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Wednesday, February 15, 2006 - Page updated at 07:45 AM


Students taste sweet victory as onion passes first hurdle to state icon status

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

The Walla Walla sweet onion could join the apple, the orca and the green darner dragonfly as an official symbol of the state.

Thanks to the persistence of a Kirkland Junior High School ninth-grade class and the tenacity of their teacher, the state House voted 95-1 Monday to declare the Walla Walla sweet onion as the state vegetable.

But the road to becoming a state symbol may not be smooth — it may be lined with potatoes.

Whatever happens, the students say they have learned some valuable lessons. Raymond Schwabacher, 14, said they won't soon forget the process of how a bill gets considered and passed. And more than half of the class say they're now interested in working as a House page or intern.

The "onion bill" has been a project of Kirkland Junior High teacher Toni Miller for three years. She and her students were instrumental in creating the bill. They lobbied legislators to sponsor it and they testified on its behalf in committee hearings.

Walla Walla sweet onion

Onion facts: The Walla Walla sweet onion has a short season — they're available from mid-June through September. The onion's seed originated in Italy, and is grown in Walla Walla County in southeastern Washington and a part of Umatilla County in northeastern Oregon.

"Government can be so dry to teach," Miller said. "Once we got into it, the kids really enjoyed this."

Miller said she picked the Walla Walla onion because it's associated with Washington state and because Idaho already is known as the Potato State.

About 50 students were in the galleries in Olympia on Monday when the House passed the bill. They were then treated to a Walla Walla sweet onion sausage lunch.

The bill may have an uphill battle in the Senate, where it likely will face opposition from the potato.

"I don't have anything against the Walla Walla sweet onion, but if you ask me, it's a county onion, not a state onion," said Randy Mullen, chairman of the Washington State Potato Commission, who wants the spud considered for state vegetable-hood.

Washington state symbols

Territorial motto: "Alki," a Native word meaning "bye and bye" or "in the future."

State flower: Coast rhododendron (it beat out the clover)

State nickname: The Evergreen State

State bird: American Goldfinch. Schoolchildren initially selected the meadowlark, but seven other states had that bird. The Washington Federation of Women's Clubs selected the goldfinch in 1931 over the tanager, song sparrow, junco and pileated woodpecker. The kids then voted on the goldfinch and meadowlark and picked the goldfinch.

State tree: Western hemlock

State song: "Washington, My Home"

State fish: Steelhead trout

State gem: Petrified wood

State dance: Square dance

State folk song: "Roll On, Columbia, Roll On"

State fruit: Apple

State grass: Bluebunch wheatgrass

State tartan: Green background (for forests), with perpendicular bands of blue (for waters), white (for snow-capped mountains), red (for apples and cherries), yellow (wheat and other grains) and black (Mount St. Helens eruption)

State insect: Green darner dragonfly

State fossil: Columbian mammoth

State marine mammal: Orca

Source: State of Washington Web site

Members of the Potato Commission testified against a similar onion bill originating in the Senate last week, successfully squelching that one in the Agriculture Committee.

Mullen, a farmer in Franklin County who grows potatoes and onions — the yellow Spanish variety — along with beans and sweet corn, said this is an issue that should be thought through a little more.

Potatoes are a $1.5 billion industry in Washington, he said, and that's not counting the French-fry-processing industry in the state.

Representatives Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, who sponsored the onion bill, and Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland, hope it will fare better in the Senate this time. A hearing in the Senate Committee on Government Operations is slated for 8:30 a.m. Monday. Nixon, Miller and some of her students plan to testify in favor of the bill.

If the committee approves it, the bill goes to the Senate floor for a vote.

The Senate would have until March 3 to approve the bill. If the Senate passes it, the bill will be sent to Gov. Christine Gregoire to sign into law or veto.

Students plan to keep lobbying in hopes of seeing the bill through.

"We're going to keep writing and e-mailing and stay actively involved," said Taylor Standish,14.

"It's been nice to see how kids can be effective in government," said Allison Speelpenning, 14, though she personally doesn't believe the onion is worthy of being the state's top veggie.

"I thought it should be the coffee bean, due to all the Starbucks we have here," she said.

Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company





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