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Cattlewoman of the Year Colleen Zenk gives back to beef industry

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 03/05/2013 9:02 AM

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ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — Minnesota's Cattlewoman of the Year, Colleen Zenk, gives back to the industry.

Her story starts on the family's Waldorf farm where her father started with Holstein calves and heifers. When she was in high school, he added beef. In 4-H, she showed the Holsteins while her brothers showed beef.

"There was satisfaction raising the animals and knowing where your food comes from," she said. "I think we are missing that today, that connection to the land ... I want to help people understand that."

Zenk has that opportunity through her position as the Minnesota Beef Council's director of consumer information and nutrition. She talks to consumers and food service and health care professionals about beef and explains how beef can be part of a healthy diet.

Some promotions take place in grocery stores where she's always ready to answer questions. Most people ask about antibiotic use or about hormones.

"I do a lot of public speaking about beef," she said. "There are a lot of one-on-one conversations and questions at such venues as the Minnesota State Fair."

She helped the state association transition its youth promotional program from a beef queen and royalty to beef ambassadors.

Zenk organizes tours to beef farms and ranches through the Farm to Fork program. The tours allow people to meet beef producers and learn how the farmers and ranchers care for the animals and the land. From comments she's gathered, Zenk has heard how tour participants have changed their perceptions.

"Farmers work hard to make our beef safe," one person wrote.

Another said he'd learned of the ethical practices used on the farm and how beef can be part of a healthy diet.

Ag education has been a collaborative effort with other groups including the dairy association, she said.

Zenk's farming background coupled with her food service experience are key as she delivers beef's message. She graduated with a home economics degree from Mankato State University and earned a masters degree in vocational education from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

She taught home economics for four years in Springfield and another four at Wausau, Wis.

She moved into the food service industry and managed a restaurant. For 15 years, Zenk was food service manager for a retirement community in Minneapolis.

Zenk earned a dietary managers certificate from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, N.D., and worked with Sysco, a company that sells groceries to schools, hospitals and nursing homes.

She learned of an opening with the beef council. Zenk knew the council's executive director, Ron Eustice.

"Our paths had crossed many times," she said.

Zenk started working in January 2010.

She was surprised by the cattlewomen's honor.

"I am a staff member," she said. "Everyone did a good job keeping the secret."