Valerie Sauder feeds a calf a bottle on her family’s dairy near Pine Island, Minnesota. 
Valerie Sauder feeds a calf a bottle on her family’s dairy near Pine Island, Minnesota. PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA
    PINE ISLAND, Minn. – Valerie Sauder has been promoting the dairy industry long before wearing her crown as a Dodge County Dairy Princess.
    “I don’t need to wear a crown to tell people about farming, about where their food comes from and what happens on farms,” said Sauder, who will be a junior this fall at the University of Minnesota. “But in the last year or more that I’ve had a crown to help me do that, it’s amazing how it opens conversations.”
    Now the 20-year-old daughter of Stanley and Amy Sauder has the chance to promote with a bigger crown as she will compete as one of 10 finalists for the role of Princess Kay of the Milky Way.
    Sauder grew up on her family’s 500-cow dairy owned by her uncles, Dave, Duane and Rick Alberts, near Pine Island. Her first memories of the dairy were at the age of 3, tagging along with her mom, the full-time calf feeder.
    “I would run around the barns and had fun,” she said. “It all started with that.”
    As she grew older, she took on more responsibilities and would show dairy animals every year at the county fair. Being involved in 4-H and FFA prepared her for her dairy princess role.
    “Speaking for ag and for farmers has been second nature because of these organizations, and all the trainings and camps I went to,” Sauder said.
    Taking on the title of dairy royalty has been on Sauder’s wish list since she was little. She attended the county princess banquet every year and looked up to many of her cousins who wore the crown along with her mom, who was also a Princess Kay finalist in 1986.
    “Growing up, I knew was going to be a dairy princess, but I didn’t realize how much was involved with it and how much it meant until I was doing it, until I wrote my first speech for our banquet last year,” Sauder said.
    Now in her second year serving at the county level, Sauder said any and all events as a dairy princess are important.
    “At first glance, it’s just ice cream scooping and you’re standing there in the grocery store offering ice cream,” she said. “Looking back, all of those are good experiences with people. We’re being visible, we’re there, we’re talking about dairy products and dairy farming.”
    Last summer, Sauder presented to daycares in Rochester and talked about farming at day camps for 6-8-year-olds. Sauder said she answered so many questions after explaining what cows eat and how they are cared for on a dairy.
    “They don’t get to see this up close,” she said. “They’ve never seen a cow in their life. I was showing them a part of the food industry they don’t get to see.”
    This year’s promoting has been more virtual with more posts on Facebook and live sessions on Instagram showing the everyday chores on her family’s dairy.
    Prior to becoming a dairy princess, Sauder has talked with fairgoers while at the state and county fairs.
    “When you’re just sitting in the barn, people see you and come up and talk to you,” she said. “They have so many questions. I love those conversations so much.”
    She also worked at the Miracle of Birth Center at the Minnesota State Fair three years ago. One conversation that stands out amongst the rest was when Sauder engaged in a 45-minute conversation with a mother about her daughter being a vegan.
    “She had a lot of genuine questions,” Sauder said. “When the conversation ended, the mom felt more informed, got questions answered, and I think it ended positively. Even if she doesn’t convince her daughter that dairy farms are well run and well managed, she got that.”
     While most interactions are simple, Sauder knows there will be people who have differing opinions about dairy farming.
    “Sometimes you’re not going to change people’s mind that day,” Sauder said. “They’re convinced, they’ve done their Facebook research and that’s what they believe. But you can have an impact. You can be a touch that was positive. They can say, ‘I hate all dairy farmers, but I had a really good conversation with this one dairy princess one time so I guess I don’t hate all dairy farmers.’”
    Through her interactions while wearing the crown, Sauder said she wants to share the message that dairy farmers care about their cows, the product they produce and their land.
    “As the sixth generation on our farm, for me, a lot of this came from family tradition, a family love for this industry that has gone on over 100 years,” Sauder said. “It’s really impactful to me to be a part of something my family’s done for so long. So overall the main message is that farmers care about what they do.”
    Sauder also wants people to know how farming has evolved over those 100 years.
    “People may have a romanticized picture of a little farm with a white picket fence and it’s not what agriculture is these days,” Sauder said. “I like getting to have these conversations to tell people what we are doing is advancing our industry. You wouldn’t want your doctor to treat you the way they did 50 years ago. … Sustainability has gone up, and we’ve been able to do more with less. Getting to tell people those things and shift their perspective has been one of my favorite things.”
    And while Sauder has been able to have these conversations without a crown, the shining jewels on her head have helped her gain more traction in agricultural education.
    “I can say I’m a princess, but I don’t have a castle, I have a farm,” Sauder said. “The crown is such a tool for me to open those conversations, and that’s something I’ve really loved about being a dairy princess.”