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Courtesy of Alice in Dairyland Program, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection

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Milking It

A Brief History of the Dairy Princess

Once upon a time in the magical land of Enumclaw, Washington, there lived a beautiful Dairy Princess named Kimmi Devaney. Princess Kimmi had an encyclopedic knowledge of dairy science and spoke eloquently on the topic in public. Her loyal subjects (fairies, elves, even trolls!) followed her adventures on Kimmi’s Dairyland, a dairy-centric lifestyle blog. All dimples and charm, Princess Kimmi could just as dreamily gush about her collection of sparkly belt buckles and embroidered cowboy boots as she could break down the physics of the milking machine or nonchalantly describe how to artificially inseminate a cow.

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"You put a long glove on your non-dominant hand. You lift the cow’s tail up. You put your fingers together and remove any manure that might be in their rectum. Then you’ll put your arm in and feel around for her cervix. Once you have a good grasp, you gently guide the rod into her vagina till you can feel it going through there. After you’ve done it for a while, you get a lot faster," said Kimmi. "I took a class on it in college."

Devaney with her cows. Image: Kimmi Devaney

On the eve of the Dairy Princess coronation in 2005, Kimmi wore a bedazzled pink and black ball gown, a few flowers in her hair, and the classic "two pieces" updo that we all know and love from the early 2000s. She was a teen dairy dream. When they announced she had won, she squeaked a gasp of surprise (as princesses do), and graciously accepted the serious responsibilities that came with her tiara and sash.

For the next year, she spread dairy goodwill all over her county. Donning what she describes as her, "Got Milk?" outfit (khakis, princess sash, "Got Milk?" polo shirt), Kimmi made speeches, visited elementary schools, gave press interviews, and handed out blue ribbons to winning cows at the county fair. She waved from the back of a convertible in parades and addressed community groups in her best blazer and cow-inspired skirt.

Devaney at the Indy 500. Image: Kimmi Devaney

As a painfully shy kid, Kimmi says she could never have imagined herself doing this level of public speaking. Her most idyllic summer days were spent out on her grandparent’s farm, riding bikes through the pasture, baling hay, and naming all the cows. But time on the farm was limited. At summer’s end, Kimmi returned to her parents’ house, 40 miles away in the suburbs of Seattle. She was a socially awkward teeny-bopper with an aggressive passion for dairy. A lethal combination for middle school.

Things improved when she got her first show cow and joined 4-H club. "I remember whenever I would be talking to people at school about 4-H, nobody knew what it was. It took a couple years for people to really take me seriously when I said I owned a cow," said Kimmi.

For city folk who have never heard of such a club, it’s kind of like the Girl Scouts of America, except with more farming. Oh, and boys are allowed. The four H’s stand for Head, Hands, Heart and Health. Kids collaborate on projects, give presentations, and learn by doing. It was through 4-H that Kimmi gained confidence and made lifelong friends who shared her fervor for dairy. In the words of author Sarah Vowell, "Being a nerd — which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends, I know." She won a few cow shows, took more risks, and enjoyed a greater sense of self.

Devaney at coronation. Image: Kimmi Devaney

The night she was crowned Dairy Princess was the culmination of all that hard work and personal growth. Intelligent, professional, and off to college, one wonders what America’s first Dairy Princesses of the 1950s would have thought of modern day Kimmi.

Cold War America was a hard time for dairy. Between 1954 and 1965, fear of nuclear fallout-contaminated milk drove down sales to precarious levels. In her book, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900, Kendra Smith-Howard describes milk in the 1950s as a "sinister symbol of the nuclear age" for concerned parents and anti-nuclear activists. This, combined with the need to sell the milk surplus generated by the success of farming innovation, demanded a new promotional strategy.

Enter the Dairy Princess. In those early years, the dairy princess was chosen based on looks alone. She was a farmer’s daughter. Beautiful, wholesome, and white — just like milk. In Minnesota she was, "Princess Kay of the Milky Way." Ruth Marie Peterson, Princess Kay of 1955 went on a world tour, traveling with packets of dried milk to faraway places like Osaka, Japan and Bogata, Columbia. Betty Jax Cole, Princess Kay of 1959, was tasked with publicizing the new dairy product smetana, later renamed "sour cream." In 1964, Karen Bracken Geier became the first Princess Kay to have her likeness carved into a 90 pound block of butter, a delicious tradition that continues to this day.

Ruth Marie Peterson meeting with Shigezo Yoshikawa, Japanese consul in Seattle. Image: Seattle Times/JR Partners/Getty

Wisconsin churned out the idea of Alice in Dairyland in 1948. At first it was pure pageant. The state’s centennial commission sent out a call for photographs and chose the best-looking Alice from among five hundred submissions. Despite the emphasis on a pretty face, a 10 foot tall mechanical Alice greeted guests at the State Fair while the real Alice sat backstage, working levers to make robot Alice sit and stand, answering questions through a speaker in the doll’s mouth. Contemporary Alice is a salaried marketing professional evaluated through a rigorous vetting process of resumes, interviews, and agribusiness tours.

Alice in Dairyland through the years. Images courtesy of Alice in Dairyland Program, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection save bottom left, courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 56988. Full collection of Alice in Dairyland Photos: Link.

The modern Dairy Princess program has come a long way in some areas, but still clings to its’ sexist beginnings in others. The California District 9 Dairy Princess, for instance, may not be married, living with a boyfriend, have ever been pregnant, and must be leading an "acceptable lifestyle." The nationwide demographics of the program are still as homogenous as the milk. You’d be hard pressed to find a non-white Dairy Princess or a lesbian Dairy Princess among the royal court.

In other places, the program is catching up. The Washington State Dairy Women changed their program name from "Dairy Princess" to the "Washington State Dairy Ambassador" in 2003 in an effort to redefine the young professional spirit of the program.

"The title ‘Princess’ is nice to use if we are going to elementary schools or talking to young children, but the members thought the title ‘Ambassador’ more clearly represented what the girls do," said program Financial/Event Coordinator, Gloria Edwards. "They represent the Washington State Dairy Farmers not as just a pretty young woman with a tiara, but really as an ambassador — a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specified activity."

Alice in Dairyland 2006, Nicole Reese and sponsors from Satori Foods. Image: Courtesy of Alice in Dairyland Program, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection

Women have worked on dairy farms since the advent of modern agriculture, it just took a couple centuries for them to get any credit. Dr. Juliet Severance, a medical doctor and radical Victorian feminist, worked on her family’s dairy farm in the 1800s. The 13th child in a Quaker family of 17, it didn’t sit right with Juliet that while her mother and sisters were confined to the home rearing children, making cheese, and coughing up ash over a coal stove, the men worked outside and got all the glory:

"The husband works from morning till evening in the open air, which is in its influence invigorating. The wife over the cook stove inhaling the odors of all sorts of compounds which she is preparing for the table, to satisfy the abnormal demands of a wrongly educated alimentiveness, very often with a baby in her arms and other little ones incessantly calling for attention, this thing to think of, and that demand to be met, with no possibility of continuous thought upon any subject. It is this constant changing of the mind to various subjects that frets and wears, that weakens and destroys," Dr. Severance declared in a speech before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1886.

Delaney with a calf on the farm. Image: Kimmi Devaney

This was revolutionary rhetoric. At that time in history, men legally owned their wives the same way they owned their cows. Dr. Severance’s words were not well received, but her undeniable background in farming substantiated her arguments. "The farmer does not apply his knowledge of heredity to the propagation of his own species. If he is proposing to raise a thoroughbred colt, he is very careful that the prospective mother has every favorable condition," said Dr. Severance. "She must not be overworked or worried and must be carefully groomed and fed, but how little attention he pays to the conditions of the prospective mother of his children. She may toil and worry and bring into existence half gestated children, the majority dying before maturity and yet nothing seems to be thought of it."

If women on the farm had the same opportunities as men, Dr. Severance opined, everyone would benefit. Then she took it further. "The farmer's wife is as much a factor in the success of farm life as is the farmer himself. If she was a careful, intelligent, cultured, executive woman, she could better conduct the home and farm without him, than could he without her." Women had, in fact, demonstrated their skill in doing just that during the Civil War, when they ran the farm while men went to war.

A century later, Kimmi is the shining product of all that activism for women’s rights and education. She now works in public relations for the farmers of Indiana as an Agricultural Marketing & Industry Development Manager. She travels around helping family farmers tell their story to the public. "It’s more important than ever for farmers to get out there and talk to consumers. Its those everyday conversations that carry the most value," said Kimmi.

Delaney caring for a calf. Image: Kimmi Devaney

On her blog, Kimmi’s Dairyland, Kimmi hopes to debunk some misconceptions about the dairy industry. She says despite popular belief, about 98% of dairy farms are still family-owned and regardless of the label, all milk in the store is antibiotics-free. "Everyone has to make a living, but if you don’t care about the animals and your consumers, the dairy industry is the wrong business for you," said Kimmi.

Kimmi says she gets back to her family’s farm whenever she can. Her brother runs it now, but she still names the cows. "We have one cow that I named Hannah. I think if she could talk she would tell me to go away," said Kimmi. "She’s always looking at me like, ‘I thought we had this conversation about the pictures before, no more pictures.’"

The fairytale ending for this Dairy Princess looks a lot like a rewarding career fighting for an industry she believes in. It also includes chocolate milk for breakfast, long runs and yoga, canning and country music, and if a Dairy Prince happens to enter the picture, so be it. Kimmi Devaney is milking life for all its worth. If anyone thinks they can stand in her way — they are udderly mistaken.


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