When Schoen Equipment opened a farm implement store in Freistatt, Mo., in 1968, the stock included a few farm toys. At the time, the owners never thought of the toys as a money-maker.
"We gave them away as gifts to kids of parents who bought a piece of large machinery," says sales manager Steve Schoen.
But when customers started coming in just for toys, Steve saw the potential for bigger sales. He never dreamed, though, that toys would eventually fill a showroom, reaping annual sales of more than $100,000.
"We sell more in farm toys now than we did in farm machinery parts when we started here," he says.
That's saying something for the town of Freistatt, with a population of 166. Located between Joplin and Springfield in southwest Missouri, the town is famous for its two-night "Ernt-Fest" each August. The event has drawn up to 20,000 visitors per night.
And Schoen Equipment is right next door to the festival grounds.
Farm toy sales started gaining momentum in the 1980s, Steve says.
"Collectors started coming in, asking for Fiat toys," he says. Fiat was a part of the Hesston line sold at Schoen Equipment at that time.
"At first we had maybe 10 to 15 collectors a year come in," says Bruce Doss, parts manager for the company. "Now it's amazing how many people come in here, just to buy toys."
In 1986, Schoen became a John Deere dealer. That's when the company entered the toy mainstream.
"We went to toy shows in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas, and we advertised in Toy Farmer magazine," Bruce says. "People got to know what we were stocking. We ordered everything that John Deere made in the way of toys."
And all of it was popular.
"We stock some of the old items, as well as new ones," he says. "The A tractor has sold consistently and stayed in the $14-16 range for a long time. Customers say 'This is the tractor my grandpa had, and I'm buying a toy one for my boy. I want to pass on to him a little of my grandpa's heritage.' It's a good, solid old-time seller."
For collectors, Steve says, farm toys are an investment.
"I've seen toy tractors that sold for $100 originally that are reselling for $200-300, easily," he says.
It's an expensive hobby, he adds.
"When you're getting in the retail price range of $100-125 to start, that narrows it down to a select group of people," he says. "I had one customer exclaim 'Good God! You want $100 for a toy tractor? When I bought my big one, I only paid $800!'
"They may have to reduce the scale to keep the price where people can afford it, perhaps to 1/25," he says. "But people already complain that there are too many different scales now."
Steve warns the novice collector to be careful.
"You've got to know what you're doing, or you can get burned, big time," he says. "I've seen items at toy shows that are identical to what I carry here. They have done things to make them look old. People who don't know will pay an exorbitant price for what they believe is an antique toy. They could buy the same toy new for much less."
In the future, Steve predicts, farm toys may be officially licensed, complete with official tags.
"Every toy and memorabilia product John Deere makes has such a tag now," he says.
The Deere company has authorized production of some of its toys by outside firms.
"They have to submit it to Deere to see if it meets their quality standards before Deere will license it," he says. "It has to meet the John Deere motto: 'I will never put my name on a product that does not have in it the best that is in me.'"
The Ertl company has implemented similar licensing and tagging procedures, Steve said.
"Of course, that tag can be removed and put on an unlicensed product," he adds. "It's not fair to the consumer, though. He comes in here, in good faith, believing that what he buys is a John Deere product.
"You run into a lot of copycats and plastic that are trying to cash in on the John Deere name," he adds. "I'm afraid plastic is going to ruin the market. It just doesn't hold up. You just can't beat those old die-cast toys. They can be beat around, repainted, repaired, and they're as good as ever."
So how does the consumer know what is real?
"It just gets down to who you can trust," Steve says. "You have to learn to buy from reputable dealers."
And be sure to keep the box.
"Don't throw it away. Put it where it won't get messed up," he says. "In years to come, the box is worth more than the toy itself. To find an old toy still in its original box, it's worth some money, big money.
"I've seen some people who will buy two of the same toy – one for the kids to play with, and one for their collection. And the one for their collection is never taken out of the box."
Diana West is a writer, photographer and storyteller based in Joplin, Mo. She has written for Toy Farmer, Collector's Mart, and Figurines and Collectibles.