by Allison Cloo

If you’re looking for a tasty connection between consumers and the dairy industry, there is always the ice cream served up in the landmark Red Barn at the Oregon State Fair. If you’re looking for the people who dish up education along with the treats, look no further than the organizers behind the counter: Oregon Dairy Women.

The bustling Red Barn is a popular attraction at the fair, and a central fundraising event for the Oregon Dairy Women (ODW). The funds collected from the milkshakes and ice cream sundaes help power the rest of the group’s annual advocacy efforts. Still, the promotion couldn’t happen without the formidable team of volunteers driving the ODW’s efforts to connect Oregonians with their local dairy industry.

In recognition of their long-term and tireless work, Oregon Aglink will honor the women of ODW with the Ag Connection award for 2018 at the annual Denim and Diamonds dinner and auction presented by Wilco on November 16.

The first Oregon Dairy Princess was crowned in 1959, and the first president of ODW served in 1962. Whether the Oregon Dairy Women—or Oregon Dairy Wives, as it was originally known—started a few years earlier is a little unclear. What is abundantly obvious, however, is how the program itself has grown in spite of the number of dairies shrinking over the decades. As the industry has changed, ODW has expanded its reach and honed its strategies to support Oregon dairies through connecting tens of thousands of consumers per year with people in the Oregon dairy industry.

“We have so many skilled ladies that take charge and are involved on so many different levels,” says Tami Kerr, a past president of Oregon Dairy Women.

Kerr has practice listing off the activities of ODW, but it still takes a minute to recite them all. The Oregon Dairy Princess Ambassadors at county and state levels are crowned in January then tour the state. They educate students and consumers about milk and dairy production, reaching 14,000 in 2017. Their impact in schools extends to work with Adopt a Farmer, Oregon Ag in the Classroom, and the Summer Ag Institute, which reaches teachers as well.

You also can find ODW at Oregon Ag Fest and the State Capital for Dairy Day, or helping with dairy tours, 4-H, and the Oregon FFA convention, or fundraising for their scholarship program at the Dairy Women’s Auction. It is a full schedule that requires commitment and cooperation.

The dairy princesses are instantly recognizable in their tiaras and sashes, whether matched with a gown at a banquet or a polo shirt at Oregon Aglink’s golf tournament. The other women who drive the organization, often behind the scenes, are well-known among Oregon’s dairy and agricultural industry groups.

Part of the Dairy Princess Court at the Friends of Oregon Agriculture Golf Tournament in 2017

Along with the programs listed above, ODW and its volunteers work in conjunction with the Oregon Dairy and Nutrition Council, Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, and Oregon Women for Agriculture. It stands to reason that hard-working women supporting agriculture recognize the power in standing together with other organizations where there is often crossover in participation among the groups.

In some cases, women involved with ODW have started out as Dairy Princess Ambassadors and translated their training in public speaking and outreach to their own careers.

Jessica Jansen, executive director of Oregon Ag in the Classroom, served as a princess- ambassador in 2011. During her year of service, she spoke to over 17,000 students all across the state.

“This experience confirmed my desire to work in education,” says Jansen, “specifically agricultural education.” The scholarships through ODW helped pave the way for her degree in Agricultural Sciences and Communication. According to Jansen, her experiences in ODW and the network it established are still serving her in her current position, and she gives back as well: she’s still a member of the Clackamas Dairy Women chapter.

The ties between organizations, or between county and state, families and career, are echoed again and again in ODW as you realize that connection is something they do remarkably well. It’s no wonder, then, that they have had such a sustained impact on the dairy industry as they initiate and build connections between Oregon consumers and their local dairies.

Oregon Aglink isn’t the only one to notice, either.

“The dairy women are outstanding advocates for our industry,” says Derrick Josi, a Tillamook dairy farmer. Josi does his own share of outreach, with nearly twenty-five thousand followers spread across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. His digital reach extends beyond that of many local farmers with blogs or social media accounts, and yet he knows all about the in-person education that ODW accomplishes each year with schools, other organizations, and events for all-ages.

Dairy Princess Ambassadors at Oregon Ag Fest

For those days when Derrick Josi or other dairy farmers don’t have a free hand to update their social media, the Oregon Dairy Women have their backs. Chances are you can find princess-ambassadors talking about nutrition in a classroom, or volunteers serving up creamy treats; their friendly patter is heard in the halls of the state capitol and near the stalls at county fairs.

In 2019, ODW will celebrate 60 years of advocating for an industry they love, with many members dedicating decades of service to the organization. The letter nominating ODW for the Ag Connection award cites the thousands of hours of often unrecognized work: “these women are so far from the spotlight they often get missed, but their service is truly remarkable.”

The nomination called out a core group of members, including Ida Ruby, Jessie DeJager, LucyAnn Volbeda, Rita Hogan, and Debbie Timm. Those women will, in turn, point to the qualities in the other women of ODW: strong, devoted, unique, and proud. Credit is frequently shared.

Since they pull together and share the load, the education and promotion efforts of Oregon Dairy Women never come down to just one voice. It is, however, unified behind one message: Oregon dairy deserves support, and these women will make sure it happens.