by Debra J. Groom
It’s looking like Shelby Benjamin is going to be the last New York State Dairy Princess.
Come February 2022, the competition to name a new state dairy princess will not take place. Instead, a NYS Dairy Ambassador will be named for the 2022-23 year.
The board of the American Dairy Association North East (ADANE) recently agreed to changes in the dairy princess program New Yorkers have known for nearly 60 years. Gone is the title dairy princess, as are the sash and crown and the rule that only females can serve as county or state dairy promotion advocates.
The ADANE board is moving forward with a more gender-neutral way of having youth talk to the public about the dairy industry, to get consumers to buy more milk and dairy products.
While everyone agrees change is difficult, some in the dairy industry don’t have a problem with the changes.
“The dairy princess program has benefited me beyond my years in the crown,” said Elizabeth Maslyn, the 2017-18 Ontario County Dairy Princess, now a student at Cornell University. “The networking, professional development and friendships last forever. The new program will allow more youth to be included in this transformative process, and will encourage more kids to be in agriculture.”
“With change comes opportunity – opportunity to improve, opportunity to grow, opportunity to have a greater reach and opportunity to tell a louder story!” Johanna Fox-Bossard, co-owner of Barbland and White Eagle Dairies in Fabius, Onondaga County, stated. “At our dairy farm, we know that anyone who is willing to advocate on behalf of dairy farmers is welcome in our eyes to do so on our behalf.”
She said if FFA had not changed its rules in 1969 allowing females to join, she wouldn’t have had the chance to be an agriculture teacher today.
On the flip side, others think the program changes aren’t right. People don’t like the idea of no more princesses, sashes and crowns. Many understand the move to include more males in the dairy promotion program, but they don’t think ADANE went about it the right way.
“I am 100% for inclusivity,” said Matthew Sharpe, a dairy farmer in Truxton, Cortland County. “But my issue is we have worked tremendously hard over the years to develop the brand [of dairy princess]. And it’s such a great brand. I think we are going to lose so much of the brand that we’ve spent time and money creating.”
Cole Nelson, 20, served in the Montgomery County dairy promotion program for three years when he was a teen as the “Dairy Dude.” Today, he works on a number of farms near his home in Florida, NY.
“Our biggest event every year was the Fonda Fair,” he said. “We did about 20 events a year and I worked right along with the girls – even the state dairy princess. I didn’t want to participate in the state pageant and I don’t agree with the program changes. If somebody wanted to do it, why not just call them ‘princess’ or ‘prince’?”
The dairy princess program involves youths who learn about dairy products and the dairy industry. They then attend events throughout the state, sharing information in hopes of increasing the amount of milk and dairy products purchased and consumed.
County dairy princesses once competed each February for the title of State Dairy Princess. This title carried with it a scholarship and the prestige of being the top dairy promoter in the state.
The 2022 competition will be the 58th annual event. But Beth Meyer, ADANE director of consumer confidence, said the 2022 competition will be the last one with girls only. The winner will be the State Dairy Ambassador. “We believe the Dairy Ambassador title is more professional looking and more business looking,” Meyer said.
She said the idea for the program changes came about when the parents of a boy on the dairy promotion program wrote a letter to the NYS Dairy Promotion Order Board. The board recommended to ADANE that the program be changed to include all youth. The ADANE board voted unanimously in early December to make changes to the program.
Courtney Harrington, who volunteers with the Broome County Dairy Princess Program, said many counties already have boys involved in dairy promotion through the program. What is different now is males will be able to compete for the top dairy promotion job. Harrington, former Onondaga County Dairy Princess, Andrea Foote, and Newark Valley (Tioga County) farmer Debbie Mitchell Lawton all say they’re not against having boys in the program. But they are upset with the way ADANE made the decision to make the changes.
“Why not put a committee together to work on the issue?” Lawton asked. “Why not poll the farmers?”
Harrington called two ADANE Zoom meetings in which the changes were discussed “abusive and aggressive – it was an ‘our way or the highway’ type of attitude.”
One of the biggest issues mentioned by Harrington, Foote, Lawton and Sharpe is how the girls and boys doing dairy promotion at events will be recognized. Right now, everyone at an event can pick out the dairy princess and her court because they wear sashes and tiaras. The program changes state the crowns and sashes will be gone. Instead, the dairy ambassadors will wear nametags.
“This program is more than a crown and sash, but it is nothing without them,” Harrington said. “If a sash can benefit them, why can’t that be a tool?”
ADANE Board President Audrey Donahoe, a dairy farmer in Clayville, Oneida County, said it’s more important have an advocate for farmers and “it was never about a pageant.” She said the move is a way to “get away from the crown and get a great advocate for our industry.”
She also said ADANE talked to other states that have already made such a change and reached out to all the county committees and had discussions on the best way to make the program inclusive to males.
Harrington disagrees. She said only current county dairy princesses were surveyed about the issue.
“ADANE didn’t take anything into consideration,” she said. She found it odd that ADANE wants to do more promotion with Gen Z (ages 9 – 24) but didn’t ask people in that age group what they thought about the program changes.
Harrington said the program changes have been devastating to her Broome County program. The county has been trying to rebuild its dairy princess program for the last few years and got four girls who are well trained and highly involved. They were even set up to serve as county dairy princesses for the next four years. “But now, after telling them [about the changes], every single one is devastated and angry. They don’t want to do it next year,” she said.
Meyer said some of the branding for the program still has to be worked out so the dairy ambassadors stand out at events. Donahoe said all of the changes “are not set in stone” and there are issues ADANE still has to work out.
“We want to keep this program successful,” she said. “We want to do what’s best for the farmers.”