tampabay.com

Peace, quiet go to the birds

By ANDREW SKERRITT
Published May 15, 2007


All year long, blueberry farmers toil on their precious fruit, waiting for early April.

That's when the berries turn a deep bluish purple, ready to pick.

But this spring, as soon as the blueberries started to ripen, it wasn't just the moms and dads who showed up to pick at Brenda Short's Berry Barn in Hudson.

Flocks of cedar waxwings - tiny, voracious, fruit-eating birds - dive-bombed her crop, biting the fruits and knocking other berries off the branches.

It was an act of war.

Short couldn't afford to just sit and watch the birds destroy her precious berries, which sold for more than $3 a pound.

After all, the 3-acre farm is part of her and her husband Jerry's retirement plan.

Some farmers have lost as much as 30 percent of their blueberry harvest to the birds. Short, like other area blueberry farmers, has been using an air cannon to shoo the birds.

"They don't get rid of the birds, " she said. "But it keeps them stirred up so they don't damage as much fruit."

Cedar waxwings are at the heart of a bitter dispute between blueberry farmers and their neighbors. The air cannons make a racket. Neighbors of the blueberry farms have been complaining about the incessant blasts over the past six weeks.

Residents have complained to Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano, who has the county staff looking at their limited options.

Under Florida law, Short and the other farmers have a right to protect their livelihood. Right now, that trumps a resident's right to peace and quiet during daylight hours.

We often hear about disputes between long-entrenched farmers and their new suburban neighbors. But this one has a twist: Some of the blueberry farms, like Bob's Blueberry Farm off New York Avenue, were started several years ago on agriculturally zoned land near existing housing developments.

People love the idea of having farms close by, but they're not always comfortable with the smells and sounds of farm life.

But this dispute also pits determined, decent people against each other.

"We have to protect our crops, " Short said. "We've got to do what we've got to do."

Her 4-year-old farm is in east Hudson, where it's still pretty rural. But Bob's Blueberry Farm's 12 1/2-acre blueberry patch is right next to The Estates and an apartment complex in Hudson.

Bill Stead, who lives nearby with his wife, Diane, could hear and feel the air cannons during the day and when they sound, mistakenly, at night.

He respects the right of farmers to save their harvest, just not at his expense.

"It's noise pollution at the highest, " he said. "If we were playing the radio very loud, somebody would be doing something to stop us."

He'd like to see the county force the farmers to opt for a less noisy solution - like making them buy nets to cover their plants. But that's a lot more expensive than shooting off a propane powered air cannon.

The other choice is to wait until the blueberry season ends in a few weeks.

But what about next year?

Cedar waxwings return based on migratory and crop ripening patterns. They pillaged local blueberry crops two years ago.

Short hopes the birds grant her a reprieve. She can do without another boom boom spring.

"We're country folks, " she said. "We like peace and quiet too."

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.