At Toy Fair New York Last Year, a quick swing through just a few exhibitor booths revealed hints of an emerging growth trend in an evergreen, classic category of timeless play: farm-themed toys. Often overlooked, toys with agricultural roots are everywhere, and in the past two years, the offerings have greatly expanded at retail.
In 1945, Fred Ertl Sr. founded the Ertl Co. in Dubuque, Iowa. A few years later, the Ertl family moved the operation to Dyersville, Iowa, and built an empire from humble beginnings. The company — started when Ertl was laid off from his job — grew from making aluminum tractors forged from scrap metal into an iconic brand that manufactures toys that kids and parents love and premium replicas that collectors covet.
“For the last 75 years, Ertl has produced toys that look and function like the real machines that people in the country see on a daily basis,” says Bill Walters, senior vice president, Ag and Vehicle at TOMY International, the current owner of the Ertl brand. “Farming is a lifestyle and a business. Farmers are dependent upon their equipment to make a living. Our toys remind them of the equipment they’ve used in the past and present.”
Over the years, Ertl has created licensed toys inspired by real machines, including John Deere, Case, Allis-Chalmers, Ford, New Holland, and Farmall.
HONORING THE PAST, PLANTING SEEDS FOR THE FUTURE
This year, TOMY debuted a robust new range of Ertl products that celebrate the legacy and heritage of the brand. The goal is to reach a new generation of kids, some of whom live in urban environments and have never seen a tractor for themselves. That means offering new products such as the John Deere Kids line that features friendly characters like Johnny Tractor and Corey Combine; the Monster Treads Lightning Wheels Tractor; and the long-running Big Farm collection.
“We want to get younger kids interested in farming and agriculture,” Walters says. “We start out early with preschool toys that make farming fun, including vehicles and animals.”
Ertl hopes that those kids will grow up to be the next generation of collectors.
In almost every aisle of the toy department, families will find something inspired by farming. Within the past year, Mattel issued the Fisher-Price Caring for Animals Farm and an entire Sweet Orchard Farm theme for Barbie. The Playmobil Country line now has a Farmer’s Market and an Equestrian Tournament. The LEGO Group offers farm sets across its Duplo, Friends, and City ranges. A diverse array of toymakers — including Breyer, Melissa & Doug, and Bruder — have their own farm-themed lines, while specialty brands such as Little Buster and Joe Ertl’s Scale Model Toys, serve up an expanded selection. Even the relaunched Micro Machines line from Jazwares’ Wicked Cool Toys subsidiary started with set No. 1: Farm.
“Life on the farm is a classic. Most kids learn about farm animals in early childhood, so there is a comforting familiarity that comes with it,” says Annie Laurie Zomermaand, chief commercial officer at Schleich, manufacturer of its own Farm World brand. “Farm is incorporated in many developmental milestones beyond recognizing the animals themselves. For example, many of us grew up learning that ‘C is for cow,’ so children have a natural gravitation to what they know when they see these animals in the store.”
The Farm World collection continues to expand with dozens of toys spanning figurines, playsets, figures, and vehicles.
SOWING NEW OPTIONS FOR SALES
While the big-box and specialty channels tend to get most of the press, the farm retail channel — including ranch and hardware stores — is an important market for toys with a footprint that reaches families in rural communities and areas that might not be able to support a supercenter format. Across the country, stores such as Fleet Farm, Rural King, and Big R offer families a chance to get their hands on old standards and the hottest new toys.
“Over the past several years, Schleich has dedicated time and resources to partner with the farm and hardware channel within North America,” Zomermaand says. “The partnership spans over many retailers from chains such as Tractor Supply Co. with more than 1,800 locations to smaller chains such as Coastal with 22 stores. The growth within the farm channel for Schleich is not exclusive to the Farm World franchise as boys and girls love dinosaurs, wild animals, and more.”
Gregg Huett, president and CEO of Big Country Farm Toys says that in recent years, many families across America have shown increased interest in the farm and ranch lifestyle overall. More consumers are getting involved in farm animals and farming activities like gardening, canning, laying hens, [raising] bees, and the farming and ranching lifestyle in general, he says. “COVID-19 has really accelerated this interest.”
CULTIVATING HOLIDAY TRADITIONS
Every fall, many retailers in the farm channel issue holiday catalogs that kids use to circle their most-wished-for toys. At both Fleet Farm and the similarly named Blain’s Farm & Fleet, October signals the opening of Toyland.
“Fleet Farm created Toyland more than 60 years ago as a way for families to get a jump start on their holiday shopping,” says Heath Ashenfelter, Fleet Farm’s chief merchandising officer. “This time-honored tradition started with a few shelves and has grown to feature a hand-picked list of more than 2,600 toys and gifts. Our toy merchants scour the country and the world for top toy trends.”
The holiday season is also an opportunity to encourage giving within the tight-knit rural communities that these stores serve.
“Bert Blain, co-founder of Blain’s Farm & Fleet, noticed a real need among his customers for affordable toys — exciting ones kids would love and parents could afford,” says Miranda Becker, Blain’s Farm & Fleet representative. “In keeping with the Blain family’s ‘give-back’ spirit that infuses so much of the company’s culture, since 1957, Blain’s has continued to give back to the communities they serve by hosting a toy drive, which helps collect and provide toys to local children in need.”
FARMING PLAY GOES DIGITAL
A growing community of enthusiasts has taken farm play into a digital realm, and they’ve gamified it — complete with an esports element.
For more than a decade, Giants Software’s Farming Simulator platform has grown to include games for PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, and mobile. The game has attracted a large number of players worldwide and has its own convention: FarmCon. The Alpine Expansion (due Nov. 12) was revealed at Gamescon and the Season Two finals for the FSL: Farming Simulator League streamed live on Twitch last month.
NEW TOYS FOR NEW SEASONS
Like changing the fields for a new batch of crops, toymakers are rolling out a steady stream of new farm-inspired toys for the year ahead. Some of them are inspired by sustainability, such as the new Little Tikes Go Green! Tractor, which is made from degradable materials.
At Big Country, Huett’s team is working to create new toys that emulate what kids might see while growing up on a farm or ranch.
“They watch their parents work on the farm all day with different animals and equipment and want to reenact exactly what they see,” Huett says. “Our business strategy is directly geared toward this idea of making our toys more like mom and dad’s ‘toys’ to create a more realistic and captivating play experience.”
While innovation will always continue, sometimes there’s something to be said about sticking with what works. The Kidoozie Funtime Tractor from Epoch Everlasting Play has been available for more than two decades and consistently ranks as a top 10 seller at Learning Express stores across the country.
Farm toys can be rugged or cute, and they can teach while providing timeless fun for every generation.
This article was originally published in the October 2020 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!