By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published May 25, 2008 at 5:18 AM

Wisconsin has long been known as America's Dairyland.

Every time you drink a glass of milk, or eat a piece of cheese, you're celebrating that fact. But, if you really want to explore why the state earns the brand, get out to the rural areas during June.

June is Dairy Month in Wisconsin, and has been since 1937. During its first two years, the celebration was called National Milk Month and ran from June 10 to July 10. The promotion expanded in 1939 to include more dairy products.

In 1940, Gov. Julius Heil proclaimed June to be Dairy Month. Since then, America's Dairyland has led the way with many communities offering dairy breakfasts, ice cream socials, cow-milking contests, parades and festivals.

One of the best ways to get a real appreciation for the importance of dairy in the state is to go to a breakfast on a farm. Several counties around the state hold annual breakfasts at a host farm. If you have kids, this is a great experience for them, and you'll enjoy it, too.

You'll see how a dairy farm operates while enjoying one of the hardiest breakfasts you can imagine. There is a fee for most of these, but it's very reasonable and helps defer some of the costs.

Several communities hold larger dairy breakfasts and festivals during June. In fact, some of them are actually scheduled next weekend.

The Jefferson County Dairy Breakfast is held next Saturday, May 31 at the county fairgrounds, where you can see an antique tractor display, farm toy display, dairy "Jeopardy," wagon rides and a 300-lb. banana split. Don't, however, try eating the latter in one sitting.

Green County hosts Breakfast on the Farm next Saturday. The breakfast is from 6 to 10 a.m. The event also includes an arts and crafts fair, wagon rides, petting zoo and live entertainment.

Fond du Lac's June Dairy Days also is set for next Saturday and includes dairy games, a petting zoo with small animals, a clown show and face painting. Enjoy free cheese, milk, ice cream and a farmers' market in downtown Fond du Lac.

West Salem near La Crosse extends its dairy celebration to three days, May 30 through June 1. A kickoff breakfast is Friday morning at the Westview Inn. A softball tournament goes on all three days, as does music, dairy exhibits and other events. A highlight of the West Salem event is the Classique Bike Tour, which starts at 7 a.m. on Sunday. There are 32- and 62-mile tours. Stick around for a Chicken Q after the tour.

You can find out more about June dairy events near you by going to the Department of Tourism Web site. You also can find out more here.

Alice in Dairyland has become the biggest spokesperson for June Dairy Month and the Wisconsin agriculture industry in general. Alice got her start in 1948 when she hosted the Wisconsin Centennial Exposition at State Fair Park in West Allis.

For many years, papier-mache "Alice" answered questions from children while the real Alice, Margaret McGuire Blott, remained seated just offstage. Each year, the doll's head was re-created to reflect the likeness of the current Alice in Dairyland.

Early Alices traveled nationwide, logging more than 150,000 miles a year and making more than 1,000 annual appearances. In 1952 "Alice" Beverly Steffen Brunner brought boxes of cheese to Hollywood stars, served samples at grocery stores and rode in the 1953 Rose Parade. Judith Schultz, the 1969 Alice, danced with Lawrence Welk on his popular television program.

Today's Alice spends most of her time in Wisconsin though she continues to travel both nationally and internationally. Applicants for the one-year, full-time contract position go through an extensive series of interviews and must have some experience or education in communications or marketing as well as knowledge of the agriculture industry.

Alice in Dairyland is not so much a beauty queen or pagent winner, but more of a marketing professional for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Selected at the end of May, this year's Alice, Ashley Kay , will begin work on June 2 in conjunction with June Dairy Month events.

Sunday, Jill Makovec will make her last public appearance in her role as the 60th Alice in Dairyland as she kicks-off June Dairy Month with Dairy Day at Miller Park. Sponsored by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Dairy Day will feature cheese sampling, a mooing contest and a dairy producer throwing out the first pitch.

"June Dairy Month and events like Dairy Day at Miller Park are excellent ways to celebrate and promote Wisconsin's vibrant dairy industry," Makovec said. "The dairy industry alone contributes almost half of the economic impact of Wisconsin agriculture - a $51.5 billion industry in our state."

California actually produces more milk than Wisconsin. But, the state does rank second in the country, and we still earn the right to be called Cheeseheads. The state held a slight lead on California in production of cheese in 2007. You can find celebrations of the latter throughout the state, but that's a whole different column.

Wisconsin does produce more pounds of cheese than any other state, for varieties of cheese than any other state, and win more awards for our cheese than any other state in the nation or country in the world. 

In an interview, David Bavinka, vice-president of marketing for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, said, "It's (June Dairy Month) celebrated throughout the country and has, in fact, grown with the increased significance of the dairy industry itself. Most activities nationwide revolve around individual retail outlets and various promotional activities. In June, retailers increase efforts to generate awareness of dairy products and to drive consumer purchase.

"June Dairy Month is integral to Wisconsin because our state epitomizes dairy. Throughout the country we're known as America's Dairyland. As a result, any promotion and added attention to the dairy industry and its products is a bonus and a source of pride for those in the business.

"It has definitely benefited the state of Wisconsin. June kicks off the summer travel season when we host out-of-state visitors who, in turn, are exposed to our dairy industry. Agri-tourism is a growing trend; people seek out a farm visit or cheese plant tour in their vacation planning. That, combined with the fact that people today are more concerned about knowing where their food comes from, makes Wisconsin an interesting destination."

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.