EDEN VALLEY, Minn. – Katherine Gathje’s birthday has always been an important day for her, but this year will be one of her most memorable. As Gathje turns 20, she will also be participating in the Princess Kay of the Milky Way coronation Aug. 22.
    “When I was younger, I looked ahead at the calendar to see where my birthday landed each year,” Gathje said. “When I realized my 20th birthday was on coronation night, I knew this is what I wanted.”
    Gathje, 19, is one of 12 finalists who are competing for the title of 65th Princess Kay of the Milky Way.
    Gathje grew up helping her family – parents, Scott and Denise, and five siblings, Joe, Anne, James, Gregory and Jonathon – milk 70 cows at their dairy farm near Eden Valley, Minn.
    The herd is primarily Holsteins, but also includes Brown Swiss and crossbreds.
    “My favorite part about growing up on the farm was making chores fun with my siblings,” Gathje said. “When we were younger, we used to pick out calves and track the families. When the DHIA sheets came, we would see who had the better milk production and make it a little competition.”
    Today, Gathje’s favorite responsibility is feeding the calves.
    “I am a problem solver,” she said. “If a calf doesn’t drink, I like to fix the problem.”
    When Gathje is not busy at her own farm, she also works at a neighboring dairy – a position she began two years ago.
    Gathje’s childhood developed a strong work ethic and dedication to the dairy industry. The values she learned on the dairy farm are ones Gathje is hoping to share with others throughout her summer as a Princess Kay finalist.
    “I am representing the dairy farmers,” Gathje said. “No matter how big of an audience, I am doing it for the farmers.”
     Gathje is familiar with representing the dairy industry because of roles she has held in organizations, such as Minnesota Junior Holstein Association and at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where she is studying agriculture communications and marketing and ag and food business management.
    Within these organizations, Gathje has met many people who have helped her achieve her dreams.
    “My older siblings, especially James, were my first inspiration,” Gathje said. “They were involved in many things and it made me want to get more involved.”
    Gathje also admires former Princess Kays.
    “I remember Jeni Haler,” Gathje said. “I wanted to be just like her.”
    As Gathje prepared for judging in May, she had her sights set on a butterhead, but her nerves were continually felt throughout her body.
    “I was saying my speech in my sleep I was so nervous,” Gathje said. “After the interviews I told myself, ‘Katherine, you either got it or you didn’t. You tried your best.’”
    When Gathje’s name was announced as a finalist representing Meeker County, she was full of emotion.
    “My whole body was shaking, and I couldn’t think,” Gathje said. “I was just so excited.”
    Gathje is thrilled for the opportunity to share her story with others and demonstrate why farmers care about their animals and the products they produce.
    “It is my goal to share that with others,” Gathje said. “I hope to help them find the same level of trust we have in dairy products.”
    In the future, Gathje hopes to work in the dairy industry with a cooperative or checkoff program. This career path would allow Gathje to give back to an industry she has grown passionately for.
    “So many people have positively impacted me,” Gathje said. “I want to be there for someone and be a mentor, just like people were for me.”
    Gathje’s journey as dairy royalty began in the Meeker County Dairy Ambassador program alongside her cousin.
    “No matter if you are representing the county or the state, as a finalist or Princess Kay, we’re given the tools to share our story and connect with as many people as possible,” Gathje said.
    Since the initial step into the dairy princess program, Gathje has not looked back. And now, she is looking forward to Aug. 22 to celebrate her birthday, as well as the Minnesota dairy farmers she represents.