Blueberry Farmers, Neighbors Battle Over Use Of Air Cannons

HUDSON – If you talk to the residents of The Estates and nearby communities in Hudson, blueberry season is nothing short of a nightmare, with loud cannons firing off as often as every minute during the day to scare away birds threatening the crop.

If you talk to the blueberry farmers, the pressurized cannons are a necessary nuisance to protect their livelihood from the cedar waxwing, a migratory bird that swoops in each season and takes as much as a third of their harvest.

“They come in by the thousands, and they just devastate the crop,” farmer Robert Waldo of Bob’s Blueberry Farm said. “When they find it, they don’t want to leave. They come in such flocks that they make a cloud on the ground.”

Waldo, who has been in the business for 10 years, has an interest in nearly a dozen blueberry farms in Hernando and Pasco counties, including a 25-acre farm backing up to The Estates and a handful of other neighborhoods in this northwest Pasco community. He is at the front lines of a battle among blueberry farmers and their neighbors in Hudson, who are trying to outlaw the cannons in favor of a more peaceful deterrent.

The Pasco County attorney’s office, at the direction of the county commission, drafted an ordinance to outlaw propane-powered cannons that exceed certain noise limits at blueberry farms. Certain farms designated as protected by the Right to Farm Act were exempt.

The ordinance, which has been in the works for more than a year, was supposed to be considered during public hearings this month. The commissioners backed off after the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services informed the county attorney’s office they have no jurisdiction.

The propane cannons are considered fireworks, and a 2007 state law says counties can’t regulate fireworks more than the state does. That law was passed, in part, because of Pasco’s efforts to restrict the sale of fireworks.

The fight isn’t over.

County Commissioner Jack Mariano, who represents Hudson, said at a Tuesday county commission meeting he will continue to push the Legislature to regulate the use of propane cannons at blueberry farms. He has argued in the past there are other ways of deterring birds from the crop.

State Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, is trying to separate air cannons from the fireworks law so the county can regulate them. But the fireworks law is designed to protect farmers. In fact, the sale and purchase of fireworks is legal in Florida as long as the buyer signs an affidavit saying he or she will use the fireworks to scare birds from fields to protect their crops or fish hatcheries, or for another agricultural purpose.

County officials also plan to crack down on smaller blueberry farms. The county prohibits commercial farming on tracts smaller than 5 acres. Propane cannons are used at those farms as well.

Birds Can Destroy 30% Of Crop

Waldo said he pulled out the cannons during blueberry season in 2005 and 2007, when he was at his wit’s end with the cedar waxwing. He had tried many other methods with mixed success. When the blueberries are ripe – usually early April – the birds come in and peck, Waldo said.

“They don’t eat most of the fruit. They just peck. They’ll peck at every berry on the bush.”

Blueberry season in Florida lasts about two months. Residents complain they can’t tolerate the noise. Waldo said that is his only chance to harvest about 140,000 pounds of blueberries, which are shipped throughout the United States and all over the world.

The birds can destroy as much as 30 percent of that crop, Waldo said. Cedar waxwings also eat holly berries and mulberries.

‘No One Thing Is Working’

Waldo uses the cannons at his other blueberry farms, and he gets complaints from neighbors there, too, he said, but most of the other farms are in more rural areas. The Hudson farms are scattered among neighborhoods.

There are other ways of scaring away birds from the fields, Waldo said. The farmers use other kinds of noisemakers, such as bottle rockets, whistlers, buzzers, air horns and shotguns. Waldo also is testing a spray repellant.

“Air cannons are just part of the artillery,” he said. “No one thing is working. The problem is, it’s an experiment. We haven’t tried it on the bird. There’s no way to know if anything works except when the birds are here.”

Even when the methods work, the birds quickly get used to them.

“The birds become accustomed to everything in about three hours,” Waldo said. “They’ll watch and see if any harm comes. They’ll fly to the edge of the field, but they don’t leave.”

Neighbors have complained about the frequency of the noise – which varies from once an hour to once a minute – and the occasions when farmers forget to turn the air cannons off.

Waldo conceded he has forgotten a few times but said it is not intentional.

“We have one crop a year. That’s the only time we make any money. We have to protect our crop any way we can,” he said. “I am genuinely sorry these people are upset and disturbed. It’s aggravating to me. I have to stand next to the cannon. But people have their life savings in this. They’ve got a right to use their land.

“Anyone who lives in a deed-restricted area, they are the trespassers. If they want quiet and tranquility, they need to buy an island. The people on a little postage-stamp lot can’t control all the thousands of acres around them.”

Reporter Julia Ferrante can be reached at (813) 948-4220 or jferrante@tampatrib.com

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