Rebecca Before has milked more than 50,000 pounds of moo juice in her 20 years -- an impressive feat, but not the one that helped her clinch the title of reigning Vermont State Dairy Princess. What really gave the Newport native the edge during June -- National Dairy Month -- was a little Napoleon Dynamite-type know-how.
Like that instant cult classic's redheaded hero, who can detect traces of bleach and onion in milk, Before is uncannily clever about cows and their byproducts. "I've always had raw milk on the farm," she says, "and it's never more than 48 hours old. To me, store-bought milk tastes funny."
So when Before heard the call for a state "dairy princess" -- a recently resurrected tradition that lay fallow for two decades -- she decided to focus on the "educational" portion of the application process. She proposed gathering authentic dairy foods and imposters, such as soy yogurt and light butter made with vegetable oil, and staging a taste test. She demonstrated the deal at last month's pageant.
"I named it 'Do You Know Your Real Seal?'" says Before. "The biggest giveaway is when the first person takes the first sip and goes, 'Yuck!' I guess we know which one's not dairy."
The idea, along with Before's background in bovine matters, helped her beat Brattleboro's Katherine Fellows, the other contestant in the competition. "Rebecca did a great job with the audience participation," says the Holstein Association USA's Lisa Perrin. "Plus, she's very passionate about the dairy industry -- you have to have a passion for it."
Perrin hails from western New York, where, she says, nearly every county names an annual dairy princess. When she moved to Vermont last November, she discovered that the state had no such royalty of its own -- such pageants petered out some 20 years ago.
So Perrin decided to organize a contest in which the crowning of the winner would coincide with Brattleboro's annual Strolling of the Heifers Parade & Festival in early June, when more than 85 cows are herded along Main Street. Though there were only two applicants for the princess title this year, Perrin hopes that more young women will enter next year. Contestants, aged 16 to 24, have to be either dairy-farm residents or sponsored by a dairy farm.
In the meantime, Before plans to hoof it to as many places as possible, spreading the butter, milk, cheese and yogurt news to Vermonters and tourists alike. In the fall, she'll bring her taste test to schools, but first to summer fairs -- a circuit she knows well. "Becky started showing cows when she was 4," says her mother, Lori, "Of course, the cows were much bigger than she was . . . she's always been really good at promoting the dairy business."
According to the Vermont Dairy Promotion Council, by 2003 there were 148,000 milk cows on Vermont farms, producing an average of 17,431 pounds of milk a year. While Vermont dairy farmers export more than 90 percent of their milk -- most of it to southern New England -- the stuff that's left behind gets bottled up by places such as Monument Farms in Weybridge, processed into Cabot or Shelburne Farms cheese, and mixed into homemade creams and yogurts.
Then there are the farms that produce cheese and yogurt from sheep, goats and water buffaloes; all told, the state's dairy receipts totaled $418 million in 2001, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture census.
It may appear to be a bullish market, but Vermont still lags behind such dairy dynamos as Wisconsin, California and Idaho, and the number of dairy farms has dropped from 11,206 in 1947 to fewer than 1500 today. So Before says she hopes to remind fairgoers about the importance -- and the disappearance of -- the family farm in Vermont.
It's a subject that's close to her heart. On a recent morning, she shows the way around her family's Agawam Farm, a cluster of red-and-white buildings that sit on a hill in the Northeast Kingdom, not far from Lake Memphremagog. In the main barn and milking barn, home to 128 "head," most of the cows are lying down, chewing their cud; one of Before's own heifers, named Roxy, has just given birth to a bull calf.
Feeding bovine babies is one of Before's earliest memories. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, my gosh! They're slimy!" she says. "But I've always enjoyed farming, and I like to bring about awareness about dairy."
But that doesn't mean Before wants to take over the farm. The University of Vermont junior is majoring in nursing -- she's probably the only wannabe RN who also belongs to UVM's Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management, or CREAM, which manages its own herd of cows.
Asked about her career choice, bitterness creeps into Before's voice when she explains it's "because of the lack of respect and appreciation for someone who works 24/7, 52 weeks of the year and gets the least recognition possible. Farmers fight every day to make ends meet . . . A lot of them either have to expand or sell out."
Her father Martin and older brother Alan currently take care of most of the milking duties at Agawam, shipping between 6500 and 7500 pounds of milk every other day. Before predicts that her 18-year-old sister Rachel will one day take over the operation. But whatever happens to the farm, Before says dairy will always be an important part of her life. She's definitely got a nose for it.
Vermont's Dairy Princess finds a shady spot in the grass outside the farmhouse to prove her taste-testing talents with a blind sampling of Vermont and non-Vermont dairy products. She immediately identifies cheese No. 1 (Cabot sharp) as the real Green Mountain deal, despite the fact that cheese No. 2, from Kraft, claims to be "Vermont sharp." The milk choices, one from Booth Brothers and one from the Shaw's private label, are a bit tougher.
"Honestly, they both taste a little oxidized," she says, "like they've been sitting on a store shelf."
"Yes!" -- to borrow an exclamation from Napoleon Dynamite.
Before's favorite dairy product is not part of today's competition. "That would have to be ice cream," she says. "I'm particularly fond of strawberry."