Vineyard Cannons, Hold Your Fire

County in California's North Bay strengthens noisemaker regulations

by Jane Firstenfeld
Gas-powered cannons are one tool to protect grapes from predatory birds. Photo: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs
Solano County, Calif.—Bordering California’s Napa and Sonoma counties, Solano County generally doesn’t make much noise in the North Coast wine industry, despite its 25 wineries and an estimated 3,000 acres of vineyards.

On July 28, the industry came to the attention of the county’s Board of Supervisors, however, when Solano agriculture commissioner Jim Allan presented a dispute he had been unable to resolve between residents and a local grapegrower. Residents of Rancho Solano in Fairfield had repeatedly complained about a “bird cannon” that was fired repeatedly throughout the night, disrupting sleep.

Allan acknowledged that the gas-fired cannons are commonly used in the grapegrowing industry and are protected under “right to farm” laws as a useful tool in preventing bird-predation. Still, the cannons are not the only available tools to protect grapes.

He told Wines & Vines that he’d not been able to mediate the problem with the grower in the course of the past three years, so the supervisors took action. “It was the one time we couldn’t broker a solution,” Allan said.

Grapegrowers have many tools to preserve bird predation. “We want growers to have the tools,” he said. But use of the noisy cannons at night also scares away barn owls, a natural and effective deterrent to grape-devouring birds and other vertebrate predators. Grape-eating birds “do not normally feed at night,” Allan noted.

He declined to name the targeted grapegrower but suggested he was a contract vineyard manager for V. Sattui Winery in neighboring Napa County.

Sattui takes responsibility
When contacted by Wines & Vines, Tom Davies, president of the 40,000-case winery, said that although he was not fully aware of the ongoing problem in Solano, “I’ll take responsibility.”

He had been informed last year that the cannons were going off at night. “There is no reason for that, and that was not our intention. Our vineyard supervisor said he’d forgotten to turn them off for a night or two. As soon as we found out, we bought solar timers last year to regulate them.”

Davies said the Solano vineyard grows mostly Gamay grapes, valued at about $900 per ton. “Here in Napa, if you have expensive fruit, you’d install bird netting. We grow some 300 acres of grapes in different counties. I feel badly about this situation, and we regret it,” he said.

“When I found out, it seemed like a waste of propane,” Davies said of the gas-fired cannons. “We still have to be good stewards of the land. People want to live in ag areas: It’s desirable, but we also need to farm.”

Davies said that Allan had spoken to a non-employee contractor without satisfaction. “We did everything we could to rectify the problem. There were also issues during the day. We installed the solar timers and aimed them the other way,” away from the housing development.

Now the cannons have been removed and replaced with machines that broadcast predator calls. “It’s important to be good neighbors,” Davies said. “As more people move closer to agriculture, everyone has to give a bit.”

New ordinance says
Effective in 30 days from its adoption, Section 22.70 specifies that the “noise-making devices” may only be used for protection of agricultural crops susceptible to bird or other wildlife damage.

They “shall not be operated more than 11 times per hour, and only from one-half hour after sunrise to one-half hour before sunset.”

Only a single device is allowed for every 5 acres of land. Noisemaking devices located within 50 feet of a property line must be relocated at least 200 feet every four days. Noisemakers in the center of a property do not have to be relocated. The devices directed toward any residence fewer than 400 yards away must rotate automatically and be equipped with sound baffles.

Read the ordinance here.

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