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  • Norfolk Farms

Vanden Bussche Irrigation celebrates 70 years

When Gerard Vanden Bussche started the company that bears his family name 70 years ago, it’s safe to assume he never imagined the success it would be.

Vanden Bussche Irrigation president Marc Vanden Bussche, centre, is bringing a fourth generation into the family business with his son Gerad and daughter Gillian are both company vice-presidents.

Gerard arrived in Canada in 1926, and initially settled in Chatham with other Flemish immigrants. He grew his first tobacco crop in 1928, and then bought and sold numerous tobacco farms. Gerard worked for the winter for another area farm dealer and was offered the contract to sell Wade Rain aluminum couplings when that dealer turned it down.

Together with his son Roger, they started the company in 1954, retailing Wade Rain aluminum couplings, Rain Bird Impact Sprinklers and CMC pumps. The company was known as G. Vanden Bussche and Son in the early days.

“That’s the coupling that got Vanden Bussche Irrigation to this spot,” said Marc Vanden Bussche, Gerard’s grandson and the president of the company today. “You can get pipe anywhere, but the coupling is so integral.”

Roger Vanden Bussche demonstrates the first Rain Bird Agriculture Gun after the new irrigation equipment is introduced to Canada.

Big changes came in the mid to late 1960s. The first mechanically moving irrigation system, the Wade Rain Power Roll, was introduced in 1965. A year later, Rain Bird Agriculture Guns were launched. The successful company moved to its larger, present location off Highway 3, south of Delhi, in 1967.

A decade later, Vanden Bussche introduced the Bauer travelers to the North American market.

There was a shake-up in the family with the Roger’s unexpected death in 1979 while on a business trip in Oregon. His wife Theresa took over running the company with assistance from long-time employee Brooke Sowden.

Acquisition of other irrigation companies started in the 1980s and brought new product lines to Vanden Bussche. These included Zimmatic Pivots in 1983 and a drip irrigation line a year later.

The traveller, as it’s commonly called, has been one of the mainstays of Vanden Bussche Irrigation. Travellers were commonly used with a gun for tobacco irrigation. Today, many are still in use but are often used with a sprinkler boom instead of a gun.

When Grainger Irrigation was purchased in Scarborough in 1986, it was the start of the expansion into golf and recreation irrigation and the opening of a second location. After Shemin Nurseries was acquired in 1994, further expansion into turf irrigation took place and a third location was opened in Milton. This purchase also gave Vanden Bussche Irrigation the rights for the Rain Bird golf line from Windsor to Kingston. The company started assembling Bauer travelers in Delhi in 1995, which still continues to this day.

Marc, started working in the family business when he was a kid. “Basically, so mom could get the kids out of the house, send them to work with dad,” he recalled.

When he was 18 in 1980, he started working in the company full-time, working in assembly, sales and shipping. He shifted into more of a sales role from 1984 to 1996. When Brooke started to cut back, Marc became vice-president of the company and has been president the last 10 years since his mother passed away.

One of the big changes he made was purchasing a 115-acre farm on Highway 3 between Delhi and Simcoe and turning it into the Vanden Bussche Irrigation Learning Centre. This is used to train staff how to use the equipment and showcase new products. Marc fondly calls it the “world’s largest irrigation working showroom”.

Marc said Vanden Bussche Irrigation is now the leading irrigation company in eastern Canada. The company at one time had five locations, but a new business strategy cut that to three.

Today, the Wade Rain couplings are still a big part of the business, and are being installed on older irrigation pipe.

“They’re slowly getting converted over to the proper couplings,” he said. “We don’t sell a lot of new pipe anymore.”

Business has changed from the old days as far as how the water is delivered to the plant from the pipe. The big irrigation guns from the hey days of the tobacco industry are becoming fewer, with a switch to sprinklers.

“Everyone is realizing the energy and fuel you need to run that,” he said of the pump pressure to deliver water from high pressure guns. Wind was also mentioned as a challenge with guns as the water is more prone to being blown when moving a longer distance.

Driving the back roads of Norfolk County, there is a switch from tobacco to vegetables and cash crops. Drip irrigation is big for vegetables as it can provide both water and fertilizer. Many of the travelers are still in use, although a conversion has been made to sprinkler booms as the energy use is lower and wind doesn’t have as big an impact.

Pivot irrigation, which is huge in the U.S. for many crops, has grown in Canada for potatoes, sod, and cash crop corn. Marc said potatoes are one of the large uses for this irrigation type.

Today, Vanden Bussche Irrigation is owned by Marc and his four sisters. His children, Gerad and Gillian, are company vice-presidents and are the fourth generation of the family involved in the company. The company still stresses integrity as it did the day the doors opened.

As the company celebrates its 70th anniversary, it becomes one of an elite few businesses reaching this threshold. Although Statistics Canada didn’t have recent data for the percentage of companies that make it to 70 years, it did find that, dependent on the sector, only between 19 and 30 per cent of companies make it to 19 years. Those numbers are sure to get a lot leaner past 40, 50 and 60 years. 


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