OLYMPIA – After a three-year campaign that included platoons of determined school kids, a political deadlock with miffed potato growers and free onion-flavored sausages handed out at the state Capitol, the Legislature has declared an official state vegetable: the Walla Walla sweet onion.
“I think today is a great day, that we can say we have a state vegetable,” Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen, D-Eatonville, told her fellow senators.
It’s an important bill, she said.
“You’ll say ‘why?’ and I’ll say ‘Why not?’ ” Rasmussen said.
Three other states – Georgia, Texas and Utah – have designated sweet onions as their official state vegetables. But in Washington, attempts to do the same thing were opposed by the state’s $3 billion-a-year potato industry, which dispatched a lobbyist last year to remind lawmakers that Washington grows lots more spuds than onions.
Onion backers countered that Walla Walla sweets are unique to Washington. (Mostly, at least: The USDA marketing order that protects the name also covers onions grown in northeastern Oregon.)
Last year, some peacemakers in the Statehouse floated 11th-hour compromises. Perhaps the onion could be Official Edible Bulb, some suggested. And the potato could be the Official Row Crop. Or the Official Tuber.
In the end, the bill died.
“The onion or the potato. In Washington state, this is what it comes down to,” bemoaned American Vegetable Grower magazine last year.
“Last year, they thought they had kind of a benign bill, and they got a real dose of politics,” Chris Voigt, executive director of the state potato commission, said Thursday.
But onions spring eternal, apparently. When the Kirkland high school teacher who’d led the campaign for several years as a class project retired, middle schoolers in Eatonville took up the cause. Seventh-graders trooped to Olympia to testify that onions are healthy, delicious, and “have been highly regarded for millennia.” Also, they said, George Washington was a fan. The House unanimously approved the bill in February.
One of the few senators to vote no on Thursday was local Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
“Today, on behalf of the largest vegetable of the state of Washington, I would urge you to reconsider,” Schoesler asked the Senate. “Especially on behalf of the Irish caucus.”
No luck. The Senate voted 42 to 3 for the Walla Walla.
Speaking from potato commission headquarters in Moses Lake, Voigt said Thursday that potato growers decided to drop their objections to the bill this year. Being a state vegetable wouldn’t sell any more potatoes, they decided.
“Some of our growers’ feelings were hurt” last year, Voigt said. “This year, they figured it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
On the plus side, he said, the several classes who lobbied for the bill as a class project saw the complexities of public policy up close.
“We’re happy that they got to experience the full realm of politics: sudden defeat last year and success this year,” Voigt said.
And in a show of goodwill, he said, he planned to stir some Walla Walla onions into his potatoes for dinner Thursday.
“I’m sure my eyes will probably tear up tonight, slicing that onion, but not too much,” Voigt said.
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