There was a distinct smell in the air

By Rick Houser – 

I have said it before and I will say it again. I was raised on a farm and for that I will always be thankful. Of course the life of the farmer is one of hard work and long hours, but in the end the life you lived there was the greatest. I can say I enjoyed this way of life in every way. Well, almost every way.
There was one chore that couldn’t be avoided or skipped. It really was an important part of how the farm functioned and we might not understood at the time, and even thought it was just something to keep us busy. It truly was one of the most strenuous and stinking jobs a farmer had to do- cleaning the stables.
From late winter to early spring when the temperatures began in the 20’s in the mornings, my Dad would round up all of his pitch forks and hook up a device that looked like a long trailer with beater bars on the back, simply called a manure spreader. To many of the implement salesmen it was refereed to as the “honey wagon”. I am sure this term was used because it omitted anything but the fragrance of honey.
Dad said he thought this time of year was the best time of the year to clean out the stables. With the temperatures between cold and cool, the chore at hand produced fewer odors than in warm weather. This was a job that once the pitchfork was in your hand and you put it to use, every muscle in your body got a workout.
The stables during the winter would fill up with a mixture of straw for bedding and the bodily waste that cattle would give off. After a few months there would be a matted amount of bedding that had passed over a foot or two in depth. With large animals living on this bedding, the straw would become tightly matted. This is where the pitchfork and the muscles were used and used to their max. With this type of labor, it wouldn’t take very long to begin sweating, even if it was so cold you could see your breath. The thing is that no matter how hard I tried to get out of stable cleaning, my Dad would see a way where I could stay and help. Same went for my brother Ben.
When the spreader was full to the brim, Dad would take it to the field. Usually he would go to a tobacco patch to unload his cargo. You see we all throw the term of fertilizer around and think of it as a chemical that will help our plants but manure is the original fertilizer. Since this was a bi-product that we would be stuck with from another farmer’s product, the cost for it was zero So with each load that went back on to our land, the better a crop would grow there. You might say it was simply the first step in the cycle of growing a good crop.
That may have been the high spot in cleaning a stable. All the rest were definitely low spots. Since we raised a lot of tobacco on other farms, we would go to these farms and repeat this chore. Please believe me when I say repeating this was anything but enjoyable. As you worked that pitchfork by prying the matted materials loose and into amounts that you could lift, fork full after fork full and spreader load after spreader load, you might at that time question if the farmer’s life was all it was cracked up to be. Just as the steam rises off of the cattle it would rise off of us. Even though it was cold and the air fresh, the odor was still there. We would just grow accustomed to it after a while.
One thing that gave away where you had been and what you had been doing was the fragrance of your clothing. We wore coveralls and when we got to the house we would immediately take them off, but there was no escaping the aroma completely. It seems to me that we would only work in the mornings as it was cold enough to keep the soil firm to hold the tractor and spreader without them sinking into the ground. When this would happen, our day of fun in the stable was over until the next morning. If it went that way, Mom would have us change out of those clothes completely and leave them in the utility room to wear again on the next trip to the stable.
Farmers weren’t seen in the mornings much and the neighbors that had stopped by in the stripping room or at the house for a cup of coffee and a visit never stopped by the stables, even though they darn well knew where they were. I guess they were afraid that my Dad had an extra pitchfork that they could use while they visited. This was a procedure that took much more brawn than brain, but it was a large part in the process of farming.
After a couple of weeks of this chore and when all those aching muscles began to get back into shape, it helped us be a little more ready for the year ahead. Many farmers had loaders that fastened on to the front of a tractor and would load the spreader much easier and quicker. My Dad, however, felt he had loaders in Ben and our hired hand Webb and me. Either way the manure got from the stable to the fields.
One thing I always thought kind of funny was that even if a farmer never mentioned he was cleaning his stables, we always knew. As you drove past their field they had spread, there was a distinct smell in the air. You can spread it and plow it under but you can’t hide its fragrance.

Rick Houser grew up on a farm near Moscow in Clermont County and loves to share stories about his youth and other topics. If you wish he can speak to your group. He may be reached at