The North Alabama Agriplex had some good eatin’ on display at its outdoor picnic tables on Friday…and why not? After more than a year of diligent research, study, and even a bit of legislative lobbying, the students who campaigned to make the sweet potato Alabama’s official state vegetable found Cullman’s center for all things agricultural the ideal place to celebrate their success.

Governor Kay Ivey signed the legislation that raised the orange tuber to its new state-sanctioned role two weeks ago, in the process rewarding the homeschooled students of Harvest-area teacher Kristen Smith with the message that grassroots lawmaking efforts can — and sometimes do — bear fruit (or vegetables, as fortune dictates).

Though Smith and her pupils hail from points north of Cullman, their hunt to find the ideal candidate to represent the state’s agricultural abundance inevitably brought them to Cullman County early in the process — and at the end of it all, Cullman County is where they gathered once again, picnicking at a commemorative Agriplex event on Friday to bask in the oven-roasted orange glow of victory.

“This has just been so cool for our kids,” said Smith, who brought her class to Cullman Friday to mingle with the local support network, including local legislators, farmers, and community leaders, who helped along the way.

“I’m increasingly, exponentially surprised at the response this has gotten. And at the response from Senator [Garlan] Gudger and [House} Representative [Randall] Shedd. Senator Gudger really does text me once a week; we’re like ‘buds’ now! I call him ‘Senator ‘Tater,’ and to him, I’m ‘Queen ‘Tater.’ Seriously, he set up live streams for us every step of the way, and our students got to watch the whole process unfold in Montgomery, even through [the] COVID [pandemic].”

Gudger passed the credit right back to Smith and her students, saying their efforts to bolster the state’s lineup of honorary icons has sewn the seeds of good citizenship at just the right moment in their young lives.

“The government process that these guys have taken it upon themselves to learn has been invaluable,” he said. “They’ve shown tremendous initiative and interest, and really have been the driving force behind all of this. That’s encouraging when you think about where their futures are headed.

“They recognized that there was a void with our state vegetable, and they researched all of the different options and sent the idea to the legislature in the first place. Fast forward to today, and they’ve seen the government process at work — which really is just as important to me as having the sweet potato as the state vegetable. And they’ve done it through teamwork. Even the growers down in Baldwin County — whom I guess some might view as our sweet potato ‘competitors’ — supported this.”

Andrew Silvertooth, one of Smith’s students, said he didn’t know much about the legislative process before his group embarked on their hands-on civic journey. But with more than a year’s help from Shedd and Gudger, as well as original bill sponsors: Sens. Tom Butler, Arthur Orr, and pretty much everyone else who’s been there to answer obscure agricultural questions, that’s definitely changed.

“‘It was really cool,” said Silvertooth, admitting he’s gotten a beta-carotene charge from having up-close access to the inner workings of government. “It felt like we’d bought first-class tickets on a ship or something.”

Smith says her class has always enjoyed the homeschoolers’ luxury of shifting gears on a dime, all to chase their impromptu academic fascinations wherever they happen to lead. But mounting a facts-based campaign to persuade the House, Senate, and governor to approve a piece of new legislation isn’t the kind of field trip that can easily be followed by a similarly ambitious encore — and she’s just fine with that.

“I’m definitely not gonna go looking for anything else like this,” she laughed. “We’ve learned so much on this whole adventure, and we’ve drawn a lot of attention the more it’s grown and taken on a life of its own. But getting laws passed isn’t going to become our ‘brand.’ We just love to learn, and we love being able to go down whatever rabbit hole we want to.”

She’s being metaphorical, of course. During planting season, farmers and rabbits don’t exactly get along — and there are plenty of actual sweet potato lovers on Smith’s academic team who now have a rooting interest in seeing Alabama’s official state veggie flourish. When it comes to Smith’s own sweet potato preference, she’s pretty versatile — so long as you keep the fluffy stuff well away from her sweet potato casserole: “Marshmallows on top are a sacrilege!”

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