Driving southbound from Fresno on Highway 99, a visitor might get the impression that the region is a mixture of light manufacturing, ag related sales and service companies, and grape vineyards.  As our friendly traveler continues down the highway, orchards of walnuts and other fruits and nuts would start making their appearance, with some of the highway fencing sporting blue signs identifying the crop.  Every few miles, a small town beckons travelers to stop for a range of services, from old style hamburger stands and 50’s era motels, to modern fast food joints and shiny new convenience stores.   In the springtime, the aroma of the surrounding fields and orchards would lead one to suppose the area an agricultural shangri-la, a wonderful place to spend time.   A little further down the road, however, and that idyllic dreamworld suddenly turns into an olfactory nightmare…

Leaving Fresno County, one makes a gentle left turn to cross over the Kings River.  When the river is running in the spring and early summer, the scene is one of pleasant afternoons spent rafting, boating, and enjoying thrilling jet ski adventures on a stretch of the river running from Reedley to just past the freeway at Riverland.  A pleasant looking ranch on the west side lulls the passing motorist into a sense of serenity, which is only intruded upon by the occasional traffic commotion common to any major thoroughfare.  Cruising past the rest stop, one makes a gentle curve to the right.  If you’re looking off to the southwest, you might notice a dairy, nestled among the stone fruit trees lining the Historic 99.  Once you make that curve however… it hits you.

The smell.

Welcome to Tulare County.  We are the nation’s #1 dairy producing county.  In the past 30 years, Tulare County has sprouted more cows than just about anywhere in the good old US of A.  Those dairies down in southern California, that used to be the major producers in this state?  The ones who finally sold out to the developers putting up million dollar shanties an arm’s reach apart from each other?  They all took the piles of money they made, came up here, bought cheap land, and set up their new mega-dairies.  Now you can’t go anywhere on the valley floor, in our fine county, without seeing several dairies on your horizon.  Check out Google Earth, and see how many you can see ringing Visalia and Tulare.  We’re surrounded, and it’s only getting worse.  I grew up here, and there’s two things I remember clearly from my childhood in the 60’s and early 70’s.  One was the view of the Sierra Nevada mountains throughout the year.  They were a constant presence in my childhood, always there, and always topped with snow almost the entire year-round.  Now, it’s only after a good rain or when a low pressure system moves through that we get to see them like I remember them.  The other memory is actually a lack of something.  A lack of near year-round stink.  It’s particularly noticeable now when there’s some kind of inversion level, especially in the winter.  You know you’re in dairy country when the fog stinks like a sewer!  If I ever move away from here, it won’t be the air quality, bad as it is, the population growth, or just about any other reason you might come up with.  If I do, it will be for one reason:  the smell.

What I don’t understand, listening to dairymen, is why they keep building these super-dairies, when all I ever hear from them is how bad the business is!  Prices are down, costs are up, regulations are killing them, and people just don’t understand.  But you know what?  I have yet to see a dairyman drive up in a pickup more than a year or two old.  His wife usually drives a nice newer model car, and his kids are usually running around in nice rides, too.  The dairy owner’s home, while usually on or near the dairy, is often a huge place, very well kept and nothing to sneeze at!  For people just barely getting by, they do pretty well for themselves!  But, I digress…

Take a deep breath.  In through the nose, out through the mouth.  The wonderful scent of oranges, lemons, peaches… the aroma of freshly cut hay,  the pines in the mountains…  all that is a rare thing these days.  Instead, you smell something else.

They’ve told me, ever since I can remember, that the aroma is “the smell of money”.  Well, when I was a kid I didn’t say anything to that, even though I knew it was “bull” then.  As an adult I’ve been known to say…

“yeah, and it smells like cow shit!”

Welcome to Tulare County.  Try to hold your breath until you reach the county line at Delano, it lets up a bit down there.