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Reporter investigates nasty odor; radishes on farm fields to blame

PAUL GARRETT/FOR THE EXPRESS At top and at right: A close-up of the rotting Tillage Radish that is at the “root” of the unusual smell in the Jersey Shore area. Above: Taylor A. Doebler, owner of T.A. Seeds in Avis, stands in a field owned by the Crist family, and explains the reason for the smell in the area, while holding one of the plants.

JERSEY SHORE  — For the past couple of weeks, residents in Jersey Shore, Antes Fort and Avis have been well aware of an unusual odor permeating their neighborhoods.

What’s that smell?

That’s the question of many residents in the downtown area, especially Main Street in Jersey Shore and up the River Road toward Avis are asking.

Personally, even my olfactory senses have been bombarded by this unusual stench that creeps across the Susquehanna River from over in the Nippenose Valley.

I wondered aloud the source of this unusual smell and started hearing from local folks.

“When I first smelled it, I was out checking my propane tanks. It was a cloudy day, foggy and I just thought it was the heaviness of the weather.  I thought maybe one of my propane tanks was leaking,” said local resident Linda Hale.

“It’s enough to gag you. It’s like something died and it’s been out in the sun for a week,” said Don Wilson

“I got up for work one morning and there was an overwhelming smell in the upstairs of the house like something had died or spoiled. I walked in every room, but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from,” remarked Jersey Shore resident Kari Borner.

I decided to pose the question to other residents in the area by posting it on social media.

Of course, everyone had their own theory.

Explanations for the smell ran the gamut.

“It smells like a gas leak,” said one resident.

Another responded, “I never started to smell this until the new wastewater treatment plant was built,”

“They are putting that slaughterhouse mixture onto the farmer’s fields again,” said one uninformed individual.

“I thought my husband farted in the car,” was one woman’s explanation.

Another said, “I thought there was a dead mouse in the heating vent of my car,”

And my all-time favorite, “It smells like … a dead skunk,”

But then I started reading some rational explanations for the smell because this wasn’t a one-time occurrence and I remembered smelling the same odor last year around this time… but not two years ago.

Some residents, mostly those who are familiar with farming pinpointed the source as a “cover plant”.

My family and I have lived here for nearly 10 years and granted I am still, as my wife says a “flatlander” to some degree, but I have also visited this area close to 50 years now and I have never smelled such a pungent odor until the past few years.

I felt I had to investigate the cause of this phenomenon because one night I awoke from a dead sleep dreaming I was somewhere where it smelled horrible.

In the winter if it is not subfreezing temperatures overnight my wife and I crack our bedroom window to let in some cooler air while we sleep. Unfortunately this night the smell was so strong that I had to get up and shut the window. This incident prompted me to begin my own investigation into, “What’s that smell.”

My first phone call was to a friend and fellow contributing editor to the Lock Haven Express, Tom Butzler, the horticulture educator at the Penn State Extension Office in Clinton County.

Tom immediately knew what I was talking about.

“Oh yeah. It’s a cover crop. It’s called a tillage radish,” he said, explainng that the radish is usually planted in the fall, it grows, gets established, and it’s killed off over the winter.

Then in March and April, the exposed part of the radish will start to decompose when the weather begins to warm up.

That made pretty good sense to me, but where were the fields?

And I wanted to make sure I covered all my bases so I started making more calls to eliminate any other source of the odor.

My next call was to local property owner Brett Bowes.

Brett spreads liquid fertilizer onto the fields in the spring. He told me that this time of year is not good for two reasons: One, right now the fields are full of mud from all rain we have received; and two, when the ground freezes you can’t put the liquid fertilizer down because it would just run off and no farmer wants his fertilizer running off of his field and into the creeks.

That eliminated one of the many theories.

I then called Shawn Lorson, executive director of the Tiadaghton Valley Municipal Authority’s new sewage water treatment plant, which opened three years ago in March and is located ironically, close to the area of where the smell originates.

Shawn was more than helpful and invited me to tour the facility.

He showed me the holding tanks where the water is treated and as I stood there, I could detect no odor whatsoever.

Lorson told me that he had numerous phone calls from area residents and was even called out by the local fire department to investigate what smelled like a sewage leak or gas leak, but concluded that it had nothing to do with the water treatment plant.

“Any odors that are coming from the sewage plant are minimal and if people are smelling the smell five miles away, the smell at the sewage plant would be overbearing,” explained Lorson.

Therefore, the treatment plant was crossed off my list of possible culprits.

During my interview with Bowes, he also indicated that the source of the smell was the Tillage Radish and directed me to two farms in the area — the Camerer farm, whose fields that have the radishes are located about a quarter-mile west of the treatment plant, and the Crist farm which is located just over the border in Porter Township where River Road begins and Main Street ends.

Bowes also told me to check out the fields just over the bridge coming out of Jersey Shore on Route 44 south.

He indicated that behind the Jersey Shore YMCA baseball field and all the way up to the second bridge going towards Antes Fort, I would find fields filled with these radishes.

So, armed with this information I started out on a road trip in search of these fields.

Not only have I driven past these fields numerous times, but the one located behind the YMCA ballfield is directly across the Susquehanna River from my house, which is located on the river on Front Street in the borough. I am essentially at “ground zero” when the wind decides to blow from east to west into our town.

As I began taking photographs of these radishes which by the way look more like mutated white carrots protruding from the soil, I began to smell that familiar odor. I thought “Eureka”, this is the source.

But the question still remained why are we smelling this odor in January?

My next stop was to a local company in Avis that has been selling and cultivating seeds in the area since 1932, called T.A. Seeds. The president of the company, Taylor A. Doebler III, agreed to meet with me at the Crist farm in Porter Township to explain the mystery.

According to Doebler, farmers in the area began planting these tillage radishes in 2012. That year there were only about 100 acres planted locally.

The initiative was part of a plan by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to help eliminate runoff from farm fields so there is less of an impact of sediment and chemicals entering the Chesapeake Bay, according to Doebler.

The process seems simple enough. The seeds are planted in the fall and the radishes become a cover crop for the fields. As the plant grows, it not only produces cover but the huge tubers drill down into the soil.

“There is a certain portion of the tuber that is out of the ground and doesn’t serve much use. But the part that does serve a lot of use continues to grow underground another foot or two, and then the root system goes down another four to five feet so there are main tap roots. And then you have side roots or hair roots that would be scavenging all those nutrients,” explained Doebler.

In layman’s terms, this radish not only collects nutrients and doubles as a natural fertilizer when it decays, but also digs down and literally tills the ground loosening the soil so it is easier to plant crops in the spring, alleviating the need for farmers to plow or disk there fields, which would cause more sediment and chemical runoff into the streams and rivers heading to the Chesapeake Bay.

Doebler estimates that about 60 percent of the farmers in Pennsylvania are using the no-plow method and foresees more and more of this plant being used and says it is a huge win for farmers and the environment in general.

“When we are not tilling, we are using less fuel, we’re using less equipment and we have a very low carbon footprint compared to what it was 10, 15, or 20 years ago,” said Doebler.

So unfortunately, residents in the area will have to take the good with the bad because this process is very good for the farmers and the environment, but not so good on the old nostrils.

According to Doebler, this process has become so popular that he can’t even give a number on how many acres of these radishes have been planted in the past five years.

“The acreage has grown exponentially, we have sold enough seed this year to plant 50,000 acres,” said Doebler.

So, to “clear the air” so to speak … we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Because of the warm temperatures along with wet conditions this January, the radishes are beginning to rot at the soil level prematurely, causing vapor to escape into the air where the prevailing breeze blows it wherever it sees fit … like my bedroom.

Moreover, if folks can recall, the same smell was around last year this time because of the mild winter. However the year before, we had very cold temperatures and snow cover most of the winter.

Mystery solved!

Local Jersey Shore resident Sue Scanlan put it all into perspective: “If that’s what it is, I feel bad for the local farmers who are taking the brunt of the responsibility for the smell, but we are in farm country and people just have to understand that.”

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