First in a series of stories in which The Abbotsford News examines the role, use and effect of propane cannons.
The starlings come in cloud-like swirls that can descend on a blueberry field and devour a farmer’s profits in a matter of hours.
But this is a war, not a massacre, and blueberry farmers have a powerful, and loud, weapon at their disposal. Throughout the summer, blasts from propane cannons ring out across the berry fields, urging the birds back into the skies.
In the midst of this conflict, many distressed neighbours say they have seen their own desire for peace and quiet shrugged aside as collateral damage.
Propane cannons are used to scare away birds that feast on the blueberries. They begin to blast as early as June when blueberries – which cover 11,300 hectares in B.C. and, according to 2012 stats, had more that $1 billion in sales in the previous five years – reach maturity. But the sound – one model of cannon ranges from 100 to 125 decibels – also keeps some neighbours from enjoying their own land.
The cannons can operate from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. or from dawn to dusk, whichever is shorter, with a break from noon until 3 p.m. Single-shot cannons can fire once every five minutes, while multi-shot devices can activate 11 times, for a maximum of 33 shots in any hour.
Despite perennial conflict between neighbours and farmers, cannon use is considered a normal farm practice and is protected by the province’s Right to Farm Act. In 1989, the province implemented legislation to protect farmer’s rights under the Agricultural Protection Act. It was replaced by the Farm Practices Protection (Right to Farm) Act in 1996.
The province allows municipalities to regulate the use of cannons, but stops short of allowing for the total bans demanded by some opponents.
The economic value of blueberry farming to Abbotsford, the Fraser Valley and British Columbia is considerable – 98 per cent of Canada’s fresh high bush blueberries are grown in B.C. About 105 million pounds of blueberries were grown in the province in 2012. An estimated 40 per cent of that comes from Abbotsford farms.
The BC Blueberry Council reports that the roughly 800 farmers around the province had a crop which came in at 120 million pounds in 2013, with expectations that this year’s crop could top last year’s record season.
However, those who are bothered by the cannon blasts claim the costs to their peace, quiet and health are being ignored.
In Abbotsford, there have been numerous attempts by city council to implement bylaws that would restrict cannon use and fine those who improperly use cannons – but all have been halted either by council votes or provincial veto.
To further regulate cannons, the city must create a “farm bylaw” that requires approval from the ministry of agriculture.
But a proposed bylaw to limit the use of propane cannons in Abbotsford was denied provincial approval last month.
The city aimed to lessen the hours of use and reduce the number of shots allowed per hour. It also sought to increase the distance between the devices and neighbouring homes, kennels and livestock, and levy fees for cannon use and fines for improper use.
The province said the regulations in the bylaw would effectively ban cannon use in Abbotsford and suggested lessening the restrictions. It would still allow the city to impose fines for not following the regulations.
After the province’s decision, staff suggested a bylaw with fewer restrictions; however, a tie vote killed the bylaw. The councillors differed on whether the lesser restrictions were too harsh, not harsh enough, or better than nothing.
Langley passed a bylaw in 2013 that restricts how often the cannons can be fired, and includes escalating fines for violating the rules, as well as a $125 annual licence.
Critics of Langley’s bylaw call it a “do-nothing” law that doesn’t effectively address the noise issue. Meanwhile, some farmers claim the bylaw unfairly targets them with fees that others in the agriculture industry don’t have to pay.
Provincial guidelines call for farmers to take measures to minimize noise impact on neighbours, and farmers must complete a bird predation management plan before the first use of devices in each growing season. The plan requires producers to monitor bird populations and activity, and undertake strategies to minimize both device use and birds becoming accustomed to the devices. There is a maximum of one device per two hectares of cropland, and cannons should be pointed away from neighbours and roads and set back 200 metres.
The BC Blueberry Council employs a grower liaison to receive calls 24 hours a day in the growing season to address neighbours’ concerns when farmers are not complying with the guidelines.
The BC Farm Industry Review Board (BCFIRB) says conflicts are often driven by increased urban development near farmland, which exacerbates “urban-agricultural conflicts.” However, many complainants argue they are also farmers and the issue is a rural-rural controversy, where farmers who have lived in the area for decades have blueberry farms suddenly move in next door.
With little means to control the use of cannons, the focus of Abbotsford council has shifted from the symptom to the larger issue: the millions of birds that feast on berries. Starlings are an invasive species, brought to North America in the late 1800s. They’ve proliferated across the continent, causing issues for native birds as well as the agricultural industry.
Abbotsford council has already pledged $30,000 to aid in a local starling management program and will continue discussions with other stakeholders in the region.
There are additional methods in use to keep starlings away, including nets to keep birds off, hawks and falcons to frighten starlings away, traps, lasers, streamers and more. While some farmers refrain from using cannons, others say noise devices are the most important tool in their arsenal in the fight against starlings. Meanwhile, their neighbours hope for a shift away from any need for the cannons at all.
Watch for an upcoming issue in which The News will examine farmers’ reasons to use cannons and the effect on their neighbours.
(Above photo: Matsqui blueberry farmer Hardeep Harry surveys his crop before harvest last week. Harry’s farm uses a single propane cannon.)