OKLAHOMA CITY — A ripe, juicy watermelon beckons to be picked.
At the state Capitol these days it's more picked on.
Lawmakers will consider whether to eliminate the watermelon as the state's official vegetable — that's right, vegetable — just a few years after conferring the prestigious status.
Robert Morrissey chuckled when he learned about the dust up over the melon.
“Of all the things we need to worry about in state legislatures and government, we’re worrying about this. This is cool,” said Morrissey, executive director of the National Watermelon Association, based in Florida.
In 2007, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to name watermelon Oklahoma’s official vegetable. Then, on Wednesday, Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, filed a briefly worded bill to repeal that.
There’s no talk of what — if any — vegetable deserves the title instead. Dahm wasn’t available Wednesday to discuss his inspiration or intentions.
Sure, Morrissey’s group considers watermelon a fruit. But, he said, that’s beside the point.
(Morrissey notes that because a watermelon grows on a vine, it could be classified as either a fruit or vegetable.)
Morrissey said he remembers the original debate over the melon's designation in Oklahoma. It was the same year that legislators voted to name the Mexican free-tailed bat the official state flying mammal.
“It doesn’t matter to us what they call it, as long as we keep providing it as a healthy, economical crop then we’re happy,” he said.
Oklahoma is the only state where the watermelon has been accorded a privileged status — as fruit or vegetable, he said — though Congress has declared July National Watermelon Month.
“Watermelon is the No. 1 fresh cut item that is sold in grocery stores across the country, as far as fruits and vegetables are concerned,” Morrissey said, adding that its popularity is soaring despite a decrease in growers nationally.
About 800 growers remain in the United States, though Oklahoma's are on the decline due to an immigration bill “that made it extremely difficult for them to find labor to plant and harvest their crops," he said.
Joe Dorman, the retired Rush Springs legislator who launched an unsuccessful bid against Gov. Mary Fallin last fall, first suspected the plan to smash the watermelon's title smelled like, well, sour grapes.
You see, Dorman was co-author of the 2007 bill honoring the watermelon, along with House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman. Rush Springs is home to a Watermelon Festival that draws thousands of people each year, which inspired Dorman’s push to make it the state vegetable.
“It improved the economy of my legislative area for the people that sold watermelon. It increased the discussion. Anytime people are talking about it, people go out and buy it,” he said.
Dorman, a Democrat, said he first thought the bill to spit out the watermelon might be “payback” for his failed bid against Fallin.
“It’s disappointing that someone would do something like that,” he said. “The politicians are picking on the watermelon.”
Yet, Dorman said he reached out to Dahm, who had a different explanation.
"He truly doesn't feel it's a vegetable," said Dorman. "He said he was raised and taught that watermelon is a fruit."
Dorman said Dahm has suggested a willingness to change the watermelon's designation to something else. The state melon, anyone?
But one thing is certain: It cannot be the state fruit. That title belongs to the strawberry, whose place in the patch is secure.