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Nobles County dairy princesses to get butter heads, vie for Princess Kay

WORTHINGTON -- Dairying has been a way of life for the Dave and Deb Vander Kooi and Dean and Carol Christopherson families of rural Worthington for generations.

But the couples have more in common than simply milking Holsteins. On Sunday, they each watched as not their first, nor their second, but their third daughters were selected as finalists for Princess Kay of the Milky Way. Princess Kay is the goodwill ambassador for the dairy industry in Minnesota.

DiDi Christopherson, 21, and Kia Vander Kooi, 19, were among a dozen young women chosen as finalists Sunday during the Midwest Dairy Association's selection event at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph. The new Princess Kay will be crowned Aug. 23 at the state fairgrounds in Falcon Heights as the kick-off to the 2006 Minnesota State Fair.

As finalists, both Christopherson and Vander Kooi will have their likenesses carved in 90-pound blocks of butter. The carvings, done in a rotating glass-sided cooler, take place as visitors stroll through the dairy foods building on the fairgrounds each day of the "Great Minnesota Get-Together."

Seventy-one women from across Minnesota competed in the Princess Kay finalist program Friday through Sunday in St. Joseph. Each went through a personal interview, presented a speech, participated in a mock radio interview and submitted an application listing their accomplishments and their thoughts about Minnesota's dairy industry. In addition, training was offered to teach the women about educational tools they may use to promote the dairy industry.

Strong supporters

Vander Kooi and Christopherson grew up in the dairy industry. Both were raised on family-owned dairy farms south of Worthington, both showed dairy at the Nobles County Fair as members of the Ocheda Beavers 4-H Club, and both are now members of the Gopher Dairy Club at the University of Minnesota, where they attend college.

Christopherson and Vander Kooi grew up just a few miles from each other. Their sisters -- Cynda and Eir Christopherson and Anna and Tae Vander Kooi -- were all state finalists, with Tae crowned Princess Kay of the Milky Way in 2003.

Six years ago, the selection process for Princess Kay changed, allowing more than one competitor from each county. This year will be the first that two Nobles County dairy princesses go head-to-head for the state title.

"It's kind of ironic that we have two (finalists) from Nobles County," said Char Hovland, princess coordinator with the Midwest Dairy Association. "To get two from that part of the country is just great."

Christopherson and Vander Kooi have each tried out for Princess Kay in the past. Neither, however, made it to the finalist round until this year.

"I think it's incredible when you're up against (more than 70) talented girls across the state of Minnesota, and we're the only two eligible (candidates) in Nobles County," said Vander Kooi. "To both be selected is pretty outstanding."

Princess Kay finalists must have graduated high school, be under the age of 24 and either live or work on a dairy farm. Vander Kooi said as far as she knows, she and Christopherson are the only two in Nobles County who fit that description and want to promote the dairy industry.

While that may tell a little bit about Nobles County -- that there may not be many younger families left in the dairy business -- Vander Kooi said the county's 35 dairy farms are going strong.

"There are 35 more-than-willing dairy farms to help us promote the dairy industry, and they're very excited for us," she added.

Promoting the dairy industry is something both Christopherson and Vander Kooi have done for years. And they're not about to stop anytime soon. They will take part in parades throughout the summer and promote dairy at area stores. Each has made classroom visits to share their knowledge of the dairy industry with children.

The main message the pair share with the public -- to get "Three A Day" of dairy.

"I encourage everybody to go out and drink milk and get three a day," said Christopherson, adding that about 90 percent of women and 88 percent of teen-age girls don't get enough dairy products. Overall, she added, 75 percent of Americans don't get an adequate supply of calcium.

"It's an issue, and hopefully by getting the word out there, people will get encouraged and grab an ice cold glass of milk," Christopherson said.

She also plans to spread the message of what she learned by growing up on a dairy farm.

"It was fun working with my family," Christopherson said. "We learned work ethic and responsibility and about the great product that (we produce)."

Future plans

Christopherson will begin her senior year at the University of Minnesota in the fall, where she is working toward a double major in biology and animal science, with a dual emphasis in dairy production and pre-veterinarian. She is working at the regional 4-H office in Worthington this summer, and milks cows in the evening on her family's farm. After college, Christopherson will return to the farm to one day take over the dairy operation from her parents.

Vander Kooi will be a sophomore at the University of Minnesota this fall, where she is pursuing a major in agriculture industries and marketing. She works at the campus career center, helping agriculture students with their job search. This summer, she will work at her mom's store, Main Street Kids, teach swimming lessons and serve as a lifeguard.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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