Young Farmer Builds Toy Hobby Into a Business
Alan Chesnut can fill a storage building with boxes of his toy trucks and tractors. But the toys this sixth-generation farmer from Ridge Farm possesses are anything but reminders of his childhood. Chesnut owns Top Shelf Replicas, an independent manufacturer of die-cast collectibles.
Farm toys have been a longtime interest for Chesnut. In high school and college, he repaired and modified toys and even started building them from scratch, mainly for contests or display. But despite a passion for those projects, his farm toy and truck business happened almost by accident.
After graduating from the University of Illinois, Chesnut attended a toy show intending to sell his display cases. He placed several of his modified toys in the display cases and found that buyers were more interested in the toys than the cases. Thus an entrepreneur – and a business – was born.
Chesnut began selling more farm toys and expanded into selling model trucks as well. But when buyers began asking for products that were not yet produced, he knew there was a bigger opportunity to meet the demand and establish a niche business. In 2010, his company manufactured the first Top Shelf Replica toy.
In It for the Long Haul
How do you go from modifying toys to actually manufacturing them? Chesnut explains that it takes time, patience, attention to detail and a team you can trust. First, he says, you have to find a product that will interest customers.
“I go to trade shows and toy shows in large and small cities across the country to get ideas,” he says. “It’s also important to pay attention to what people are saying in chat rooms about what kinds of toys they are interested in.”
Next, you have to contact the manufacturer of the real vehicle or farm implement to get permission to produce a miniature version. Then the real work starts.
Once Chesnut locates an actual tractor or truck, he painstakingly measures it to be sure the replica will be of the correct scale. He passes those measurements on to an engineer who designs the implement using special software and then prints out a 3-D model.
Chesnut carefully inspects each model, and works with the engineer to make any corrections before sending it on to the factory for production.
The factory, in turn, makes models and sends samples to Chesnut for him to check. When he finishes all the tweaking, the toys are manufactured and shipped to Chesnut’s Vermilion County farm. He will order between 500 and 10,000 toys to sell.
“Each step can take months,” Chesnut says. “From the idea stage to the finished product can take up to two years, depending on what we’re manufacturing. There are many times when I’m in the field on my own tractor talking to an engineer about a miniature one.”
The intersection of farming and toy manufacturing doesn’t end there.
“Just like I monitor my crop at all the different stages, I do that with the models,” the winner of the 2011 Illinois Farm Bureau Young Leader Excellence in Agriculture Award says.
“And just like I appreciate the rewards of a successful harvest, I enjoy the satisfaction that comes when the hard work is done and another high-quality product has been produced.”