For five decades Dick and Donna Ford have been in the irrigation business serving the Cariboo Chilcotin and other areas in the province.
The Fords arrived in Williams Lake in March 1969 when he was hired to work for an irrigation business that was hoping to expand into the area.
“I wanted a job in Kamloops, but they offered me one here so we came here and never left, which is the story of a lot of people in Williams Lake,” he said.
By 1974 they were ready to start their own business — Highlands Irrigation Ltd. — and eventually opened an office in Kamloops as well.
“It’s an interesting business,” Ford said of what’s kept him intrigued and committed. “I like dealing with the agricultural community, the water-related industrial community and hydraulic design. You need to know what you are doing when you are putting water through pipes.”
Over the years the basics have not changed but technology has, and the move to centre pivots has been a big advancement in recent years.
Highlands Irrigation’s customer base extends to other regions in B.C.
They do work in Keremeos, Osoyoos, Rock Creek and north to Vanderhoof, Smithers and occasionally to the Yukon.
“From the irrigation perspective, one of the biggest challenges is labour,” Ford said. “The reason they go to centre pivots is because it takes a lot less labour whereas the old hand lines and wheel lines need staff all the time to man them.”
Working with ranchers begins with a phone call where the rancher explains what is needed.
“We then visit them on site because the parameters of designing irrigation systems need to be seen, although we are greatly helped by Google Earth these days,” Ford said. “You have to have good relationships because your client has to trust in what you are saying.”
Designing is done by certified irrigation designers, which Ford said is a certification from a the Irrigation Industry Association of BC.
“We formed that years ago with a bit of leadership from people in the Ministry of Agriculture.”
Water sources are normally from lakes and rivers, and a few customers
Traditional water licences can go back more than 100 years in some cases.
“More recently, they are being asked to license their wells as well because of the interest in aquifers and ground water.”
In the company there are four full-time staff in Williams Lake, four full-time staff in the Kamloops office and four part-time in each as well.
“More of the development was happening up here and the Kamloops area was already established. Only when the higher technology stuff became more feasible to them in Kamloops — we did more of the centre pivots up here than Kamloops, but as people wanted pivots in Kamloops then we were in demand more down there.”
The Fords’ four children support the business in various aspects, including son Chris Ford who operates the Kamloops branch.
Originally from New Zealand where he still owns a ranch that is now leased out, Ford said it is a dry stock farm — which means the cattle don’t produce milk other than to nurse their calves.
Recalling his arrival in the lakecity, he said it snowed. A typical March, he added.
The stockyards were where Pinnacle Pellet is now directly across from where Highlands Irrigation is on South Lakeside Drive.
“There were a lot more ranchers in the Williams Lake area then,” he recalled. “Things have changed in the sense that many ranches are owned by bigger outfits such as Douglas Lake Cattle Company and Blue Goose Cattle Company.”
Business is steady, Ford said as he eyed the future.
“I think our company will be a bit more service-oriented. There’s room for development yet, and it’s surprising where it comes from.”
For example, he added, they do quite a bit of business with placer mining pumps and wheels, a bit of aluminum fabrication for things such as vacuum trucks and they are receiving more business from dairy farmers and market gardeners.
“Of course we are getting a lot of interest in fire protection equipment right now — that’s more pumps and sprinklers and hoses since the fires have started. And from that perspective we try to offer similar advice that we do for irrigation to ensure people have got a hose size and pump size that will get the water where they want it.”