Vermont Farmer's 'Hail Cannon' Waking Up Neighbors

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Things have really been booming at Southern Vermont Orchards. And it's been keeping people up at night.

After a series of hailstorms devastated the orchard's apple crop in 2007, the owner resorted this summer to using a hail cannon, a noisemaking machine whose sound waves supposedly disrupt the formation of hailstones.

Scientists snicker at such devices. But farmers swear by 'em. As for the neighbors, they just swear.

"It sounds like artillery fire," said Gregory Connors, a 38-year-old software designer whose children have been woken up by the booms. "I'm up for everybody's right to farm. We support local farmers. But the technology and the way it's being utilized is not acceptable."

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Hail can scar or ruin fruit and damage trees. Anti-hail efforts date back centuries, and have included the use of cannons, rockets, religious rites and bell ringing.

The effectiveness of hail cannons has been disputed for decades. But the devices have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, with farmers in California, Colorado, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio and Texas employing more modern ones.

"There is no science behind it," said hail expert Griffith Morgan Jr., a retired meteorologist from Westminster, Colo. "The science that is presented is absolutely bogus. I have no reason to believe this can work."

Southern Vermont Orchards owner Harold Albinder shelled out about $40,000 for his cannon after hail ruined $600,000 worth of his crop in four storms in 2007.

The device, which is about 16 feet tall, is solar-powered and uses acetylene gas ignited by a spark plug.

The orchard's manager activates it by cell phone when radar shows a hailstorm approaching. It fires a blast every six seconds, for up to 30 minutes at a time.

"It worked 100 percent," Albinder said.

This summer, hail damaged crops in part of his 230-acre hillside orchard but left the apples within 1,200 feet of the device untouched, he said.

But oh, the noise.

The booms reverberated through the Bennington valley, mystifying locals. Some people in this town of 15,700 thought the noise was from construction work or from history buffs.

"When my wife and I first heard it, we thought it was a battle re-enactment," said Town Manager Stuart Hurd.

Soon, townspeople were complaining to Bennington officials and employees at the Apple Barn, a roadside store and gift shop where the orchard's apples are sold.

"I had a woman come in here and yell at my employees," said Lia Diamond, Albinder's daughter, who runs the store. "There were phone calls. Very unkind."

Connors erected a hand-lettered "No hail cannon" sign on the road leading to the orchard and lobbied town officials to silence it.

"It comes off of the mountain, and we even hear aftershocks from the blast," he said. "I'm from Brooklyn originally, and I have a pretty good sound filter. But I moved to Vermont for a different life, and here it is, more sound pollution following me up here."

Three times, police cited Herring, who erected an L-shaped barrier out of 800 hay bales to try to muffle the noise. It wasn't enough. The booms still exceeded the 45-decibel nighttime limit of Bennington's noise ordinance, and Albinder agreed in the middle of the summer to stop using the cannon for now, in exchange for dismissal of the citations.

Albinder argues his cannon is protected under Vermont's right-to-farm law, which exempts certain agricultural practices from local ordinances. But whether that argument would succeed in court is unclear.

In 2003, the Vermont Supreme Court said the right-to-farm law didn't protect an orchard from a neighbor's lawsuit over noise from its pallet-manufacturing operation because the orchard wasn't making the equipment before homes began springing up nearby.

"If a farm changes its practices to create a nuisance, the right-to-farm law does not necessarily protect that new farm practice," said Phil Benedict, a state agriculture official.

Albinder said he will ask the Legislature to override the town ordinance.

"This is my livelihood," he said.