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Teacher Kristen Smith, center, with some of her students who successfully petitioned the state to make the sweet potato the state vegetable. The group was featured in the June issue of Madison Living Magazine (www.madisonlivingmagazine.com).

Local students’ efforts to create official state vegetable to be featured in national tv show

MADISON – Students from the Learning Exchange homeschool program in the Madison area who completed their effort to name an official Alabama state vegetable will receive statewide and national exposure with a feature on Simply Southern TV.

The show will premiere locally on July 11 on WAFF-TV 48 in Huntsville at 9 a.m. and will be rebroadcast on national cable network RFD-TV the following Wednesday at 3 p.m. Central time. It features a sweet potato celebration in May held at the North Alabama Agriplex with interviews from State Sen. Garlan Gudger and State Rep. Randall Shedd, who sponsored the legislation.

“These students, backed by teacher Kristin Smith, were truly inspiring,” said Simply Southern TV co-host Mary Wilson. “They saw a need and got to work to make something happen through state legislation. Even when COVID-19 cut the 2020 session short, they persevered and brought the bill back in 2021. And now, we can all celebrate the sweet potato as Alabama’s official state vegetable!”

The students discovered the state did not have an official vegetable while researching a dinner party to celebrate Alabama’s bicentennial celebration in 2019.

Simply Southern TV is a 30-minute show that celebrates Alabama’s farmers, gardeners, makers, rural communities and one-of-a-kind destinations. Episodes are also available on the show’s website at SimplySouthernTV.net and segments can be viewed at Facebook.com/SimplySouthernTV.

More about their story
“When we did not find an official state vegetable, we were like what is more prominent in the state of Alabama than agriculture,” said the group’s teacher Kristin Smith. “So, we sent an email to the archives and within a couple of days they wrote back and could not find one, either. They said that we had them all in chuckles down there.”

This led to a class discussion of what vegetable should represent the state. From collard greens to squash, the students brainstormed an idea for the state’s official vegetable.

“We took out corn because it is too common and squash is basically a fruit,” senior Kiley Ray said. “We all got on our phones and sweet potato kept coming up so we researched it further.”

With their research now focused on the sweet potato, the class discovered that Alabama is fifth in the country in sweet potato production and that the vegetable raises 9 million in state revenue.

“Each student was then given an assignment about sweet potatoes, focusing on subjects like health, culture, money,” Kristin said. “We even contacted the Alabama Sweet Potato Association out of Cullman to discuss the sweet potato. They told us that Alabama’s sandy loam soil allows for the sweet potato to grow in a tubular shape.”

The students of the Learning Exchange found a problem. Now, they wanted to solve it. They wrote letters to state representatives and state senators, not expecting much out of it. Within two weeks, they received a letter from Sen. Arthur Orr.

“Sen. Orr sent a letter dated Nov. 18 stating that he talked with Sen. Tom Butler and that Butler could not agree with us more on the matter,” Kristin said. “We were told that Sen. Butler had a joint resolution ready on his desk to put forth.”

Being a former paralegal, Kristin knew that Title 1, Chapter 2 referring to state symbols and honors stated that this type of idea needed to be introduced as a bill. And she wanted that bill. Smith emailed Butler about the discrepancy and on Feb. 4, 2020, he introduced a bill to name the sweet potato the official state vegetable.
Then COVID. No ratification of the bill.

During this time, the students continued to research the sweet potato, discovering that the majority of the state’s production of the vegetable is in Cullman and Baldwin counties. “Those two are like twin brothers,” Ray said.

Doug Davenport, the Director of Parks and Recreation in Cullman, heard about the students’ project and contacted them. The students learned that Cullman hosts an annual Sweet Potato Festival in September. Davenport introduced the students to Sen. Garlan Grudger of Cullman.

“Sen. Grudger loved the idea. He called Sen. Butler to take the bill over since it affected his constituents directly. Butler said yes,” Smith said. “He live streamed readings of the bill, committee meetings and even recognized the students so they could wave. He texted throughout the process and just elevated it all because it was so important to his community”

The project became a full circle learning experience, now including legal and political lessons. The students watched as the senate passed the bill unanimously and as the house debated the bill for 10 minutes.

“It was not really a debate per se,” junior Kyra Smith said. “It was more about the peanut supporters wanting to be heard. I learned that the filibuster can be an annoying thing.”

The bill passed the house, 94-4. Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill on April 16, making the sweet potato the official vegetable of the state of Alabama.

“We would have loved to have been there when Gov. Ivey signed it,” Kristin said. “It was such a big thing for us. We tried to get it through for two years.”

The students are basically royalty in Cullman. After the signing, Grudger arranged for the students to visit the Cullman Agricultural Complex for a celebration. They were treated to a sweet potato feast, featuring sweet potato cornbread, dumplings, cupcakes and casseroles. They even got to plant a few of the orange vegetable plants. They have already been invited to the 2021 Sweet Potato Festival to continue their reign as Cullman royalty.

“I have anxiety and am not one to talk a lot, but I grew during this project,” Ray said. “Hearing from the farmers on how the sweet potato affects them and how important it is to them, pushed me to grow out of my comfort level. It was not just our project. We did it for them.”

Senior Junior Matthew Riley said what started as students describing a “lame” idea, turned into a much bigger lesson on the political process, state history and even on the act of writing formal letters. It was much more than a project.

“We made Alabama history,” Kyra said. “We took a break from learning Alabama history to actually making it.”

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