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Senate passes measure designating Walla Walla onion state veggie

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - A year after its chances were thwarted by the "Big Potato" lobby, the Walla Walla sweet onion is on its way to becoming the official Washington state vegetable.

The state Senate on Thursday passed a bill honoring the tasty bulb on a 42-3 vote. The measure unanimously passed the House in February, and now heads to Gov. Chris Gregoire.

"Our onions may not be as prolific as our potatoes, but they are unique," said Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen, D-Eatonville.

The measure was a class project for a seventh-grade honors social studies class at Eatonville Middle School. Several students, including three eighth-graders who helped out and their teacher, Alex Hansen, testified in favor of the bill in committee hearings. In prior years, the bill was a project from a class at Kirkland Junior High.

When contacted in his classroom Thursday, Hansen told his students, who broke into applause and cheers.

"They learned about what it takes to move a bill," Hansen said. "They learned the politics of what can happen. You could quiz my kids and quiz the average adult on the street, and any kid in this room could explain the process fairly well from the beginning to the end."

Their next assignment: e-mailing the governor to encourage her to sign it, and getting their friends and family across the state to do the same.

"They understand it needs to be a grass roots campaign," he said, noting that they won't declare victory until it's signed into law.

The measure overwhelmingly passed the House last year, but got stopped up in the Senate, where the bill was changed to designate the Walla Walla sweet the state's "edible bulb," while naming the russet potato the "official tuber."

The change was made because the state's $3 billion potato industry felt slighted, and after the Washington State Potato Commission stepped in to make their concerns known. Washington is second only to Idaho in potato production nationally.

According to the state Department of Agriculture, as of 2005, potatoes ranked fourth in the state in crop value at more than $534 million, trailing only apples, milk and cattle and calves. Onions (Walla Wallas are not a separate category), ranked 12th at more than $111 million.

"We're certainly the largest vegetable crop in the state and I think some growers' feelings were hurt because we weren't recognized," said Chris Voigt, executive director of the potato commission.

The modified bill ultimately never came up for a vote last year in the Senate, and newspaper editorials criticized the commission.

Voigt said they were surprised by the backlash, and decided this year to sit out the debate.

He said the commission is actually going to encourage the governor to sign the measure. Continuing the conciliatory tone, Voigt said that he's already prepared a crock pot meal that he'll share with his family Thursday night - pot roast with Washington potatoes and Walla Walla sweet onions.

"Walla Walla sweet onions are a wonderful compliment to a Washington potato," he said, with only the slightest hint of one-upmanship.

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The Walla Walla onion bill is House Bill 1556.
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