After using a hail cannon at his Lake Chelan, Washington, orchard for seven years, Doug Willcox considered it a sound investment, though he’s quick to admit there’s no scientific proof that it worked.
Between 1996 (when he and his partner Shannon Kollmeyer installed the cannon) and 2003 (when they ripped out their orchard for development), they were satisfied with the results, he said. In the precannon days they never had devastating hail, but hailstorms would consistently damage fruit in a corner of the orchard.
"After we installed the cannon in 1996, we never again had any measurable amount of hail damage to our orchard," Willcox said. "That being said, was it the weather that changed in 1996, or was the thing effective?"
Willcox believes the latter. The neighboring Bear Mountain Ranch at Chelan also had a cannon, and the two machines were close enough that the effect was amplified, he said.
A friend of his, who was an insurance agent, lived across the lake from Willcox’s orchard. Though Willcox imagined his friend would be skeptical of a competitor to hail insurance, the friend said he would sit on his deck watching storms coming in. He see the clouds change in appearance and open up as they approached the orchard.
"That observation, I thought, was probably a legitimate one and said something about the impact the cannon was having in a moderate storm that would otherwise have caused damage," Willcox said.
The $40,000 investment he made in the cannon was a good one, he believes. He and his partner stopped buying hail insurance and believe the cannon paid for itself many times over. When they went out of business, they sold their cannon to Bear Mountain Orchards.
Willcox, who lives at Palouse, Washington, became a good friend and colleague of Mike Eggers of New Zealand who manufactures the type of cannon he used. He is now involved in the manufacture of cannons sold in the United States. He coordinates the manufacturing of the cannon barrels, working with a steel supplier, a fabrication shop, and a galvanizing shop in eastern Washington.
Willcox estimates that Eggers has sold between 75 and 100 cannons in the United States. Most notably, one orchardist in Fresno bought 13 cannons. Some California growers might say publicly that the cannons don’t work, but that’s because they want to keep a competitive edge, he said.
The Tos family of Hanford, California, discussed their hail cannons with members of the International Fruit Tree Association during a visit to the orchard.
"We stopped buying hail insurance and bought hail cannons instead," Bill Tos said. One cannon is designed to protect an area from hail equivalent to about 160 acres.
Tos said their cannons are relatively new, and they haven’t had many opportunities yet to assess their effectiveness. During the one time they had hail since the cannons were installed, the storm came quickly and they didn’t have the cannons booming long enough. He said the cannons must be running for at least 20 minutes before hail activity to affect the hail formation. "I was sitting in my pickup, watching it hail, and listening to the cannon boom."
Though the noise of a cannon can sound deafening to those nearby, further away it sounds more like a high-pitched whine. The Fruit Grower magazine, which is published in the United Kingdom, reported in its April issue that use of hail cannons in northern European countries continues to increase, but so does the number of complaints about the noise. Belgian apple grower Peter D’Hondt bought a cannon that came with a special noise reduction kit that reduced the noise level by 40 percent. At a distance of 20 meters (65 feet), the level was normally 120 decibels, the report stated.
Willcox said complaints about the noise of the Eggers cannons have been few. "We installed a hail cannon for a grower down in Milton-Freewater [Oregon] that’s in a pretty suburban location, with houses all around, so he expected a lot of complaints," Willcox related. "I think he got some when he started off. He told me that after a few years, when there was a storm coming that everybody could see, he was then having calls from people wanting to know why he didn’t have his hail cannon on."
Another cannon was installed in Colorado, which has very strict noise regulations, he said. The owner of the cannon built a wall of large straw bails all around the cannon, which proved an effective way to mitigate the horizontal noise dissemination.
Ron Molina, orchard manager at Bear Mountain Ranch, said he had complaints from neighbors at first, but they soon stopped. "Now, people are really excited about it," he said. "You can actually watch it work. It’s really unique. It actually blows a hole in the sky, and it moves the clouds around in different directions."
Molina said since he’s had his two cannons to protect the 150-acre orchard, he has not had hail damage. He considers them a good investment.
Gebbers Farms (formerly Brewster Heights Packing Company) at Brewster, Washington, has had several hail cannons since the mid-1990s, and Willcox said some have been installed recently in the Horse Heaven Hills area in south central Washington.
He thinks poor economics in the apple industry in past years might be one reason there has not been a greater use of cannons in Washington. Another reason might be the fact that the apple industry has become concentrated in the hands of larger, vertically integrated operations whose production is widespread geographically, he said. Even if orchards in one area get hailed out, they can count on orchards in other areas not being affected.