When people think of dairies, they picture driving by green hills where happy cows munch contentedly on the grass. But to make that picture a reality, there is a lot of hard work, love and commitment that goes behind it.

The members of the North Bay Dairy Women want those cows to continue to graze on the hills of Petaluma, so their mission is to help educate the public about their industry.

"We work together to spread nutritional awareness, inform people about life on a dairy farm, and advocate for the dairy industry," said Judy Buttke, president of the association, which was formed in 1965. She and the other members of North Bay Dairy Women were honored for their dedication to agriculture at the 2013 Community Awards of Excellence ceremony this spring.

Buttke, who was "born and raised" in Petaluma as part of the Corda family, grew up in the dairy business.

"It was a great life to live," she said. "We went to a one-room school and we were all country kids." Buttke and her husband have a dairy farm of their own and she sees the issues facing dairies first-hand.

"Dairy farms are disappearing," she notes. "The economy took a toll and as times have changed, the land is being converted to other uses." The NBDW supports the industry on a number of levels, all intended to increase the visibility of the dairy community.

"We participate in dozens of activities year-round, and as an organization, we also help to inform and educate our government officials about the issues affecting the industry," said Buttke.

One of the most visible events they conduct each year is the District 3 Dairy Princess contest, co-sponsored with the California Milk Advisory Board. On April 13, sixth-generation dairy farmer Francesca Gambonini was crowned the 56th Dairy Princess. Far from a ceremonial title, her role is one of education and outreach to the public. Gambonini also won a $500 scholarship prize given to students who are pursuing a career in agricultural science. The NBDW provide nearly $2,000 a year to local students who are continuing their education in an agricultural field.

The 135 members are all volunteers, and carve out time to take part in numerous educational and philanthropic events, from booths at regional fairs to "ag" days at schools or visiting kids at Sonoma and Marin County children's homes. They also present a gift basket to the first baby born in June at Petaluma Valley Hospital—making sure that people don't forget that June is "National Dairy Month."

Though Judy Buttke won't pat herself on the back, her colleagues will.

NBDW secretary Sue McIsaac announced that 2013 marked the 20th Dairy Princess contest that Buttke has chaired. At the event she was honored with a crown, flowers and a standing ovation. "I've finally got my own tiara!" she said as she laughed happily.

(Contact Dyann Espinosa at argus@arguscourier.com)