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Schlief family bringing Farm Toy Show back to Grand Forks

The first annual Greater Grand Forks Farm Toy Show will be held March 18-19.

A farm toy display made by Austin Schlief
Screenshot of Austin Schlief's 1/64 scale display at the 2020 National Farm Toy Show.
Courtesy / Toy Tractor Times YouTube page
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Bringing the joy of farm toys back to Grand Forks
Thu Feb 24 10:34:17 EST 2022
Agweek reporter Noah Fish talks with Nate Schlief, a farm toy enthusiast and organizer of the Greater Grand Forks Farm Toy Show, happening March 18-19. Schlief talks about rediscovering the joy from our very first toys, how farm toy displays can spark creativity in youth, and what inspired him to bring an annual farm toy show back to Grand Forks, North Dakota.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Nate Schlief is a farm toy enthusiast, who with the help of his family, is bringing back the excitement around them to Grand Forks.

Schlief, who lives in Thompson with his wife and their two sons, works full-time as a technical communications specialist for RDO Equipment. He handles calls from farmers from stores or their operations dealing with tractors, combines, mowers and more.

"All the way up to the precision ag side of things, with GPS equipment and making tractors auto steer in the field," said Schlief, who got his degree from North Dakota State University. "I've worked in the equipment industry pretty much ever since then."

He's got a new side gig now too, as a farm toy show organizer. Schlief is channeling his fandom for farm toys and his love for family to bring a farm toy show back to Grand Forks, where one hasn't been held in a long time.

Rediscovering that first joy

Schlief was raised on a farm and said his interest in farming goes back about as long as his interest in farm toys.

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He remembers his first — an International 915 Combine — back to when it was new in the box, under the Christmas tree one year. Like many collectors, Schlief still has that first toy.

"I'd like to restore it someday and get it back into the original condition," said Schlief of the International 915.

He said a goal for him and other farm toy hobbyists is to find the toys they had kids.

"It's all about those good memories that you had, and spending time and playing together, and just having a good time," he said.

The joy from farm toys began for Schlief when he was a very young kid, playing with his cousins and friends. As he grew older, he stayed involved with farm toys and found a network of people who enjoyed them just as much.

His love for farm toys developed even more when he reached high school, and traveled to the National Farm Toy Show — an annual event held in Dyersville, Iowa, on the first weekend of November.

The hobby carried into college, when trips with family and friends to the national show became an annual tradition.

"Somebody once said to me that when you collect farm toys, really you're collecting good friends," said Schlief "And that's what it's all about."

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Displaying youth talent

Austin Schlief farm toy display
Screenshot of Austin Schlief's 1/64 scale display at the 2020 National Farm Toy Show.
Courtesy / Toy Tractor Times YouTube

Displays are one of the many facets of the farm toy world, and allow for young people to express their creativity and love for farming.

Schlief's parents now enjoy going to see 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 it's inclusive for everybody," he said.

His parents and older brother were happy collaborators when Austin Schlief expressed his interest in doing his own displays, said his dad. Now he's on his fourth display — one of which he took to the North Dakota State Fair as a 4-H project, and came home with a ribbon.
Creativity is required to put together a farm toy display, said Schlief, 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 of a wagon.

"It's just a creative process, and kind of an art," he said of farm toy displays. "And it's something that kids are interested in."

Filling a need in Grand Forks

Greater Grand Forks Farm Toy Show flyer
Flyer for the Greater Grand Forks Farm Toy Show.
Courtesy / Nate Schlief

There are farm toy shows in Minot, Langdon, Fargo and Bismarck. But there hasn't been a regular farm toy show in Grand Forks in a long time, said Schlief.

"It used to be when I was a kid, a lot of little towns had their own toy show," he said, of 30-plus years ago.

But rural populations have decreased since then, said Schlief, and farm toy shows usually stopped if the individuals running them passed away, which is what happened in Grand Forks.

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While at a show surrounded by other enthusiasts including co-organizer and friend Mike Radi, Schlief said he got the realization they needed to bring back a show to Grand Forks.

"We were talking about how it's such a great network of people at the shows," he said. "I spend most of the time at the toy shows talking about different toy memories or just memories of growing up on a farm, and that's a lot of what it's about — the fellowship with other people."

There's a need for a Grand Forks show, said Schlief, and he's had people contact him from as far away as Rochester, Minnesota, to participate in the show.

"A lot of (the farm toy industry) went online, and that's the way it is — but we're missing the human connection that you have when you go to the actual show and visit with somebody," said Schlief.

Organizing the event has been a family affair, with his wife, Deb, getting involved with the financial aspects of putting on a large show. Austin Schlief is also playing an important leadership role, said his dad, which makes him believe the show will continue for many years.

Austin Schlief has taken so much ownership in planning the show that Radi now refers to him as the "Big Kahuna" of the operation.

"Before we make any final decision, we better ask the Big Kahuna, and see what he has to say," said Schlief. "He's really enjoying it, and learning about the leadership role and what it takes to put this on, and I've been really impressed."

The show

In the 11,000-12,000 square feet of room available in the Alerus Center, Schlief expects the Greater Grand Forks Farm Toy Show to have 75 to 80 tables. As of Feb. 23, he said there were nearly 60 tables spoken for. They hope some of the remaining spots are taken by youth.

"We really encourage students to come with farm toy displays," he said. "Don't spend a lot of money on this, and just let kids enjoy what they're doing."

There will be "a lot of educational components", said Schlief, 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 somebody who's never been to a farm toy show to come and learn," he said. "All the way up to somebody that's an avid collector."

WHAT: Greater Grand Forks Farm Toy Show
WHEN: March 18, 12-7 p.m. / March 19, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
WHERE: Alerus Center, Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Admission is $6 daily, and free for ages 12 and under.
For more information visit the Grand Forks Farm Toy Show Facebook group, or call Nate Schlief (701-809-1786) or Mike Radi (218-791-5818).

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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