They Are Beauty, They Are Grace, They Are the Dairy Princesses of the United States

Dairy Princess programs across the country offer a peculiar, yet fascinating royalty-themed look into the world of young women passionate about the dairy industry. They involve a combination of glittering crowns, sculptures made out of butter and, most important, a passion for promoting all things dairy. With dairy farms in the Midwest — and across the nation — on the decline, these regal young women are advocating for their farms and the nutritious dairy products coming from them. Cover graphic by Taylor Vanek for Midstory.

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a princess — actually, there currently live several princesses, right here in the U.S. While these young monarchs don’t have a throne, you might spot one sitting in a freezer booth getting her likeness sculpted out of a giant block of butter at the Minnesota State Fair. She doesn’t have subjects, but she may visit the local school to give a presentation about the nutritional benefits of dairy to students. She doesn’t need a Prince Charming, nor a castle; all these princesses need is a passion for all things dairy and a heart for sharing. 

These young women begin their reign through Dairy Princess programs, where they spend a year as the goodwill ambassadors of the dairy industry in their respective counties or states. Jenna Davis is one of Minnesota’s Farmer Relations Managers for the Midwest Dairy Association, an organization dedicated to helping build dairy demand across the region through promotion and informing consumers about the practices of the industry. She says Dairy Princess programs everywhere carry this mission.

“That’s one role that dairy princesses, whether you’re Princess Kay [of Minnesota] or a county princess — you can fulfill that role: You can help share the story of dairy,” said Davis.

These programs may vary across counties and regions some have different titles for each age group and some princesses represent dairy cow breeds rather than their states or counties. But at their root, they are intended to benefit both the participants and the dairy farms and farmers.

For the princesses, many of whom are seeking a career in the dairy industry, the program helps build knowledge, leadership and communication skills as they answer consumers’ questions and engage with different audiences and communities. For farmers, the princesses serve as promoters of their everyday experiences on the farm to the consumers who may not be aware of the ins and outs of the work. 

According to Davis, Minnesota’s state program came about in 1954, and the name was born out of a publicity event in which people sent in their ideas for the new princess’s name. Out of nearly 10,000 entries across the state, the public relations committee chose “Princess Kay of the Milky Way.” 

“In the early 1900s, dairy farmers across the country recognized that they needed to promote their commercial products: milk,” Davis said. “Fast forwarding to the 1950s … advertising became a really huge, huge thing. In Minnesota, we kind of created the Princess Kay program to serve that promotional role for Minnesota dairy farmers and promote Minnesota dairy products.” 

E. Melanie DuPuis, a professor of environmental studies and science at Pace University and author of “Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink,” said many agricultural promotion programs began out of governmental efforts to build solidarity and a sense of mutuality around the product between consumers and farmers. Fluid milk is a much more profitable dairy product for farmers to put out in the market than other dairy products, DuPuis said. If these promotional programs could help boost awareness about its nutritional value for consumers while promoting the product for farmers, it would be a “win-win situation” for both sides, she said. 

“There has always been this idea that if we just get people to drink more milk, particularly children, they will be healthier, and dairy farmers will make a living,” DuPuis said. “You can see where that’s a kind of way to connect the cities and the rural areas — you know, the city and the country — because then you’ve come up with a food that supposedly benefits both places.” 

In recent years, however, the number of dairy farms across the U.S. has been steadily decreasing, with sharp declines in Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland. These patterns, however, are also paired with growing herd sizes per farm, meaning the number of dairy farms are not only decreasing, they’re becoming bigger commercial operations through a process called dairy consolidation

According to DuPuis, these dairy princess programs are so widespread because dairy has been a traditionally local product; but with farms growing bigger and moving further from the consumer, this reality is changing. In a landscape where smaller family-owned dairy farms are decreasing, these Dairy Princesses not only keep the story of these farms going, but also help keep the idea of a local food system alive in a world where consumers become increasingly detached from where their food comes from and how it’s made. 

“It’s a good job, and it’s a worthwhile thing to do — necessary even,” DuPuis said. “If we could come up with a local food system around cities that was not just dependent on one food, perhaps we could have more of that connection. … But it’s mostly just more and more industrialization, globalization of the food system. In some ways, the Dairy Princess really represents the local food system.” 

For Mariah Busta, former Iowa Dairy Princess and current farmer relations manager for Iowa at the Midwest Dairy Association, this symbolism was one of the reasons why she ran for (and won) the crown in 2013, hoping to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers. 

“There’s less and less people growing up on a dairy farm or less and less people that have grandparents or aunts or uncles that live on a dairy farm there’s fewer opportunities for people to see that firsthand,” Busta said.

Following these patterns, both programs in Iowa and Minnesota have seen a decrease in participation, but they’re also making adjustments to address this pattern: both have broadened their eligibility requirements to include participants whose families might not currently live on a farm, but are involved in any aspect of the dairy industry (such as nutrition, milk hauling or veterinary care) or in youth programs such as Future Farmers of America or 4-H. 

“I think that those who have that outside perspective can really offer a lot to sharing dairy stories with someone who maybe has never stepped foot on a farm or has no context at all about what it means to be a dairy farmer,” Davis said. 

Naomi Scott, a rising junior at Iowa State University currently serving as the state’s Dairy Princess, will be completing her reign at the end of August 2023. For Scott, who grew up on her family’s small dairy farm, her favorite interactions have been with those who have no personal connections to the dairy industry. 

“I make a lot more conversation with consumers that have no relation to farming than I do dairy farmers,” Scott said. “Those consumers that have no direct relation to farming, and especially dairy farming now, have a lot of questions and they’re very interested.”

According to Scott, one of the biggest talking points during outreach is about the nutritional value of dairy, but there’s also been a growing curiosity about animal care. 

“Animal welfare has become a big thing, with organizations like PETA that are trying to fight against farmers, because people just don’t realize that these cows are being taken care of so well,” Scott said. “They’re so happy living there, living the best life they can, and we’re only doing stuff to help them we’re not ever hindering them.” 

Scott during a classroom visit as Iowa’s Dairy Princess. Photo courtesy of Naomi Scott. Graphic by Esther Lim for Midstory. 

Current Princess Kay Rachel Rynda, a rising senior at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, said one of her goals is to let consumers know about the efforts that farmers are making to prepare for an environmentally sound future in dairy farming. 

“Dairy farmers are committed to be carbon neutral by the year 2050,” Rynda said. “Right now, we’re at less than 2% of the world’s total. But we want to get to that 0% by the year 2050 … Every little thing that we’re doing, we’re looking towards the future to continue the tradition of dairy farming. That starts with just taking care of those cows and making sure that they’re set up for success, as well.” 

Like Scott, Rynda’s dreams of dairy royalty were homegrown on her family’s dairy farm and through watching her parents’ involvement in the county-level princess program. 

“You know, I loved Disney princesses, but this was a princess that I had something in common with. They love cows just like me!” Rynda said. “In the summertime, we always bale hay. … When we were little, of course, we wanted to ride with my dad … When people would pass by, my dad would always say, ‘Wave like Princess Kay!’” 

Rynda celebrating her crowning as the 69th Princess Kay of the Milky Way with the nine other finalists. Every year, the next Princess Kay is crowned on the eve of the Minnesota State Fair. Photo courtesy of Midwest Dairy. Graphic by Esther Lim for Midstory. 

This year, the 70th Princess Kay will be crowned among 10 finalists at the Minnesota State Fair. For their work in dairy advocacy and promotion, all 10 finalists take home a butter bust of their faces carved by Gerry Kulzer, an art teacher at the Eden Valley-Watkins School District and the official Princess Kay butter sculptor. He spends nearly six to seven hours with each candidate as he carves their likeness onto a 90-pound block of butter.

This year will be Kulzer’s second year in the position as he carries on former butter sculptor Linda Christensen’s 50-year legacy. But his personal ties to the program go way back, and it’s had a unique impact on him and his career. Kulzer appreciates that through this tradition, he’s able to bring together his love for art and educating and demonstrating.

“I thought, you know, that wouldn’t be a bad job as an educator to educate people about what I’m doing as a sculptor, but also educate people about dairy and farming and the hard work that goes into making these products,” Kulzer said.

He says despite the generational gap between him and the candidates, he loves hearing about their stories of growing up on a farm and finding similarities between his and the finalists’ experiences. 

“I hope that people realize that these farmers that are making the food that we eat are doing it not to get rich. They’re doing it because they have a passion,” Kulzer said. “The Princess Kay finalists there, they love what they’re doing. And you can see that love in their stories that they share.”

For Rynda, her reign has been all about “keeping the conversation going,” leaving people especially young students during classroom visits with a lasting memory and appreciation of the dairy products they consume. 

“They might not remember that I’m Princess Kay of the Milky Way, but they remember that the dairy princess came and we talked about farming, and we got to have a dairy treat with her and just get to spend the day with her,” Rynda said. “That’s what I want to leave them with, that memory of that dairy story — that I got to share mine, but they have one now, too.”


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