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Cannon Conflict: Farmers say devices needed to keep birds away

Blueberry farmer Jarnail Heer. - Tyler Olsen
Blueberry farmer Jarnail Heer.
— image credit: Tyler Olsen

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Jarnail Heer wishes he didn’t have to use propane cannons.

But the Huntingdon Road farmer says that without the devices, birds would devour a large proportion of the blueberries that grow on his 36-acre farm.

The birds “come like a cloud,” he says. “If you left that field alone, without the cannons, after three days you wouldn’t see any blueberries on the branches.”

Heer says he uses all the devices at his disposal, and tries to limit his use of the cannon. But squawking noisemakers, bright ribbons, plastic hawks and men on ATVs can only do so much.

“We try to start [the cannons] late in the season so the birds don’t get used to them,” Heer says. “They’re very smart.”

As it is, Heer says the birds consume about 10 per cent of his crop.

At his Fore Road farm, Devinder Brar employs workers who keep an eye on the birds and try to flush them from his 40 acres of berries. He also strings ribbons high above his crop to dissuade landing birds. But he says a grounded bird is not easily moved from its blueberry feast.

“It’s very hard to get rid of them. Once they’re landed, guns are the only way to scare them,” says Brar, who has been farming for 15 years.

Abbotsford farmers like Brar and Heer grow about 40 per cent of British Columbia’s blueberry crop. Ban the cannons, and the farmers say that percentage will drop.

The homes of both Brar and Heer are adjacent to their fields, and both question those pushing for stricter guidelines around the use of propane cannons.

“The people who are complaining about the noise, I don’t know what their motive is,” Brar says. “It’s just a false intention.”

He claims the noise isn’t excessive and is often short-lived.

“I don’t like to hear the noise in my neighbourhood, but it’s only for two and a half months.”

Some of the conflict, Brar says, likely stems from malfunctioning cannons on fields whose owners do not live nearby.

Heer characterized complainants as those who don’t work and don’t understand the importance of the blueberry industry to the economy.

Brar and Heer both say they have had minimal conflict with neighbours.

Heer says he has two cannons, both of which start firing at 7:30 a.m. and issue shots every 15 minutes in three different directions.

He says he has spoken to his neighbours and has offered to quell the cannons if they are hosting guests.

“My people around me don’t have a problem,” says Heer, who has been farming in the area for two decades. “We educated them that we can’t live without this thing.”

The BC Blueberry Council also works to minimize disputes, and the organization’s executive director, Debbie Etsell, says most of those efforts are successful.

Etsell stressed that cannons are “one tool in the toolbox” and says growers are encouraged to use a range of options to combat birds.

“Most of our growers aren’t out there to irritate their neighbours. We do have a few cases where they’re not compliant in the guidelines and we do whatever we can to mitigate that.”

But she also stressed the need for local agriculture.

“I think people need to be concerned about where their food comes from, because there are a lot of other places in the world that can produce it for much more economically, but is it as safe and is it of the quality of what we have in our own backyard?”

Related: Cannon Conflict: Loud blasts fray neighbours' nerves

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