Barely 10 a.m., and already the air was sweltering, so Valerie Grimm topped off the water trough for the Holstein calves on her family's dairy farm west of Waconia. The lawn needed mowing, 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.

Grimm, 18, was one of 12 county dairy princesses who vied this week to be Princess Kay of the Milky Way. Christine Reitsma of Sauk Centre was crowned the 59th Princess Kay on Wednesday at the State Fairgrounds, and will rise to iconic status when her likeness, and that of Grimm and the other finalists, are sculpted into 90-pound blocks of butter. Even sans butterhead, the Princess Kay royalty are figureheads of the state's dairy industry.

The competition, Grimm said 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, and speaking extemporaneously about a given topic. In short, Princess Kay must know how to milk a moment.

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 has 4,000 dairy farms.

Americans also drink less milk every year, down from 30 gallons per person per year in 1968 to 19 gallons in 2008. 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. Grimm has waved in Delano, Chanhassen, New Germany, Chaska. In Watertown, 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.

The outgoing Princess Kay is Mary Zahurones from Pierz. She's appeared at 27 schools, before 6,000 students, 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 was 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. "If I don't know them, I recognize them," Grimm said.

"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."