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Ag retailer’s guiding principles generate growth

It’s easy for a company to say what it stands for. It’s another thing to live by those words. For Martin Detillieux, owner of Cavalier Agrow in Meota, SK, sticking to his principles is what differentiates his farm inputs business from others, and keeps customers coming back.

“Initially our retail shop wasn’t really much different from anyone else’s,” Detillieux says. “We sold fertilizer and had a small chemical shed. But it was our core beliefs and our agronomic guidance that kept us alive. Eventually we developed a following of growers who wanted someone trustworthy to bounce ideas off, and who was willing to help them try out their new ideas.”

Cavalier’s guiding principles are simple and very effective. The company sells agronomic products and services geared to help growers improve their bottom line, and these products must be economical. If this philosophy is followed then Cavalier will be successful too, says Detillieux, adding that the company has never once deviated from its principles.

“If a farmer is profitable then we will be,” says Detillieux. “If we build up credibility and loyalty, then we don’t have to worry about our own economics; they will just fall into place.”

Cavalier Agrow was formed when the railways and elevators were closing across Saskatchewan. As many services were being cut to rural areas, Detillieux saw a need to bring those services back to growers. He opened the initial location in 1999 and has opened three more — in Medstead, Meadow Lake and Spiritwood, SK — over the past decade.

A fluid shift

One aspect of the business Detillieux attributes to its success was the move to liquid fertilizer. But before the shift could be made, customers had to be sold on the idea. The company’s pitch for liquid worked, and as demand increased so too did Cavalier’s storage tank capacity, recently increased by the addition of a two million-gallon tank at its Meota location.

“We truly believe that applying liquid fertilizer gives customers a more uniform blend of nutrients for a better performing crop,” says Greg Frey, agronomist with Cavalier. “In the beginning it was relatively easy to switch our customers over to liquid as they needed to make only minor changes as they adapted to minimum tillage or zero tillage equipment. At first we believed it was just an economical solution — now we believe it is better.”

Cavalier offers year-round agronomy services that start with soil testing. Through the winter, staff help clients complete crop plans that include economics, agronomics and crop rotation advice. The company offers scouting services and runs an extensive trial program. It uses its own local trial data to offer solid support for its agronomic recommendations.

Try and try again

One of the unique services offered by Cavalier is an extensive field-scale trial program. The independent trials are run on its customers’ fields, and results measured using its own weigh wagons.

“We’ve developed a protocol between ourselves and our growers to make sure the results are dependable,” says Frey. “Product trials are tailored to the issues our local growers have, and scaled large enough that we can say the results are repeatable. This way we get focused data that is more useful to our customers.”
Each year Cavalier averages around 150 trials that look at everything from herbicides, fungicides and seed performance, to different agronomic techniques. But the focus varies from year to year. Last year, for example, 70 fields were dedicated to seed treatment trials. Cavalier controlled the equipment used so all products were applied and harvested the same way.

“Every year people want to see something different,” says Detillieux. “Last year one of the biggest requests was for trials to help our customers boost protein in their wheat. This year it was looking at the use of micro and macronutrients, especially following a wet and delayed spring.”

Cavalier doesn’t widely publish its results, but shares them with clients. “Our customers and staff commit significant time and effort to run trials to make sure we supply products that work in our area,” says Detillieux. “A lot goes into the trials to prove that they work, so we’re a little selfish with our results.”

Over the winter months, customers come to Cavalier and talk about issues they had the previous year, or about ideas they have for the next year. The company develops its trial program over the winter so it’s ready to go by spring.

Team players

Cavalier Agrow is an independent retailer, serviced by InterAg, the retail distribution arm of Bayer CropScience. Kent Burnett, territory sales manager with InterAg, says Cavalier has a passion for business and an upbeat attitude that is easily recognizable to its customers. And its trials offer a level of service that nobody else in its trading area has.

“Cavalier helps its customers grow,” says Burnett. “It showcases products under real life conditions and has people who can answer questions on anything from products, to agronomics to marketing. (Sales reps) give all of their customers one-on-one attention, and for busy guys that’s not always easy to do.”

Burnett says that while some can be skeptical about the latest products on the market, the team at Cavalier is always enthusiastic about trying new technologies and showcasing what those products can or cannot do.

“I appreciate that these guys don’t just try whatever we suggest,” he says. “They often have ideas for how to use products better, and they don’t hesitate to see if they are correct in their assumptions. There’s never a lack of ideas; never a lack of innovative thought.”

Cavalier also partners with its clients to round out the services it’s able to provide such as working with custom sprayers, floaters and carriers to help get the job done.

Blair St. Amant and his dad grow 4,800 acres of grain just north of North Battleford, SK. He started farming at the same time Cavalier opened its doors, and now partners with the company as a custom sprayer.

“Cavalier has really helped improve my operation as a farmer,” says St. Amant. “We’ve increased our fertilizer rates by as much as 40 per cent and we’ve seen how it doesn’t pay to scrimp on nutrition.”

St. Amant ran 12 trials on his own farm this year, and thinks he’s able to stay competitive because he knows where to make adjustments that work best on his farm. And people trust him as a sprayer because he is affiliated with Cavalier and its good reputation.

“Cavalier is always there when needed,” says St. Amant. “And I mean always — I’m not quite sure how the company does it. Even as a custom sprayer, Cavalier helps me with my part of the business because in the end it helps its business.”

With its most recent location opening in 2010, Cavalier has grown from two employees in 1999, to 15 full-time and 15 seasonal workers. But Detillieux says that any future growth will only be considered if its founding principles remain intact.

“We’ve had a strong growth curve and we don’t want to grow too fast and jeopardize what our company was built on,” says Detillieux. “But we keep our minds open to new opportunities. We tend to think that although the market is mature in this area, there is still room to get bigger. But we’re not in a hurry to get there.”

Photo Credit: Genesis Studio