Bringing the joy of farm toys back to Grand Forks
Thu Feb 24 2022 10:34:17 AM EST
GRAND FORKS, ND – Nate Schlief is a farm toy enthusiast who, with the help of his family, is bringing excitement back to Grand Forks.
Schlief, who lives in Thompson with his wife and two sons, works full-time as a technical communications specialist for RDO Equipment. It handles calls from farmers to stores or their operations dealing with tractors, combines, mowers and more.
“Up to the precision of agriculture, with GPS equipment and automatic steering of tractors in the field,” said Schlief, who graduated from North Dakota State University. “I’ve been working in the equipment industry pretty much since then.”
He also has a new side job now, as a farm toy show organizer. Schlief is channeling his farm toy fandom and love for family to bring a farm toy show back to Grand Forks, where there hasn’t been one in a long time.
Find this first happiness
Schlief grew up on a farm and said his interest in farming goes back about as far as his interest in farm toys.
He remembers his first – an International 915 Combine – when it was new in the box, under the Christmas tree a year old. Like many collectors, Schlief still has that first toy.
“I would like to restore it one day and put it back to its original state,” said Schlief of International 915.
He said a goal for him and other farm toy enthusiasts was to find the toys they had for their children.
“It’s about those good memories that you had, and hanging out and playing together, and just having a good time,” he said.
The joy of farm toys began for Schlief when he was a very young child, playing with his cousins and friends. As he got older, he remained involved with farm toys and found a network of people who enjoyed them just as much.
His love for farm toys grew even stronger when he reached high school and went to the National Farm Toy Show, an annual event held in Dyersville, Iowa, the first weekend in November.
The hobby continued through college, when trips with family and friends to the national show became an annual tradition.
“Someone once told me that when you collect farm toys, you collect really good friends,” Schlief said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Displays are one of the many facets of the farm toy world and allow youngsters to express their creativity and love for farming.
Schlief’s parents now enjoy going to watch their grandsons compete in farm toy shows with their displays, including his youngest son, Austin, who has special needs.
“One thing I love about this hobby is that it’s inclusive for everyone,” he said.
His parents and older brother were happy collaborators when Austin Schlief expressed interest in doing his own exhibits, his father said. He is now on his fourth exhibition – including one he showed at the North Dakota State Fair as a 4-H project and came home with a ribbon.
Creativity is needed to put together a farm toy display, Schlief said, and a good imagination. He said his sons have found things in their kitchen cupboards that look like corn, to use in displays inside a hopper on a combine or inside a wagon.
“It’s just a creative process and a kind of art,” he said of the farm’s toy displays. “And that’s something kids are interested in.”
Meeting a Need in Grand Forks
There are farm toy exhibits in Minot, Langdon, Fargo and Bismarck. But there hasn’t been a regular farm toy show in Grand Forks for a long time, Schlief said.
“It was when I was a kid, a lot of small towns had their own toy fairs,” he said, more than 30 years ago.
But rural populations have dwindled since then, Schlief said, and farm toy shows typically shut down if the people running them died, which happened in Grand Forks.
During a show surrounded by fellow enthusiasts, including co-organizer and friend Mike Radi, Schlief said he understood the need to bring a show back to Grand Forks.
“We were talking about how it’s such a good network of people at the shows,” he said. “I spend most of the time at toy fairs talking about different toy memories or just memories of growing up on a farm, and that’s a lot of what it’s all about – the camaraderie with other people.”
There’s a need for a show in Grand Forks, Schlief said, and people have reached out to him from as far away as Rochester, Minnesota, to get on the show.
“A lot (of the farm toy industry) have gone online, and that’s how it is – but we miss the human connection you have when you go to the show and visit someone,” Schlief said.
Organizing the event was a family affair, with his wife, Deb, having become involved in the financial aspects of putting on a great show. Austin Schlief also plays an important leadership role, his father said, leading him to believe the show will go on for many years to come.
Austin Schlief made the show’s planning so much his own that Radi now calls him the “Big Kahuna” of the operation.
“Before making a final decision, we better ask the Big Kahuna and see what he has to say,” Schlief said. “He’s really enjoying it and learning about the leadership role and what it takes to put it together, and I was really impressed.”
In the 11,000 to 12,000 square feet of space available at the Alerus Center, Schlief expects the Greater Grand Forks Farm Toy Show to have 75 to 80 tables. As of February 23, he said there were nearly 60 tables reserved. They hope that some of the remaining places will be filled by young people.
“We really encourage students to come up with farm toy displays,” he said. “Don’t spend a lot of money on it and just let the kids enjoy what they’re doing.”
There will be “lots of educational components,” Schlief said, including a table with a 3D printer where an individual will show people how to 3D print parts and models for displays.
“We think it’s a good place for a beginner or someone who’s never been to a farm toy show to come and learn,” he said. “Up to someone who is an avid collector.
WHAT: Grand Forks Farm Toy Fair
WHEN: March 18, 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. / March 19, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
WHERE: Alerus Center, Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Admission is $6 per day and free for ages 12 and under.
For more information visit the
Facebook group, or call Nate Schlief (701-809-1786) or Mike Radi (218-791-5818).