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6 July 2015updated 26 Sep 2015 6:46am

Meet America’s Dairy Princesses, the pageant winners trying to save the US dairy industry

American dairy farming is in trouble, and the women who are crowned Dairy Princess for their states are doing their best to save it.

By India Bourke

Once upon a time in South Dakota there was a beautiful Dairy Princess, ruler of cows and promoter of all things dairy. Her name was Katelyn Grehl. And she was captivating. It wasn’t just the glittering crown and bejewelled dress, though these certainly helped. It was her calm, clear, apparently heartfelt words: “Over this past year I have become more passionate about our dairy industry than I ever thought possible,” she told the room of assembled farming families at the annual Dairy Expo. “Thank you for making this dream a reality.”

Katelyn’s crown, unlike Britain’s new Princess Charlotte’s, was far from unconditional. As the state’s 59th Dairy Princess, 20-year-old Katelyn spent the last year juggling college studies and duties on her family farm, with tireless school visits, press interviews, and the general milking of good will for the dairy industry. Attending so many fixtures “wasn’t always easy”, she admits. But at least she didn’t have to spend six hours in a cooler, having her likeness sculpted into a massive block of butter – like Minnesota’s Dairy Princess does.

She did, however, have to conform to strict criteria to get selected. For starters, Dairy Princesses must be single. Aged between 17 and 24, they must behave “at all times in accordance with the proper image of a dairy princess”, and must certainly not be, nor ever have been, pregnant.

Such discrimination may seem a little unreformed. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a milkmaid herself, undermined the equation of chastity with integrity over 100 years ago. But perhaps clinging to such a traditional moral code is symptomatic of an industry – and community – facing a deeply uncertain future.

British farmers know all too well the toll that volatile demand and supermarket price wars have taken on UK dairy; half our farms have closed in the last decade alone.  The government has responded by allowing farmers to average their tax across longer periods. Secretary of State Liz Truss has also promised investments “to help farmers develop their competitiveness”. In the US, however, the scale of the problems – and solutions – are of a whole other dimension.

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For this is America, where agriculture is often dark and full of terrors. At least, according to Philip Lymbery’s book, Farmageddon, which details the trend away from smaller, family-run farms to much larger, corporate-sponsored, set-ups. Over 50 per cent of American dairy production has already shifted towards such “megafarming”, with 1,000–15,000 animals per farm. Trailing in their wake is a rising use of hormone supplements, antibiotics, and indoor-only barns. And, as the end to European milk quotas opens up a new realm of international competition, the pressure to farm ever faster and more efficiently only looks set to increase.

A dairy princess with a cow.

It’s a pressure with which the new dairy princess-hopefuls, gathered at last month’s South Dakotan selection competition, are all too familiar. Dressed simply in a plain black dress, Elizabeth is by far the least glitzy of all this year’s candidates. If she seems much older than her 20 years it’s perhaps because she’s already had to face having one set of dreams dashed. When her parents decided to “gracefully bow out” of dairy production, she felt “lost”, she tells me. “This is what I had thought might be my future…I’m not sure if I ever see myself embarking on my own farming operation, dairy or otherwise. The amount of startup capital it takes is enormous.”

Elizabeth’s is a common story across South Dakota, which has seen the number of dairy farms decline from 1,200 to just 400 in the last 10 years. Family-run farms are still very much the bedrock of American agriculture, but in dairy particularly, their numbers are shrinking as farms sizes rise. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 66 per cent of all dairy sales come from the 3 per cent of farms that are classed as “large” or “very large” enterprises. Smaller farms simply struggle to meet the economies of scale that can cushion against milk’s boom and bust pricing cycles.

One solution to this situation is for American consumers to buy more milk. And here the Dairy Princesses step in. To this end, contestants are certainly expected to make an effort with their appearance. Yet just one fifth of points are awarded for aesthetics. The majority are for their ability to deliver “key dairy industry messages”. In return, they receive scholarships for college, invaluable practice at public speaking, and a visibility they can use to weave their own Cinderella stories, perhaps even in politics. As last year’s Minnesotan winner explains: “It means the world to me. In Minnesota it’s a huge tradition; it’s legendary. I grew up as a typical farm girl – yet landed up as Princess Kay of the Milky-Way!”

Unsurprisingly therefore, all this year’s applicants are overwhelmingly eloquent and winning and warm, and brimful of energetic conversation. Refreshingly, it’s largely about bovines rather than boys. Katelyn herself explains how she’s as happy in heels as mudboots, and loves challenging the assumptions of the school kids she visits: “They ask me if I live in a castle, but I say that ‘my barn is my castle’ and assure them that ‘anyone can be a farmer’.”

They are also ambitious. Mercedes Zemlicka hopes to become the sixth generation dairy farmer in her family, Christie Achen to “one day have my own farm”, and Elizabeth Mayrose to study agricultural law. Theirs is the generation in which Disney women finally started to come of age: swapping Sleeping Beauty and swooning Belle for career-focused Merida and Mulan – and I can’t help but wish each of them could win.

Elizabeth Mayrose, South Dakota’s dairy princess.

Yet there is something about this contest that sits uneasily. As part of the judging process, the princess hopefuls must undergo a simulated “media event”, where a local journalist (and farmer’s daughter herself), interviews each candidate in front of an assembled audience. As the candidates are escorted to the stage by their parents, the similarity to a wedding service is unmistakable. These girls are getting married after all… to an industry.

In America, princesses and profit have always gone hand in hand. In 1921, the very first Miss America pageant was invented to attract more paying tourists to Atlantic City. Just over thirty years later, the invention of Dairy Princesses coincided with the need to sell the extra milk generated by the take-off of the bulk tanker and centralized distribution points. Today, the princesses’ mandate to promote dairy is greater than ever. A rise in fizzy drink consumption on the one hand, and health-conscious milk substitutes (from almond milk to soy) on the other, are causing sales to decline. Sugary chocolate milk has even been banned in some American schools.

The girls are certainly aware of the role their femininity allows them to play: “I can hold little kids’ attention more easily with my crown and sash on than without,” Mercedes reasons, and says “little kids will trust you and come to you for advice”. But from their speeches I’m not convinced that they have the full picture to give. Or, even if they do, in competing for scholarships sponsored by MidWest Dairy, they aren’t entirely free to give it. There’s one phrase that pops up one too many times to sound entirely uncoached: “You have to go straight to the source” in order to avoid the misrepresentations of the media, the candidates repeatedly stress: “to a farm, or to Selena [the Industry rep], or to myself”.

So I do. Encouraged by David Skaggs, Dairy Development Specialist at South Dakota’s Department of Agriculture, I travel down the I-29 highway to visit the Nussbaum family’s Cottonwood Ridge Dairy. 25-year-old Stephanie Nussbaum was a former Dairy Princess herself, and together with her sister helps run their family’s 125-head herd.

Blond-haired, blue-eyed, and wide-smiled, Stephanie is a ponytail-perfect pin-up for the industry. And so is her farm. Complete with state-of-the-art robotic milkers, automatic massage-machines, and climate-control, it appears to be the Claridge’s of cow homes. The cows themselves, calm and clean, are free to roam the natural-light flooded barn, or lounge on sawdust-strewn waterbeds. There’s barely a cow-pat in sight, thanks to a small, roving, device that sweeps unwanted objects away (including me).

It’s an investment that has revolutionsed their lives – and that of the animals. The girls have more time to spend promoting the business, handling the calves, and monitoring the herd’s health (as well as tending to their non-farming fiancés) – “we hope to still be doing this in our 80s, it’s very sustainable” they enthuse. While the cows, Stephanie tells me, “easily live up to ten years on our farm, compared to the national average, which is just three”.

Just three years: therein lies the problem. Far too few animals enjoy the same quality of life – or longevity – as those at Cottonwood Ridge. This isn’t to say that smaller is always better. A vet friend impresses on me that small farms can neglect animal welfare as much if not more than large ones, where there is often more money for greater care. But 19-year-old Mercedes certainly sees the benefits of staying small: “The less animals, the more you get to know them. It’s more one on one, like in smaller schools. Ideally I’d have a farm of 100 – I can’t go to 1,000, that’s a lot to take care of, if I want to keep it family-owned.”

Raising the profile of South Dakotan dairy farming is a big part of the princess’s job.

And then there are the environmental risks of larger operations. Just across the border in Hendricks, Minnesota, Mayor Jay Nelson is up in arms about South Dakota’s plans for a slew of new mega-dairies. In particular the recent application for a 3,999-head herd in Brookings county, which, according to Mayor Nelson, will use genetic modification to ensure that only female cows are born. A dairy of this size, he contends “could have the pollution equivalent of a city with the population of 657,435 people”. He believes South Dakota’s governor is “selling out the environment for political gain”. Yet thanks to the state’s expired water quality agreement with the federal government, and the creation of an unelected planning and zoning board that “cannot be overturned by elected officials”, the avenues for protest are limited.

Despite this opposition, South Dakota is pushing ahead with attempts to double the number of dairies in the state. The expansion is being spurred by a massive recent investment by Bel Co. (makers of Baby Bel cheese) in a new Dakotan factory, as well as growth by other processing plants in the region. Processed dairy can be sold on the international market and provide a much more reliable source of income than the more fluctuating demand for fresh milk. All of which helps make South Dakota an attractive prospect for new operations.

Several Californian dairies, alongside a number of European and even South Asian investors, have already expressed an interest in setting up farms there. The former are being driven out of the sunshine state by too much sunshine as well as tension over manure spills and pollution.  David Skaggs from the state department of agriculture thinks South Dakota can avoid California’s pitfalls by making sure new dairies are located “in the right place”. Other states may have to cater for different interest groups, “but in South Dakota agriculture is our number one priority”.

So what do the Dakotan Princesses make of the changing shape of dairy? The more I talk to last year’s winner, Katelyn Grehl, and her family, the more I realise she is not best placed to know. Her (equally beautiful) mum gets up before sunrise every morning to milk the cows and then make pancakes for breakfast: “The world’s best pancakes”, Katelyn assures me. It sounds like something out of a picture book. And soon that’s all it may be. The Grehl’s 100-head herd and traditional milking system is exactly the kind of setup that is fast disappearing from the American landscape. The cost of labour is ever climbing on those already in operation. While, at $4m for a 1,500-capacity dairy farm, starting up new enterprises is almost prohibitively expensive. Katelyn’s decision to study nursing itself reflects the knowledge she can’t expect farming to support her in the future.

“I grew up as a typical farm girl – yet landed up as Princess Kay of the Milky-Way!”

Katelyn’s neighbouring royal and fourth generation dairy farmer, 20-year-old Jeni Haler, is much more attuned to dairy’s fast-changing and increasingly international identity. Last year Jeni became the Dairy Princess of Minnesota. Her dad’s 70-cow herd, raised largely out at pasture, is a world away from an intensive mega-dairy. But it’s also not his main employment – he’s a geneticist for the American Breeders Association. As Jeni puts it: “If you’re gonna stay in it you have to change with it – it’s like cellphones.” Herself a student of Spanish and animal science, Jeni has her sights set on spending time in Brazil, where she believes dairy has a bright future. ‘‘I see dairy becoming much more internationally popular: it’s sustainable and it’s a way to feed communities in impoverished countries. I think more and more countries will move towards consuming more meat and dairy products because it’s sustainable and the nutrition benefits outweigh any other food you can produce.” She’s certainly right that an increased international demand for processed American dairy products would help to “sustain” the industry in the MidWest.

I also ask Jeni whether she thinks there should be a Dairy Prince? ‘We don’t have a male ambassador’, she replies, ‘when I go on classrooms visits I’m mostly attracting attention for my crown and jewels. But I think the image of a woman talking about cows and a male job – hopefully it all registers in [the kids] minds; that women can be involved in dairy and drive the industry forward’. Others, such as Katelyn’s dad, are even more direct about women’s special relationship to dairy: Girls are actually better at it than men – they’re more precise, detailed. They notice things. Men – we’re always thinking “Man, I gotta hurry up here so I can get outta here and plant corn!”’.

A woman’s touch? It has echoes of Doris Day’s Calamity Jane: a gun-slinging Dakotan cow-girl tamed into more traditionally 1950s feminine behaviour. And yet maybe there’s something in it. Like spotting a sick animal, the capacity to acknowledge the challenges that the industry faces – and spin them into positives – is a trait that shines through in the girl finally announced as Katelyn’s new successor: Elizabeth Mayrose.

Elizabeth may not see a future for herself in dairy production. However, by channeling her energies into a degree in speech communications and agricultural law, she’s positioning herself to remain not just a “part of the industry I love” but to shape its very direction. “I’m contemplating law school in the future, eventually I hope to work in policy to help promote and protect agriculturalists and their way of life,” she quietly stresses. “I want to take back the stigma that farming has gotten – whether it be negative or just outdated.”

Doing so will mean facing up to dairy’s big raft of changes and challenges. And its even bigger contradictions. Then again, she’s a supposedly virginal princess representing an industry founded on the act of lactation. If there’s anything she knows how to handle, it’s a fairy tale ending.

All photographs by India Bourke.

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