Alice in Dairyland racing down the home stretch

Dan Hansen
Ann O’Leary, Wisconsin’s 69th Alice in Dairyland is pictured in front of several posters of her predecessors. The posters were collected by longtime farm broadcaster Bob Meyer.

GREEN BAY - Ann O’Leary has spent most of the past year serving as the 69th Alice in Dairyland. As Wisconsin’s agricultural ambassador, she has traveled thousands of miles educating audiences across Wisconsin about the $88 billion economic impact and importance of the state’s diverse agriculture industry on our daily lives.

O’Leary grew up in Evansville, showing Jerseys and Holsteins at the county, district and state level. She was heavily involved in the Rock County Jr. Holstein Association and the Rock County 4-H Program and served as the 2009 Rock County 4-H Fair Queen.

O’Leary studied Biology and Neuroscience at Carthage College and graduated with All College Honors in May of 2014. She volunteers with the Rock County 4-H Program and serves on the Carthage College Alumni Council. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, water skiing and spending time with family.

However, she has not had much spare time since beginning her year as Alice in Dairyland last June, and will likely have even less of it over the next couple of months.

Before her year as Alice is over, O’Leary will have participated in more than

60 TV Interviews and 150 radio Interviews. She will have made 1,000 social media posts, been featured in more than 60 print articles, and delivered 100 tailored presentations. In conjunction with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, she also will help 10,000 fourth-graders learn about Wisconsin agriculture.

O’Leary spoke with Wisconsin State Farmer following the recent announcement of the six young women who be competing to succeed her.

Wisconsin’s State Fair is a summer highlight for every Alice in Dairyland, and O’Leary recalled some of the unique things she did during her 11 days at State Fair – like riding behind a six-horse hitch, and joining in the bunny hopping where bunnies compete to see how quickly they can hop their way through an obstacle course.

“I really enjoyed those little moments when I was walking down the street at State Fair, and a family would stop me and say ‘we meet Alice every year, and we’re so excited to meet you,’ or that little girl whose eyes lit up when she saw my tiara. These are the moments that I will remember for the rest of my life,” O’Leary said.

After a busy summer and fall, she began 2017 with a travel blitz that took her to events and schools throughout the state. “While some students know a lot about Wisconsin agriculture, others have never been on a farm, their excitement for Wisconsin’s agriculture industry was the same,” O’Leary related.

“It’s really exciting to see them raising their hands, when asked what different foods we grow here in the state, and there’s often that moment when the light goes on and they understand what is grown on a farm,” she said. “The kids are eager to share their stories of experiencing agriculture first hand and always cheer when I tell them I brought cheese.”

The children often pose some interesting question to O’Leary. “Some questions might be a little silly, like wondering if cows get sick on the cow carousel. More in-depth questions might include how we get pits out of cherries.”

One of the takeaways she has from their questions is that the students are curious about where their food comes from. “Being able to connect them with their roots in agriculture is very rewarding experience,” O’Leary stressed.

One of her favorite classroom moments occurred at Summit Elementary School in Oconomowoc after she had finished her presentation.

“A young girl approached me, held out a clipboard, and shyly asked for my autograph. On her clipboard she had a post-it note for me to sign that read ‘My first Alice in Dairyland, the 69th.’ I signed the post-it and then asked if she wanted to be Alice someday. As she eagerly shook her head yes, my heart was filled with joy to know that these blitzes help inspire future generations to be involved in Wisconsin agriculture,” O’Leary said.

This winter O’Leary also participated in the Wisconsin Aquaculture Conference, and was on hand for the kick-off of Wisconsin’s maple syrup season. “It was a lot of fun to support our maple syrup producers who make Wisconsin the nation’s fourth largest maple syrup-producing state, and it’s great that we have a whole month to celebrate this industry,” she said.

Until her successor takes over in June, O’Leary plans to continue taking every available opportunity to promote Wisconsin’s diverse agriculture. “I have a lot of classroom visits coming up, and visits to Superior and other communities in northern Wisconsin,” she affirmed.

“There are some industries that I haven’t had the opportunity tour yet, so over the next few months, I’m really hoping to visit some of our more unique agriculture industries,” she added.

O’Leary became involved in the selection process for Wisconsin’s 70th Alice in Dairyland on Feb. 17, as women from across the state traveled to Madison to begin their journey towards becoming the state’s next agricultural ambassador. “As I shuffled the candidates from room to room, I couldn’t help but think back to my interview experience,” she said.

Her involvement in the process continued on March 17, when she co-hosted the press conference that introduced the six top candidates. She’s also preparing for the Alice finals that will be held May 11-13 in Green Bay.

“I’ll be giving my final presentation there, and also will be offering my moral support to these six candidates,” she said.