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A little more than a month ago, I was standing on stage for the second time as an Alice in Dairyland top candidate. The familiar feeling of butterflies filled my stomach, but as I waited for the name of the 71st Alice in Dairyland to be called, I felt a sense of pride.

Reflecting on my two applications to become Alice, I realized how much I learned from the process alone. In those two years, I had the opportunity to attend more than a dozen industry tours, network with people of all backgrounds, and develop a relationship with farmers and processors who provide a safe, wholesome and secure food supply.

After the announcement, my life has been anything but ordinary. My official start date at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection was two weeks after finals. Time passed strangely in those two weeks. The clock ticked slowly as I anxiously awaited this new adventure in agriculture, but when it was time to say goodbye to my family’s farm, I questioned where the days had gone.

I was raised on one of the 96 percent of Wisconsin dairy farms that are family-owned. My family still milks a herd of all registered Jerseys in Crawford County. My parents, Jody and Paulette Riley, raised my brother, Justin and me with a love for agriculture. Although my brother and I left the farm after high school, the dairy industry played a key role in our careers.

Justin became a licensed cheesemaker and now works for Foremost Farms, one of Wisconsin’s more than 200 dairy plants. I wanted to share the story of Wisconsin’s diverse agriculture industry, so I studied strategic communications and broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I worked as the farm news director for a radio station in Prairie du Chien, and later as a multimedia journalist in Eau Claire.

After working away from home for more than two years, I knew I needed to reconnect with agriculture. I returned to Riley Farms where I managed calf and heifer care and worked side-by-side with my parents. Returning to the dairy as a full-time employee gave me a new appreciation for the work ethic of Wisconsin farmers. I continued writing about agriculture as a freelance journalist. My experiences as a farmer and a writer combined provided a new set of skills as I reapplied to become Alice in Dairyland.

Now a couple of weeks on the job, my shoes are dirty, my feet have blisters, and my heart is full with the love and support of our agriculture industry. I logged almost 1,500 miles in Maizey, a flex-fuel Ford Explorer, in my first two weeks.

Of course, June is Dairy Month, so a majority of my duties include attending dairy breakfasts and celebrations around the state. Visiting these farms across America’s Dairyland reminds me of the persistence of our farmers and the dedication of volunteers, especially as our state’s weather refuses to cooperate with scheduled events.

For the past two weekends, storms poured rain on host farms that spent the past year carefully planning for June Dairy Month. Despite the conditions, flooded roads and saturated farmland, it did not dampen the spirit of any event. Volunteers arrived hours before breakfast was served to spread gravel, mulch and shavings. Communities worked together for new parking and shuttle plans to preserve farm fields. Guests wore rubber boots of many colors to get the full-farm experience which included stomping in the mud and muck.

I am already dreading the day when I return to the Alice finals stage because it will be time to say farewell to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Until that time comes, I will cherish every dairy breakfast, industry tour, media interview and conversation. The butterflies from May have never left my stomach as I am constantly excited to see what each new day will bring.

I cannot thank the agriculture industry enough for sharing Wisconsin’s heritage with me. The farms of every type, size and production method play a special role in bringing success to our state. For now, I ask you to join me in celebrating our 8,000 dairy farms.

As June Dairy Month celebrations continue, there is endless cheese to taste, ice cream to enjoy and dairy traditions to try. For events, recipes and videos, check out hooraywisconsindairy.com. I hope to meet you as my adventure in agriculture continues.

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