Electronic scarecrow idea not for the birds

Bruce Blacklock vividly re-members announcing his new enterprise to a group of fellow farmers in 1990.


“We had a barbecue at the farm, there were about 40 people and I demonstrated this device and said, ‘I’m going to build these and sell them,’” recalls Blacklock. 


“They all laughed and said, ‘you’re nuts.’ ”


But, he adds, “they don’t say that anymore.”


The device was an “electronic scarecrow,” to which Blacklock, then a sheep farmer in Cape John, N.S., had just bought the rights.


Today, about 2,500 bird deterrent systems made by Phoenix Agritech are used in more than 60 countries. Airports wanting to keep birds off their runways are major customers, but the machines are also used to keep birds away from vineyards, fruit and berry operations, electrical substations, tailing ponds and towns.


Many upgrades have been made, but the potential was obvious from the start. The question is why Blacklock saw it and his friends didn’t. The answer holds a lesson for anyone seeking opportunity for their farm business.


Blacklock bought his system in desperation after coyotes began ravaging his flock. Every measure he took, from guard donkeys to fencing and trapping, proved ineffective. 


He came across the system, originally designed to keep rabbits out of vegetable fields, on a trip to his native Britain and modified it by adding a flashing light.


“It made all sorts of horrible electronic sounds, like a video arcade times 10,” he says. 


“The coyotes wouldn’t come anywhere near it.”


He was negotiating North American distribution rights when the manufacturer went into receivership. Blacklock wound up buying the company’s intellectual property rights and paltry inventory for $1,250.


“So I was suddenly the proud owner of a couple of cardboard boxes of circuit boards and a few half-finished systems,” he says. 


“I knew nothing about electronics, but I kind of figured it out.”


He built some devices with the help of son Graham and sold a few to livestock producers with coyote problems. 


However, his British Columbia distributor then discovered a huge interest from berry growers plagued by nuisance birds, and Blacklock, an ardent birder since boyhood, re-placed the cacophony of electronic noise with bird cries. 


Within five years, business was so brisk he had to quit full-time sheep farming.


Today, Wailers, which sell for $2,000 and up, and the economy Squawker version, which start at $1,300, emit a carefully chosen selection of bird noises drawn from more than 400 bird calls in Phoenix Agritech’s audio library. Most are either some sort of bird distress or alarm call, or the cries of hawks, eagles and other avian predators. 


The result is a lot of jumpy birds, which soon decide that life would be a lot less nerve-wracking somewhere else.


Blacklock custom-designs each system. So, for example, when Bahrain airport officials called about their gull problem, he advised them on a system designed to drive away the species from that part of the Persian Gulf.


“I wasn’t expecting to do this; I thought I’d be farming all my life,” says Blacklock, who still raises sheep on his 50-acre hobby farm, a six-minute drive from his company’s office in Debert, N.S.


“But I saw this thing seemed to work and there was more of a market for birds than coyotes, and I thought I’d just try to develop it.”


Give it a try and see where it goes.


It sounds deceptively simple, but it’s anything but. Like most farmers, Blacklock says his friends would think nothing of re-engineering a piece of equipment, but fiddling with electronics somehow seemed a whole lot more complicated than welding, and so they laughed off his idea.


“There are opportunities all the time,” he says. “But most people don’t recognize an opportunity when they trip over it.”


As Blacklock’s friends discovered, asking if something might work is not as nutty as it looks.

Archived columns from this series can be found at www.fcc-fac.ca/learning. Farm Credit Canada enables business management skill development through resources such as this column, and information and learning events available across Canada. 


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