BELLEFONTE, Pa. — Pennsylvania First Alternate Dairy Princess Gretchen Little has had a year full of unforgettable experiences, but when you ask her to define her role, she is quick to point out the need to educate consumers.

“My real goal is to educate the public,” said Little. “I want to let them know that all that stuff you see on (social media) that is posted by animal rights groups isn’t necessarily true. You need to really educate yourself on your decisions.”

Little knows that the choice is ultimately in the hands of the consumers, but she has pledged to help them make wise decisions, a role she has been preparing for since she was 5 years old.

“When I was little, I was a cute face in a parade and didn’t know many facts,” said Little. “As I grew up, I started learning my facts and going to more promotions that were more educational.”

Working with elementary aged children is a highlight for Little. One such promotion that sticks out in her mind was when she was speaking to a group of third-graders about how milk comes from a farm, when one little boy raised his hand.

“He said, ‘well in my fridge, we have almond milk, what’s the difference?’ And, so I had to take a moment to think that there is probably a reason that his parents made this decision and I have to briefly explain it to him. I told him that milk comes from cows and that what he was drinking was more of an almond juice, and that there is no lactose in it. ... (I explained) the differences between the two, and he was very understanding,” said Little.

Although the third-grader was satisfied with the explanation, the encounter left Little with a deeper understanding of the need for education.

“We want to talk about things at such a highly educated level so that everybody knows all the facts, but sometimes that is not always how you can get your message across the best,” Little said. “So, we need to take a step back and think of how we can explain this in a simple way that isn’t overly confusing and in a way that everyone will understand.”

In her high school, Little also faced some educational dilemmas when her AP biology teacher mentioned that he was going to try almond milk because he was noticing that he was a little sick after eating his morning cereal.

“I went off on a little bit of a rant and explained that it was not almond ‘milk,’ and that it is (an) almond beverage and explained the differences. ... I sent him articles and we had a really nice discussion about it, but sometimes you just don’t realize that people just don’t know,” she said.

Little recently completed her junior year at Bellefonte High School. Her parents, Kris and Karen Little, are first-generation dairy farmers.

When Gretchen Little is home, her job is feeding the calves and making sure they have fresh water. She also helps with the milking and general care of their cows — 90 Holsteins plus a few recently acquired Linebacks. Her brother, Aaron, also helps on the farm.

“My chores are mainly in the summer,” said Little. “During the school year, my parents say that school is my job.”

Being both the Centre County dairy princess and a member of the state royalty team has pushed the limits of school attendance for her this past year, but she pushed through the challenges.

“When I got back from state pageant, everybody was really excited, but not everybody understood what I was doing,” Little said.

Little found that by letting her teachers know where she was, who she was working with, and what she was accomplishing, the teachers became more understanding.

“I started sending out emails when I was gone for long periods of time, with pictures and explanations of what I was doing,” she said.

By the end of the school year, many of her teachers would ask her where she was going this week and who she would be meeting.

“It was really a lot of work between me and my teachers,” she said.

But in Little’s words, the year was “phenomenal.”

From the big promotions at Fuel Up to Play 60 events at the Philadelphia Eagles’ football stadium to meeting with small groups in her hometown, Little has embraced the role of dairy princess. Her experiences have opened her eyes to the many opportunities in agriculture. She is planning to study agriculture at Penn State and eventually pursue a career in agricultural law.

But for now, Little, having passed the Centre County crown to her successor, is savoring the remaining months of her state year.

“It was shocking that at this time last year, I didn’t think I was ready to be the Centre County dairy princess,” she said. “I knew that these men and women work so hard and they need a really, really well-spoken advocate. ... I wasn’t sure I was the right person for the job, but I did it anyway, because I knew that there would be people along the way to help me.”

As the new dairy princesses begin their reigns, Little wishes them all the best.

“You get to meet so many people and you get to talk about a product that you love ... you get so many learning experiences, from learning how to speak in public to answering questions on your toes or even just to smile and greet people. These are really important things for life,” Little said.

Carolyn Moyer is a freelance writer in north-central Pennsylvania.