Provided Photo: SUNY Geneseo Student Natalie Vernon is shown here being crowned New York State Dairy Princess in 2020. She is at the 58th annual pageant on Tuesday, Feb. 16, to help crown the new princess.

SYRACUSE – SUNY Geneseo student Natalie Vernon completes her reign as the New York State Dairy Princess this week when her successor is crowned tonight at the 58th annual pageant.

Of the 26 county dairy princesses in 2020, 11 are competing for the state title at the American Dairy Association North East’s 58th New York State Dairy Princess Pageant.

The competition is compared to an intensive, two-day test on all things dairy industry.

“It is almost like they are interviewing for a job because it is a spokesperson type position,” said Dawn Houppert, an industry promotions specialist with the association.

The state pageant, to be live streamed from Embassy Suites by Hilton in Syracuse, is hosted by the American Dairy Association North East, which advocates for dairy farmers in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Contestants will be judged for communication skills, knowledge of the dairy industry, poise and personality across six categories: a personal interview, an impromptu question, a prepared adult speech, a product knowledge exam, writing skills and informal interaction with others.

Judges evaluate the contestants on their communication skills, knowledge of the dairy industry, poise and personality. “It is the dairy knowledge. All of the testing goes towards their knowledge of the industry, so that they can be good spokespeople,” said Houppert.

The girls taking part in the event have that knowledge because to compete at the state level they need to be a county princess and to be a county princess they need to have a connection to the industry such as having a family farm or a family member working in the industry.

“They kind of have passion for the industry and some of them have grown up in 4-H, so they have shown their own cows,” said Houppert.

This year’s court includes Shelby Benjamin, Chenango County; Holly Niefergold, Erie County; Amy Gokey, Franklin County; Elizabeth Hyman, Jefferson County; Faith Avedisian, Monroe County; Sarah Keehan, Montgomery County; Alyssa Buck, Oneida County; Cara Walker, Ontario County; Gabriella Miyoshi, Orange County; Taylor Bonoffski, Oswego County; and Kailey Kuhn, Wayne County. Lewis County Dairy Princess Hannah Raymond withdrew from the pageant and plans to compete at the county level again to vie for the state crown next year.

Along with a dairy princess, two alternates will be selected to represent New York’s dairy farmers and serve as dairy industry ambassadors throughout the next year. No matter who takes the crown, Houppert said they are all winners.

“They are all winners, they have done stuff throughout the year, their school programs, and they have done a lot of activities throughout the year and the farmers are very proud of them. These girls do a wonderful job,” said Houppert.

The pageant is also a chance to meet other girls who share the same interests and make friends – not just for a couple of days, but a lifetime.

“A lot of the girls become lifelong friends. A lot of them end of going to colleges together and they become lifelong friends,” said Houppert.

One of those helping to cheer on the girls will be Vernon, who said that upon winning last year she could not at first believe that she was the winner.

“It was quite the surprise and it took a little while to hit but it was very exciting,” said Vernon, a Wayne County native.

In addition to being the dairy princess, she is also a junior at SUNY Geneseo where she is a communications major.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Vernon’s duties as the dairy princess had to be adjusted, with many shifting to a virtual format.

“Normally we do a lot of farm tours but that went virtual this year because of COVID. The New York State Fair got cancelled but we did a virtual approach to that as well,” said Vernon.

Vernon said she tried to make the most of her experiences, and as she ends her reign, she is encourage the new winner to do the same.

“My biggest piece of advice is just to enjoy every minute that you have as a state princess because it goes way faster than you would expect,” Vernon said. “Even if things get tough as they did this past year, it is best to make the most of it and think outside of the box on the best ways to promote our farmers.”

While her time as the dairy princess may be over, Vernon said she is hoping to turn her passion for the dairy industry into a full-time career.

“Through the dairy princess program I have just found that it is such a passion of mine. I enjoy it like I haven’t enjoyed anything else, so it is just something that I will be very happy with,” said Vernon.

After her time at SUNY Geneseo, Vernon said she is going to pursue a masters degree in agricultural communications.

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The 58th New York State Dairy Princess Pageant will be viewable on the ADA North East Facebook page, facebook.com/AmericanDairyNE.

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