Blueberry cannons shooting thundering, booming rounds that sound like shotgun blasts have created an agricultural war zone in the heart of Langley’s horse country.
When horses are frightened they take flight and property owners are warning that it’s only a matter of time before a rider, thrown off a horse spooked by a cannon, is killed or seriously injured.
There has already been a near miss.
A south Langley farmer, who asked not to be named, told The Times that he was almost killed when a horse, spooked by a cannon, bolted.
“I was at the horse’s side grooming and it just took off. If I had been in front of it, I would have been killed.”
Police have also become involved.
“A farmer who is two kilometres away from me left his cannon on automatic at night, and this cannon must have been hindering hundreds of people in the Otter area,” the south Langley man said.
“At midnight my whole family was awake because of the banging every five minutes, so I got dressed and drove around until I found the property with the cannon on it. I called the RCMP who were very happy to hear from me as they had had many complaints but did not have time to waste wandering around Langley at midnight trying to locate noise sources.
“I waited for the officer to arrive and he was very thankful I had taken the time to find and report this incident. The cannon was disabled and our lives returned to normal, at least until 6 a.m. when the same farmer started all over again.”
Several farmers told The Times that they are aware that some owners of blueberry fields are absentee landowners. Workers they have hired set the timers on the cannons, and leave.
Propane-fired cannons are among the arsenal of devices farmers may legally employ to scare predator birds from their crops. They can be fired from 7 a.m. to noon, and from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., and continue throughout the summer months that blueberries are harvested.
Although municipalities do not have jurisdiction, Township council will be asked to debate a motion from Councillor Kim Richter that supports a ban on propane cannons on the grounds that they are “disruptive to area residents and animals (and) are an excessive, intrusive, and inhumane way to control a pest problem.”
Abbotsford Councillor Jim Smith is looking for tighter controls for cannons, suggesting a later start in the morning, and a 7:30 p.m. deadline at the end of the day.
He called the cannons “intolerable.”
The blueberry market generates $150 million in annual sales in the Lower Mainland, and even more from packing and processing.
One large flock of starlings can seriously harm a blueberry farm, consuming 10 per cent of a crop.
“Birds are a serious problem. Farmers need the tools to protect their crop,” said Ministry of Agriculture berry specialist Mark Sweeney.
Given right to farm legislation, the blueberry producers appear to trump residents’ right to live in peace.
And that, says one south Langley horse farmer, may well lead to tragedy.
John Reidl has been running a hobby farm with a riding arena in south Langley for 30 years. There is a berry farm two parcels away.
Blueberry plants take two to three years to begin producing, and then are harvested all summer long for up to 25 years. And as long as there are blueberries to pick, farmers fire of the cannons.
And, he notes, the blueberry season coincides with the show time in the horse industry.
The impact on property values is also a huge concern.
“We couldn’t sell our place as a horse facility,” Reidl said.
“Who in their right mind would buy between two blueberry farms? We are stuck with what we have.”
Precarious property values, and rides and lessons that are limited to the times that farmers cannot fire cannons are bad enough, Reidl says.
But he is far more concerned about the safety of riders should a horse bolt after being spooked by a cannon.
It was once common to see people riding horses but now, with the fear that horses might bolt, a horse and rider on a leisurely canter in the country has become a rare sight, he said.
Imagine, Reidl says, a girl with her feet in the stirrups when her horse bolts and, anchored to the horse, is dragged along until the horse stops. That can only end tragically, he predicts.
“It’s not a case of ‘if’ it’s going to happen. It’s a matter of ‘when’ it’s going to happen.”
In June, Kevin Mitchell told Township council that the use of propane cannons has grown as more fields are turned into blueberry harvests.
And, Mitchell said, decibel levels at neighbouring homes can exceed levels that are deemed safe by WorkSafe B.C.
In March, south Aldergrove resident Terry Sheldon warned council that unless something is done to stop the annoyance of the cannons, and screechers that are used by mink farmers to keep rats at bay, “we are going to have a war (between residents and farmers).
Sheldon offered a solution: Falcons.
He said that the mere presence of the raptors can be enough to frighten birds which devour blueberry and other crops.
Sheldon, who recently returned from Cuba where the birds of prey are used to keep smaller birds away from hotels, said that cannons are proving costly not only to the peace of residents, but to businesses as well.
A group of concerned residents are holding an information meeting on Sunday Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. at the Eagles Hall at the corner of 248 Street and Fraser Highway, just north of the Otter Co-op
Check their website at www.banthecannons.com.
Many residents say they plan to attend the Township council meeting the next day when Richter’s notice of motion regarding a ban on cannons is on the agenda.