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Published December 07, 2007, 12:00 AM

Fencing in farm toy fun

Michelle Blegen’s inspiration as a farm-toy entrepreneur came as a mother who was unhappy with the flimsy plastic fences available for her children’s make-believe livestock pens and corrals.

By: Lloyd Omdahl,

Michelle Blegen’s inspiration as a farm-toy entrepreneur came as a mother who was unhappy with the flimsy plastic fences available for her children’s make-believe livestock pens and corrals.

That dissatisfaction remained a minor annoyance until the day a couple of years ago that her husband sent her an e-mail about the Innovate North Dakota competition for entrepreneurs.

That was the nudge she needed to explore the feasibility of making metal toy fence sections, both more durable and more realistic than the cheap plastic imitations she found in stores.

During her spare time, the mother of five who works full time in the Farm Service Administration office in Fargo, delved in and drafted business and marketing plans.

Nobody seemed to make fences the equal of the life-like models of livestock that are a mainstay of farm play. “At least I haven’t been able to find them,” Blegen says.

Blegen made it past the first round of competition before being eliminated, but her idea lived on as My Little Ranchhand – “Buckaroo Basics: Toys Tough Enough for Cowboys.”

As of a few months ago, she sells toy fence sections. The parts are die-cast in Winona, Minn., and painted with a special nonchip coating in Fargo and available in a variety of colors and styles.

Blegen operates the small business out of her home on a livestock farm in rural Cass County, about 45 miles southwest of Fargo near Kindred, where her family raises beef cattle and horses.

“Basically Old McDonald’s farm,” she says. Her husband also works full time off the farm as manager of an edible bean plant in Casselton. “We basically work day and night.”

Although the Blegen farm is on the edge of the Red River Valley, Blegen has staked out her corner of cyberspace, with a Web site (mylittleranchhand.com) that has connected her with customers in far-flung locations including Idaho, Utah and Nebraska in addition to North Dakota and Minnesota.

She also listed her fence panels on eBay, the Internet auction site, and sent handbills to livestock sale barns with a request that they post them, a source of word-of-mouth advertising that seems to be spreading in cattle and horse country.

“Basically that’s where I’ve gotten my sales so far,” she says. “My plan is to go to trade shows to put up booths, but frankly, they’re expensive.”

And time-consuming for a mother who works full time outside the home.

If the fence line does well, she hopes to expand her toy line with an eye toward nostalgic adult collectors, including people who grew up on a farm but now live in a city.

“North Dakota used to be dotted with little farms,” she says. “Everybody had a couple of cows.”

Her dream is that some day her toy fences will be on the shelves in farm-supply stores, alongside other toys. “That’s my ultimate goal, to see them sold in stores,” she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522 Fencing in farm toy fun Patrick Springer 20071207

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