Barely 10 a.m., and already the air was sweltering, so Valerie Grimm topped off the water trough for the leggy Holstein calves on her family's dairy farm west of Waconia. The lawn needed mowing, a miniature version of her job of driving tractor when the alfalfa needs baling, but she hoped to postpone that until after her stint at the farm supply store, wearing a tiara and giving away ice cream.

When Grimm was little, she drew a picture of herself wearing a crown, carefully printing: When I grow up, I want to be a dairy princess.

"And now, in the blink of an eye, here we are," she said, as only an 18-year-old can.

Grimm is one of 12 county dairy princesses vying this week to be Princess Kay of the Milky Way. The new Kay will be crowned Wednesday night, the eve of the Minnesota State Fair, then rise to iconic status when her likeness, and that of all the finalists, is sculpted into a 90-pound block of butter.

Even sans butterhead, Princess Kay is the figurehead of the state's dairy industry.

"She's putting a face to the product," said Seena Glessing, the Midwest Dairy Association's dairy princess consultant. "She's telling people, 'Hey, I'm rising and taking care of those animals every day that are producing this great product for you.' People want to see who is making their food, and she's saying, 'That's me. I'm doing that. I'm one of those family farmers.'"

The competition, Grimm says firmly, "is not a pageant." The rules state that a candidate must be "a genuine user of dairy products and a genuine supporter of the dairy industry and its future success," and either a worker on a dairy farm or the daughter of a dairy farm owner or worker.

Candidates are judged on how they perform during a judges' interview, a speech prepared on a given topic, a mock media interview, a group discussion with other finalists, and speaking extemporaneously about a given topic.

In short, Princess Kay must know how to milk a moment.

A calendar of babies, parades

The path to Minnesota dairy royalty began last May when 80 county dairy princesses gathered in St. Joseph for a Dairy Promotion Training Event. Of them, 59 had the time and passion to pursue being the 59th Princess Kay and from them, 12 finalists were chosen. To call them fresh-scrubbed is too easy, except that they are.

Several attend college, majoring in animal science, dairy production or agribusiness. Maggie Stiles of Lakeville owns a herd of cattle. Laura Rosenhammer intends to return home to farm in Sleepy Eye after college. Laura Mesenburg's mom is a former Princess Kay. Victoria Haler of Waconia also is Miss Teen Minnesota.

They've made appearances at area banks, grocery stores, senior residences, town celebrations. In Grimm's case, her first stop as finalist was the maternity ward of Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia.

"Oh! She sneezed!" Grimm giggled as Emily Margaret Carlson, the first baby born in June in Carver County, adjusted to her first 24 hours of breathing air. June is Dairy Month, so the county's first baby always gets a royal visit from its dairy princesses and a bagful of gifts, including a sippy cup, bib and blanket in the black-and-white mottling of a Holstein.

Parents Sarah and Brett of Victoria appeared a bit dazed as five teenage girls in tiaras crowded into the hospital room. This being the princesses' first official duty, they were almost as subdued, letting Grimm's mom, Barb, handle the milk pep talk.

Barb ran for dairy princess in 1981, back when Carver County had a whopping 26 candidates, "and I wasn't one of the three crowned," she said later, with a shrug. But dairying is the life she shares with her husband, Joel, and she's helped with the princess program for years.

The Grimm farm lies in lush folds of corn, soybeans and pasture. It's been in the family almost a century, the great barn built in 1928 from hand-sawn beams. It's always been a dairy farm, always with Holsteins. Yet "always" isn't certain. Grimm's older brother is a computer technician. She's off to study health care at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. A sister is in high school.

The Grimms have seen farming change or, more to the point, seen how life around farming has changed.

"We're already trying to figure out how to get to the coronation," Barb said, noting that it's been years since the whole family attended the fair, what with cows needing to be milked twice daily on a schedule as inviolate as sunrise and sunset. "The community used to follow the farmer's clock. Now there are weddings at 4 o'clock, or school events."

Even Valerie's decision to pursue being Princess Kay hinted at the challenges of dairying. She was inspired in 2008 as a dairy ambassador assisting the county princesses. "I decided," she said, "if we still have the cows when I graduate, I'll do the dairy princess thing."

Fewer farms, fancier milk

Glessing was a finalist for Princess Kay in 1999. "I said I represented the 10,000 dairy farmers of Minnesota," she said. "Now, we're at 4,000."

Minnesota is sixth nationwide in dairy production. Yet the industry has changed since 1954, when Eleanor Maley was chosen as the first Princess Kay from among more than 1,700 candidates from the state's 123,000 farms with milk cows.

By 1980, the number of dairy farms had fallen to 27,000. At the turn of the century: 8,500. Now, Minnesota's 4,000 dairy farms are among 55,000 nationwide. But even the term "dairy farm" falters in describing everything from dairies with a thousand cows to the Grimms' 44 heifers.

Americans also drink less milk every year, down from 30 gallons per person per year in 1968 to 19 gallons in 2008, according to the Department of Food and Agriculture in California, the top dairy state. A growing proportion of that is 1 percent and skim milk -- and maybe even root beer-flavored milk.

"Oh, it's so good!" Grimm said. "It really does taste like a root beer float, except it's not fizzy."

The root beer milk, from Kemps, is part of a growing list of flavors reaching beyond chocolate and strawberry. Some dairies are experimenting with banana and cotton candy. Sweet sells. Along the parade routes this summer, milk-rich caramels are flung into the crowds.

Oh, the parades. Every finalist has waved from the back of some flatbed this summer, ideally in the shade of a huge "Got Milk?" umbrella. Grimm has waved in Delano, Chanhassen, New Germany, Cologne, Chaska. In Watertown for its Rails to Trails celebration, she and two other Carver County dairy princesses had mastered a synchronized wave, three long arms, elbows and wrists cocked, gliding from side to side. "We worked hard on that," she said, grinning. The crowd loved it.

'We feed the world'

The current Princess Kay is Mary Zahurones from Pierz. She's appeared at 27 schools, before 6,000 students. "She brings in feed samples and the big calf bottles," Glessing said. Zahurones has painted a mural with Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, posed with people dressed as giant ears of corn, addressed Lions Clubs and passed out scads of samples of milk, yogurt and ice cream, all while touting the glories of dairy products.

Grimm is learning the drill.

"Good afternoon, my name is Valerie and I'm one of the Carver County dairy princesses and a finalist for Princess Kay. I'm here to represent the dairy industry. Would you like some free ice cream?"

She and Samantha Wickenhauser were stationed just inside the Waconia Farm Supply, snagging customers who invariably accepted the relief from the heat. "If I don't know them, I recognize them," Grimm said of the shoppers, some farmers, some folks just needing a new garden hose.

"It's important for consumers to understand what farmers do," she said. "We feed the world."

She loves being a farm girl.

"I had a lot of open space to run around in, and I liked to play with the cows and the kitties," she said. "It's nice to have a sense of privacy and be in tune with nature. And I love the good farm smell. I don't care what you say, it smells like home to me."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185