For the last week, between the hours of midnight and sunrise, the spirit of every noise pollution law ever written has been broken by the wine grape growers of the Anderson Valley.
Because California’s “Right To Farm” ordinance apparently exempts agricultural practices from nuisance rules, and mega-loud giant fans to spare grapevines from the spring frosts is now considered a normal ag practice.
It's recently normal, like last year normal. Before that, the airliner-loud machines weren't used much — although when they were they were certainly a nuisance. This year, all the vineyards seem to have them, and there are at least 80 vineyards in the Anderson Valley. And many of them have more than one nuisance-generator.
This particular nuisance could be at least partially abated, as summarized in a recent Canadian study. Yes, grapes are grown in Canada. And, yes, Canada is the only country on record to have even studied the vineyard noise problem, much less done anything about it.
A study conducted by Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario pointed out what is painfully obvious to anyone who has the extreme misfortune to live near a vineyard wind machine: “Some nearby residents can be affected by low-frequency noise that rattles their windows, vibrates their homes and wakes them up at night. The problems they have been facing are from the low-frequency noise and vibrations. They can't sleep. They compare the noise to a helicopter or loud motor that becomes worse between 3 and 6am. Some say that they must sleep in the basement in order to get a good night's sleep and some indicated that the noise often awakens their children.”
They could have added that these impacts are even greater on the elderly, the infirm and the house-bound.
The authors of the Canadian study concluded:
• “Wind machines should be located as far as practical from the edge of neighboring homes within agricultural areas, but not closer than 125 meters [136 yards]. For neighbors living within [136 yards] of a machine, growers should, 1. discuss the need for wind machines and how, where and why they operate; consider creating an early warning system about possible machine use on certain nights; give neighbors a 24-hour cell phone number to call when the noise gets very bad; and use a ‘Last On, First Off’ principle for such machine(s).
• “Growers should be more diligent in operating wind machines on farms where they do not live, as they are not always there to hear if and how their machines are operating.
• “All wind machine engines should have mufflers.
There are other options as well:
• Keep the speed down on machines near residences.
• Put up sound barriers in the direction of any residence(s).
• Make sure equipment is in good operating condition to minimize noise.
• Install smaller, quieter machines. (Doug Riddle of Orchard-Rite Ltd. Inc. in Canada, said, “Wind machines vary in noise depending upon model. We have models that will range from approximately 55 to 70 dB measured at 300 meters. These are approximate numbers and they may change with the atmospheric conditions.” The prices also depends on the model, engine type and location. They range from approximately $25,000 to $30,000 and some up to $40,000.
But so far, all we’ve gotten from Official Mendocino County and the wine industry is the following, “We know it’s loud and annoying and we’re really, really sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.” The “Tough Cheese” letter from Scharffenberger Cellars’ Arnaud Weyrich, reprinted below, was mailed to Scharffenberger's beset neighbors. Scharffenberger is owned by the French winery, Roederer. Weyrich is a French national, but his attitude is shared by his uncaring American wine colleagues.
Wine and grape businesses are strictly regulated in France. Noise at the decibel levels suffered for a week now by the several thousand residents of the Anderson Valley would not be tolerated in France. At all.
“Dear friends and neighbors,
“I wish to apologize for the noise that our wind machines create and hope that you will understand the reasons that brought us and so many other growers throughout the Valley to the use of these frosts control fans.
We have been farming grapes in the Valley for over 20 years in as sustainable and low impact a manner as we can, both for our shared environment and the Valley community. We have deep roots in the community providing jobs and housing for many of our local families. We are fish friendly farming certified on all of our ranches demonstrating our deep commitment to water conservation and protection of our watershed.
“The most effective (and quietest) method for frost protection is the use of water through overhead sprinklers during a frost event. Besides protecting the shoots from freezing and subsequent loss of crop, it also extends the rainy season by returning water to the ground after the rain has stopped. The water which is collected during the peak rains of the rainy season comes from our state permitted diversion ponds. By state regulation, when the river is flowing above 200 CFS as measured at the USGS gauge on the Navarro River we are restricted to diverting from surface flow no more than a metered 2 CFS to our holding ponds. This diversion period ends 31 March each year. In addition, we do not pump from either the Navarro River or Indian Creek for frost protection or irrigation.
“This year mother nature has not brought us enough rain to be able to fill our ponds leaving us with a difficult choice: do nothing and lose our crops to frost when the limited supply of water in our ponds runs out, or use wind machines during frost events when there is an inversion layer of warmer air that we can mix with the cold air at the vine level in hopes of preventing damage.
“Many of you have asked why the machines are running when there is no frost present. The air mixing must start while the air temperature is above freezing in order to be effective. Our machines turn on automatically at 34°F and turn off at 37°F after the threat of frost has passed.
“We chose the wind machines to protect our livelihood as farmers and the jobs of all the Valley families that depend on us. Once the frost season has passed the machines will no longer be necessary for the 2014 season. We request your patience with the situation.
“Again, I apologize for the disturbance in your life that the noise from these machines creates.
Very sincerely yours, Arnaud Weyrich,
Scharffenberger Cellers, Philo
* * *
Not surprisingly, County Ag Commissioner Chuck Morse told us basically the same thing — “Sorry about that; there’s nothing we can do” — based on the “Right To Farm” ordinance and having discussed the problem with Scharffenberger before returning our call.
Scharffenberger is not the only villain here. The propane-fueled fans are at work in vineyards the length of the valley. Every morning, from Boonville to Navarro, they snap on after midnight and roar full force until after sunrise whenever the temperature drops into the 30s.
Wine grapes are pretty much the only crop deploying the giant blowers. Grapes are considered a “high value” crop that can justify the high cost of the machines. (You’d never see the giant noisemakers providing frost protection to apples or broccoli.) As noted above, each wind machine costs between $25,000 and $40,000 — the cheaper the louder. They are mostly operated automatically, programmed to turn on when the temperature nears freezing and to turn off when the ambient temps rise above freezing.
If the vineyard owners were really “sorry” about the noise they generate at this time of the year, they could start by offering to voluntarily observe the 136 yard setbacks from residences; require that all machines near homes be fully muffled; keep the rpms for units near residence below “full throttle,” develop operating guidelines to minimize their use in those setback zones when there’s no option; and require that in areas where multiple fans are in use the machines are not too close to each other.
Official Mendocino County and the wine industry, not that there's much difference, could also develop setback rules, decibel levels limits, minimum equipment characteristics and operational guidelines.
As it is though, the problem will not only be ignored by the County and the wine industry because, as with everything else associated with Big Grape in Mendocino County, Big Grape gets a free pass: pesticides, public water, industrial land scraping, planting density, ponds, grading on steep slopes, no-permit wine tasting rooms… And now we can add: mind-numbing, sleep-depriving NOISE.
Mendocino County Ag Commissioner Chuck Morse won’t issue an advisory bulletin to growers suggesting that they try to be neighborly by using practices such as those mentioned above. All he’s offered to do is send a letter to the Mendocino Wine Growers Association informing them that there have been some complaints — the same wine grape growers who jammed Judge Ann Moorman’s courtroom a couple of years ago to scream about a state proposal that would have asked them to prepare their own plans for minimizing fish kills when lots of them, on frosty mornings, simultaneously pump water directly from the blue line Russian River. The judge heard their screams, and even in a drought year this insufferably arrogant lobby can help itself to a public stream.
Meanwhile, if you live near a vineyard, get some blackout curtains and earplugs and — especially in March and April — get your sleep in during the daylight hours. In Mendocino County, the wine industry owns the night.