Farm­ers aim to blast bad weather away

The Washington Times Weekly - - Page Two -

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.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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