Dear County Agent Guy

Smelling the seasons

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Weather permitting, our dog, Bella, and I take a walk every day. Her job is to run ahead and scout for strange scents while mine is to tag along behind and superintend.

One might think that there wouldn’t be anything for the dog to sniff out at this time of year, when the snow is deep and the countryside seems as lifeless as the far side of the moon. But, Bella invariably catches the scent of something interesting to dig for in the drifts and often emerges from her snowy excavations with a field mouse. So much for the mouse’s best-laid plans.

No rodent redolence ever reaches my olfactory orifice, so Bella’s scent-ability is obviously far superior to mine. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy all things fragrant during our perambulations.

In the early spring, the breeze carries the aroma of warming soil as the land awakens from its long wintertime hibernation. The earthy essence of rotting marsh weeds wafts up from the slough as redwing blackbirds warble from their perches on dead cattails.

Planting season brings with it the wondrous perfume of freshly turned earth. Manure, Mother Nature’s organic and aromatic fertilizer, is also being hauled and spread upon the land. I don’t like to brag, but I can easily discern — blindfolded! — if a specific manure has been produced by hogs or cattle or chickens. Not that there’s a huge demand for this particular skill, mind you.

Haying season soon arrives. There’s nothing that says summer like the heavenly aroma of freshly cut alfalfa curing beneath the smiling June sun.

In my experience, cutting hay all but guarantees that rainclouds will soon begin to boil up on the horizon. The afternoon sun warms the land, creating thermals that loft gigatons of water vapor up into the atmosphere. Ginormous knobs of popcorn appear in the distance, clouds that can quickly mushroom into stratospheric thunderheads that nearly reach low earth orbit.

A summer thunderstorm might surf in on a glowering, blue-black scud cloud. The swift passing of the scud is heralded by a sudden shift in the wind and a sharp drop in temperature. These forerunners herald the news that it’s about to rain.

Incandescent pitchforks of electricity leap from the clouds, producing thunder that’s loud enough to be felt in your teeth. The cool, sweet scent of rain fills the nostrils. Each raindrop whispers the promise of a lush growing season.

The heat of summer is soon upon us. Bella begins to disappear during her forays into the cornfields; the emerald plants are now growing as fast as Fourth of July skyrockets.

It’s been said that you can hear corn grow on hot summer nights. My auditory abilities have never been sensitive enough to detect this, but the aroma of rapidly growing corn is unmistakable. Its syrupy perfume hints at the astronomical amounts of sunlight and water that are being converted into sugar.

Late summer brings the dusty scent of golden windrows of oat straw roasting beneath a blistering midday sun. The smell of new straw reminds me of hot, itchy, sweaty afternoons spent stacking bales in our barn’s stifling hayloft.

Autumn slips in like a thief. During my dog walks, I begin to detect the sharp tang of mature smartweed wafting up from the lowlands. The ripening corn and soybeans each add their own particular fragrance to the olfactory palette.

In the cool of a still autumn evening, the musty aroma of mushrooms and rotting wood might drift from our grove. The combined fragrances of ripening crops and old wood reminds me of how corn and oak can work together to form that pleasing product known as bourbon.

As Bella races down the rows of amber corn — feverishly chasing a wily pheasant — the brittle stalks rattle as if an elephant were dashing headlong through the field. Stealth is not Bella’s strong suit at this time of year.

The days shorten and winter arrives, locking away my scent landscape underneath an icy white shroud. The only fragrance that reaches my nostrils during our walks is the tangy smoke from a neighbor’s woodstove. For some reason, I find this aroma deeply comforting.

Back in our house, I might opt to create my own smell-scape by baking a loaf of homemade bread. Few things are finer than the luxurious perfume of fresh bread coming out of a hot oven on a cold day. Warm bread and hot coffee can infinitely improve even the gloomiest midwinter day.

I’ll slice the bread and melt some butter on it and toss a piece to Bella. Together, we’ll enjoy this simple treat and daydream about catching our first whiff of spring.

Jerry Nelson is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry works for Dairy Star as a staff writer and ad salesman. Feel free to email him at [email protected].

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