Farmers aim to blast bad weather away
KINGSBURG, Calif. (AP) — A thunderous boom from a 20-foot cannon echoes over John Diepersloot’s apricot and peach orchards — a sound the farmer hopes can save his trees from hail storms.
Hail cannons, which switch on when storms are approaching, are the latest high-tech device aimed at protecting crops from the volatile weather that hits California’s agricultural heartland, where a single hailstormcandamageacrop—and a local economy — overnight.
Farmers have long clamored for technology that helps them deal with nature’s whims. Though scientists say no significant study has proven the devices’ effectiveness, a small group of farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and across the country are putting faith — and thousands of dollars — into hail cannons.
“The first year I had them, there was a storm where I saw my neighbor’s fields had damage and I didn’t,” said Diepersloot, who has bought 24 cannons to use throughout his 1,200-acre farm.
With the 2007 storm season approaching, Diepersloot’s workers preparetowagewarontheweather. The huge, cone-shaped machines click on automatically when a Dopplerradarsignalsensesastorm is on the horizon. Within seconds, they emit a deafening, electronic blast, repeated every six seconds.
As the sound waves rise from the cannon and ripple into the sky, they disrupt airborne water droplets poised to become hail stones, and instead cause the water to fall as rain or slush, the cannon’s manufacturers say.
But scientists dispute their claims.
“It’d have to be something pretty major to upset hail,” said Charles Knight, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit. “If you exploded an atomic bomb in a cloud, that might do something.”
At $50,000 to $70,000 each, the cannons aren’t a cheap fix. But losses from hail storms can be even more costly.
Hail storms don’t kill the fruit itself, but they take an economic toll. Blemished fruit usually fetches about 60 percent of an unmarked crop’s value, farmers said, and sometimes, pockmarked fruit cannot be sold at all.
“In the past, the only way to deal with hail was to have insurance, but that got too expensive,” Diepersloot said. “No one wants scarred fruit.”
In the past decade, farmers in Colorado, Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio have bought the machines.
Thecannonsarejustoneofmany devices farmers employ to try to alter nature’s course.
Among other innovations: helicopters whose propellers blast air to dry cherries on trees, cow water bedsmadetoboostmilkproduction by easing bovine comfort in the milking process and rocket launchers that sprinkle the clouds with iodine crystals in an attempt to force a rainstorm.
Hail cannons — which are manufactured by companies in Mexico andNewZealand—havebeenmarketed through events like Tulare County’s World Ag Expo, billed as thelargestfarmequipmentshowin the world.
“Wherever there’s hail, there’s a potential,” said Mike Eggers, whose companymanufacturesthedevices in Nelson, New Zealand.
Mexico-based Grupo Arcanciel, another hail cannon manufacturer, could not immediately be reached for comment, and company representatives did not respond to e-mails.
Though the cannons have yet to be widely adopted in the San Joaquin Valley, they’re already well known — their boom can be heard 12 miles away. Depending on a storm’s intensity, the sound from one cannon can cover up to 240 acres, something Diepersloot said has rubbed some of the orchard’s rural neighbors the wrong way.
“There’s no negative to it . . . other than noise,” he said.
Taking a gamble on such an expensive machine might work for a large company like Diepersloot’s Elkhorn Farms, but most growers can’t afford such gadgets, said HarryAndris, a tree fruit expert for the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fresno County.
“There just isn’t a lot of technology that we can use to alter the weather. Some of the things that farmers try aren’t that effective,” Andris said. “Unfortunately, you have to buy them to try them.”
John Diepersloot looks over his orchard with a hail cannon behind him at his ranch in Kingsburg, Calif. on Dec. 22. The thunderous boom from the cannon shatters hail before the ice chunks can pockmark fruit apples, peaches, plums and pears. The sonic machine, triggered by a radar signal when a storm is coming, is the latest high-tech equipment to protect crops from the elements. A single hail storm or freeze can destroy a crop overnight, paralyzing an economy dependent on agriculture.