Usher Farm tries to limit cannon blasts
It's been called a shooting range, a war zone and the 4th of July all day long.
The good news for neighbors of Usher Farm in the Kickemuit Avenue and Swift's Point area is that the bird cannons may soon be fired a bit less frequently.
Each summer, the Usher family employs propane cannons to clear the sweet corn fields of migrating birds that eat the crop, and the profits, away. The cannons, which can sometimes fire as frequently as several times a minute, are common around farms and are the most effective means of keeping the birds away, according to Pat Usher, owner of the farm. The frequency of the cannons, which began firing on July 12 and continue through the bird migration season in early August, can be adjusted based on the volume of birds in the fields. The cannons generally operate every day between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.
"If you can come up with a way to keep the birds off, I'll try it," Mr. Usher said. "No one hates the guns more than I do."
Some neighbors along Harrison Street would beg to differ. They complain of being unable to sit outside on their decks in the summer and having to close up the house to keep the sound out. Worse, they worry about plummeting property values, and the inability to sell their homes.
"I've had two people walk away because of the cannons," said John Foster, who is trying to sell his waterfront home at 14 Harrison St. that he said he bought two winters ago, at a time when the cannons weren't firing. "The cannons go off all day long. It sounds like a war zone. I get that he's a farmer and needs to protect his crop. I don't want to make trouble. But I want to leave town and sell my house. It's got to be aggravating for so many people."
Indeed it is. Other neighbors described the noise in similar terms as Mr. Foster, calling it a gun range and a fireworks show all day long in the summer.
"It's definitely affecting people's quality of life, and it's affecting property values around here," said Gil Stillings, of Harrison Street. "All day long, it's boom, boom, boom. It just bums everybody out."
"Corn ain't worth people ruining neighborhoods," said Peter Mayhew, who has lived in the Swift's Point area for 35 years. "It devalues our property. Those 'For Sale' signs stay up there forever. If the town allows them to do that, the town should compensate us tax-wise."
In fact, it's not the town that allows it, but the state of Rhode Island. Calls to police and state Department of Environmental Management officials produce little results, as there's little the authorities can do. The Usher family — like all farmers — is covered under the state's Right-to-Farm statute, designed to protect farmers from urban encroachment and conflicts from residential neighbors. The statute specifically states "noise from livestock or farm equipment used in normal, generally accepted farming procedures" is exempt from any nuisance actions. Bird cannons are ubiquitous on many farms, adopted as common farming practice.
Still, the family is attempting to limit the use of the cannons with other means of scaring birds away. Mr. Usher has invested in a "bird guard," which emits sounds of a dying bird that is supposed to deter others from stopping by. On Monday, Pat Usher, Jr. applied a new spray made from grape juice concentrate that is supposed to repel the birds. The spray smells like sweet grape bubble gum, which is supposed to be unattractive to birds.
"I sprayed it on the fields yesterday," Pat Usher, Jr. said Tuesday while serving customers at the farm's stand on Metacom Avenue. "It should lessen the use of the cannons. I don't know how it's going to work yet."
His father is skeptical. "I'm not too encouraged with what I see so far," the senior Pat Usher said, noting he watched a flock of birds fly out of the treated areas Tuesday. "I see nets put over the grapes in vineyards, so obviously birds like grapes."
Still, it's worth a shot, as are the dying bird sounds, he said. But the cannons may still be necessary to protect the crop. He expects the blasts to lessen in frequency as the bird migration dwindles later in the summer, coming to an end in the middle of August. Some neighbors, he said, will be disappointed when the cannon blasts stop.
"I have neighbors who tell me don't turn them off. They keep the birds from crapping on their cars," Mr. Usher said.
The cannons are "the sound of houses not being built," Pat Usher Jr. added.
That's little comfort to Mr. Foster, who is trying to move his home during the peak real estate season. He is hoping the grape juice spray will work, which will grant peace to the surrounding neighborhood, and should benefit the Usher family as well.
"If the farmer switches over, everyone will buy his corn," he said.