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Eye On NY

Port Byron eighth-graders Patrick Jorolemon, left, and Braden York have been gathering signatures for a petition to have sweet corn named the official New York state vegetable.

What began as a lesson in Dr. Linda Townsend's civics class at Dana West Junior-Senior High School in Port Byron has evolved into a decade-long lobbying effort. 

The cause: Designating sweet corn as New York's official vegetable. 

"Every once in awhile there will be a legislative measure that usually emanates from a classroom experience," State Sen. Michael Nozzolio said. "And that's exactly what happened here." 

In 2006, a student suggested to Townsend, a former Cayuga County legislator, that the class should focus on an issue at the state level as a way to learn more about the legislative process. 

Townsend welcomed the idea and told her pupils to research a topic they could work on that wouldn't require a large financial investment and several trips to the state Capitol in Albany. 

"A group of kids came up with 'We don't have a state vegetable,'" she recalled. 

The students collected signatures — Townsend still has the original petitions in a folder — and wrote letters. Nozzolio, R-Fayette, introduced a bill in the state Senate to designate sweet as New York's official vegetable. Townsend's class traveled to Albany and appeared at a Senate committee hearing. 

The Senate approved the bill in May 2007, but not without debate. One legislator, then-state Sen. Martin Connor, said corn is technically a grain and proposed making cabbage, not sweet corn, the official state vegetable. 

Townsend remembered that exchange and how some downstate legislators thought corn was "something you feed to cows." 

A fact sheet circulated by Townsend's class addresses the technicality and notes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines sweet corn as a vegetable. The document also outlines the crop's importance to the state's economy. 

According to the USDA's 2012 Census of Agriculture, New York ranks fourth in value of sweet corn production. The state's sweet corn sales total $68.4 million annually. 

The census also found that 1,446 New York farms harvested 28,586 acres of sweet corn in 2012. Cayuga County, with 4,126 acres harvested, was the top sweet corn-producing county in the state.

"The statistics are there," Townsend said. "It is an agricultural powerhouse." 

Despite the numbers backing up sweet corn's status as a top New York crop, it hasn't been enough — at least to date — to persuade the state Legislature that it should be the official state vegetable. 

After Nozzolio ushered the bill through the Senate in 2007, it didn't get a vote in the Assembly. He has reintroduced the bill in each of the past four legislative cycles. Assemblyman Bob Oaks, the bill's sponsor in the Assembly, has done the same in his chamber. 

The sweet corn campaign gained momentum in 2011 after a competing bill was introduced by state Sen. David Carlucci, a Hudson Valley Democrat, to designate the onion as the state's official vegetable. 

A poll conducted by Marist College found a vast majority of voters supported naming sweet corn, not the onion, as the state's official vegetable. A New York Farm Bureau Facebook poll had similar results. Sweet corn beat the onion by more than 400 votes. 

Carlucci eventually threw his support behind the sweet corn bill and in June 2011, the state Senate approved the measure by a 56-6 vote

However, the bill didn't get a vote in the Assembly — again. 

"The anticipation was that, in fact, the bill was going to pass," Townsend said. "And then at the last minute, it passes in the Senate, doesn't go through the Assembly." 

For Townsend's students over the years, a civics project designed to learn more about how government functions yielded a different kind of lesson — one about the harsh realities of the state legislative process. 

Each year, thousands of bills are introduced in the Assembly and Senate. A vast majority of the measures aren't approved by both houses. 

The state Senate debated a bill last year that would name the wood frog as the official state amphibian. Similar to the sweet corn legislation, the idea to give the wood frog such a designation came out of a central New York classroom — a fourth-grade class at State Street Intermediate School in Skaneateles

The debate was less about the wood frog bill and more about what the Senate wasn't addressing. New York City Democrats were angry about the status of rent control regulations and they complained that the chamber should be discussing more pressing subjects. 

State Sen. Michael Gianaris called the legislation "asinine." State Sen. Toby Stavisky said the wood frog is "ugly."

The measure passed by the narrowest of margins — 32 to 31. Like the sweet corn bill, it didn't get a vote in the Assembly. 

No one would blame Townsend's class for getting discouraged with the state's legislative process. But the 10-year effort keeps students motivated. 

Two Port Byron eighth-graders, Patrick Jorolemon and Braden York, recently circulated petitions throughout their school and collected nearly 200 signatures in support of the sweet corn bill. 

 "I don't know why they didn't do this the first time," Jorolemon said. "It's not that big a deal that sweet corn is the state vegetable. It's not that hard of a decision." 

York said he's learned that "it really does take a long time and a lot of effort" to get a bill through the state Legislature. 

"Dr. T started it 10 years ago and for it to actually finish when we're in one of her classes would be pretty cool," he said. "We can say we helped get it through to actually happen." 

Townsend, too, is hopeful. 

"With the history of farming in our county, it would be so neat for our kids to do that," she said. "I told my seventh-graders this year if, in fact, it passes, you're a part of history. That's something you can tell your kids about and grandkids." 

Nozzolio and Oaks, R-Macedon, have reintroduced the sweet corn bill in their respective chambers

There's added incentive to get the measure signed into law this year. Earlier this month, Nozzolio announced he won't seek re-election and will retire at the end of his term. 

For Nozzolio, the bill is a no-brainer. 

"Who doesn't like sweet corn?" he said.