Donald Eurice was walking through one of his fields in Middle River when he picked up an ear of corn blackbirds had damaged.
"You take sweet corn," he said, pointing to gaps at the end of the ear where kernels used to be. "They take two picks on it you can’t sell it. It’s done."
Left alone, Eurice says, blackbirds can wipe out a field in a matter of days. You can fire a shotgun to scare them away, but you can’t do that all day long. And besides, it gets expensive, buying all those shotgun shells. So Eurice has air cannons.
They run off a propane container like you use on a barbecue grill. Eurice puts them in a field and sets them with a timer, so every couple of minutes they let off a loud “boom” to scare away the birds. But that loud “boom” from his farm and others throughout the county has come under fire from the neighbors.
The controversy has led to legislation in the Baltimore County Council that would restrict when farmers can use the 'air cannons' and ignited debate over balancing farmers’ rights to farm with their neighbors’ need for a good night’s sleep.
Take Janet and Peter Terry, who live across the street from one of Eurice’s fields, for example.
"It’s like living in a war zone back here," Janet Terry said. "It’s constant, constant high level gunshots going off all day long and into the night."
Peter Terry said earlier this summer the cannon in that field stressed out everyone, from old folks, to grandkids, to the neighbors’ dogs.
"They have to take them out of the community in order to walk them because they won’t urinate they’re so traumatized," Terry said.
Now, to be sure, there is some bad blood between Eurice and his neighbors. A few years ago Eurice wanted to sell his farm to a developer and the neighbors successfully blocked the sale. But Eurice says the cannon fire has nothing to do with that.
"Just trying to make a living here," he said.
Middle River isn’t the only place in Baltimore County where there are skirmishes over air cannons. County Councilman David Marks said he's gotten complaints from his constituents in Perry Hall, where neighborhoods and farmland butt up against each other.
Marks is co-sponsoring legislation with Councilwoman Cathy Bevins that would prohibit the use of air cannons from 10 p.m. until 7 am.
Bevins, who represents Middle River, said the cannons are annoying the neighbors.
"And keeping them up and waking children up and making people cranky," she said.
Eurice said blackbirds feed from sunup to sundown. So, if he has to wait until 7 a.m. to fire the cannons, the birds will pick him clean of corn during the early sunrise days of summer.
Jo-Ann Chason, president of the Baltimore County Farm Bureau worries about the precedent the legislation might set.
"My concern is once we start making exceptions of this nature, my fear is it becomes a slippery slope and where does it stop," she asked.
She said the number of farmers using air cannons has increased in recent years, but she didn’t have exact figures.
Maryland’s right to farm law protects farmers from being sued by neighbors who consider the noise, smell and other consequences of a farm a nuisance. Baltimore County has the right to restrict when air cannons are used, but because of the right to farm law it cannot ban them.
Julie Oberg, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, said it’s believed this is the first time a Maryland locality has tried to regulate when farmers can use the devices.
Barthell Joseph is sales manager for Reed-Joseph International in Greenville Mississippi. Their business is selling things like air cannons to scare away wildlife. He said the cannons are both non-lethal and effective.
"There are not a whole lot of viable options other than harassment," he said.
But nearby neighbors would contend it’s not just the blackbirds that are being harassed. The County Council is to take up the cannons at its meeting next Tuesday.