CAPITAL REGION — Young farmers have long served as the face of the local dairy industry, often capturing the attention of crowds while talking up the trade during public appearances clad in their traditional attire; the sash and tiara of the dairy princess.
Pageant organizers worry the program critical to promoting the industry among consumers and future farmers could lose what made it special to begin with when those whimsical touches are removed as the program undergoes rebranding to include all young adults.
“The tiara was always a symbol of the dairy princess that caught the public’s eye. That’s what children who would see a dairy princess would come up to see,” said Andrea Foote, chairperson of the Fulton and Montgomery County Dairy Promotion.
The excitement of receiving a ribbon from a “princess” while showing her first calf around the age of eight is a cherished memory recalled by Melanie Luke.
“So many of us do get excited to see a girl in a pretty tiara doing what you love,” said Luke, a committee member of the Saratoga County Dairy Promotion Program.
Both women grew up on dairy farms and were involved in the Dairy Princess program serving as local ambassadors throughout their youth before turning 16 and being able enter the pageant to run for the county and state princess title. Foote was crowned in Onondaga County in 2004 and Luke was crowned in Saratoga County in 2016.
Each said the program taught them leadership and public speaking skills they still carry with them and has long played an important role in teaching the community about the significance of the dairy industry and farming.
The program provided opportunities to network with other young women from farm families and adults in the industry while touring working farms, to teach other kids about the health benefits of dairy products and the importance of farms to the food supply while visiting schools and to represent the dairy industry while participating in fairs, parades and other community events.
Many of these duties were performed while wearing the tiara and sash identifying them as the dairy princess.
“It really is important when people see the dairy princess. Most people know we are dairy farmers’ daughters,” Luke said.
Those fanciful touches will go away this year along with the title when the American Dairy Association North East reimagines the annual pageant into the New York State Dairy Ambassador Program open to all young adults.
Core components of the traditional competition featuring public speaking elements will remain with the winner still serving as the spokesperson and advocate for dairy farmers participating in community events.
Only now the winner will receive the title of dairy ambassador and a nametag.
“It’s definitely different. When it was first presented I didn’t realize that was going to be the end result, they were going to take away the sash and crown,” Luke said. “It is sad.”
The reimagining of the program is intended to help the American Dairy Association in its effort to educate the public and promote dairy products to a younger and more modern audience focused on inclusivity.
“The expanded Dairy Ambassador initiative will be more dynamic to allow for greater participation and reach,” said ADANE CEO Rick Naczi in a prepared response to a request for comment. “ADANE’s goal is to create a program that will best serve the dairy industry moving into the future.”
The change follows a request from the New York State Dairy Promotion Order Advisory Board to “evolve” the program to include both young men and women after reportedly hearing from the family of a young man interested in participating in the competition for the title.
“The expansion of the program will provide an opportunity to help even more young adults find their voices, aspire to compete, and build skills that will help them better advocate for the dairy industry, while preparing them for future success,” Naczi stated.
While they have no objections to allowing all young adults to participate in the competition, Luke and Foote each feel the implementation is removing the fun and exciting elements that attract kids in the first place
“I think it is time, especially in 2021,” Luke said. “I think maybe it could have been approached a little differently.”
The local programs have allowed young boys to participate over the years as “dairy dudes” carrying out the same public duties as girls under 16 who were previously known as ambassadors and will be retitled junior ambassadors. The title of dairy princess has always been limited to young women.
Foote and Luke said past “dairy dudes” were younger boys who at most participated for a few years before moving on. None of the boys ever expressed interest in being allowed to run for the title, although both women acknowledged they would have been aware that it was limited to girls.
The sudden change to the program being rolled out this year has disappointed many of the young girls who were already participating while looking forward to the chance to run for princess when they turn 16, according to both Luke and Foote.
“It is sad losing the dairy princess title,” Luke said. “I know girls have been waiting to run for years now and they won’t have that opportunity.”
Trying to stay optimistic, Foote and Luke are hopeful opening the competition to all young adults may attract more interest.
“Getting youth to participate has been a challenge. Hopefully this will allow more youth to want to participate in the program,” Foote said.
“The program is still a great opportunity to grow and learn to understand why the dairy industry is important,” Luke said.
The American Dairy Association is working to “refine” the details of the rebranded ambassador program before they are rolled out to local committees in February for competitions normally held in the spring. The nonprofit group funded and directed by dairy farmers is accepting feedback from county and state committees responsible for organizing the competitions.
Both Foote and Luke are mulling suggestions to restore the excitement of winning the rebranded competition that would make the titleholder feel special while performing their duties and hoping the American Dairy Association will heed the call to keep the magic intact.
“The crown and sash really set them apart from the other girls. Now that it’s lost, it’s sort of like they’ve lost their identity. We’re going to try to gain their identity back in a way that makes youth still want to participate,” Foote said.
“We want to be recognized when we’re out in public. That is definitely something that will need to be brainstormed,” Luke said.
Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.