, and often, the smell sends me right back to waking up with the birds, listening to a lowing cow who just had her calf taken away. The air was fresh and pure (i.e.: no smog) and there was no lovelier place on earth. Yes, the farm is still there, but my grandparents are not, so there’s no reason to visit anymore; my cousins are scattered far and wide. England may be a tiny country, but gas is just as expensive.

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