Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Oh, hindsight

[Several months ago, while R & I were browsing a flea market, I found a January 1945 copy of Reader's Digest and bought it for the following article. For all the times you might have wondered "What were they thinking?" with regard to kudzu (and other invasive species), well, here's what they were thinking.]

A Japanese ornamental vine is making exciting news in the South:

Kudzu- Another Agricultural Miracle

Condensed from Country Book Magazine

Russell Lord*

It was a hill farm in Alabama. If ever a farm were visibly dying, this one was. All of the topsoil had gone to the creeks and the sea. The field on which we stood was so gullied you had to keep jumping to get across it. The land was worn and bare, the sagging house was empty. But if you looked closely, here and there in the gullies you could see ropelike vines crawling, hugging the ground, beginning to net it down. It was the first planting of kudzu, the new cover crop, that I had ever seen.

"A man hanged himself in that house, and the bank took over the place. Now this field will heal soon and make fine pasture. It will be green next spring," my companion, R. Y. Bailey said. "Kudzu" Bailey, they called him. It was in December of 1936. Only a few shared Bailey's faith in this Japanese vine as a field crop, and not a few were afraid that it would be a more menacing pest than honeysuckle, spreading to take over the entire countryside.

Bailey and a few other believers replied that when a plant grows like honeysuckle yet feeds like clover or alfalfa, with approximately the same protein and carotene content, there was no point in being cautious. They showed that kudzu not only wove a mat of protective cover but worked as a legume to draw free nitrogen from the air and store it for plant use in the soil. So kudzu plantings kept marching on to heal slashed land and great gullies.

Last June I spent a week-end at the Georgia farm of Channing Cope, an influential kudzu grower. Cope says kudzu was brought in from Japan as an ornamental vine. He planted his first field of it in 1927, when he acquired 700 acres of run-down land near Covington, 30 miles from Atlanta. Yellow River Farm, it was called, for the river that drained it was yellow with topsoil.

Today the whole place stands out as a green oasis amid gray-brown cottoned-down country. "Cotton isn't king here any more," Channing Cope says happily. "Kudzu is king!" Livestock multiply in the meadows; the soil is held secure; the place is making money.

We stood that blazing hot Sunday at the edge of a marvelous vineland. The kudzu had made a riotous growth, hip deep, all over the hill.

"Reach down," said Channing. The ground was as damp and cool as that of a deeply shaded forest floor. "They took some temperatures over at the Experiment Station on a day like this," said Channing. "Bare ground was 140 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface. Under kudzu the ground temperature was only 89 degrees. That's something to consider. Many soil men here in the South wonder if the fierce heat on the tilled fields doesn't hurt the soil and hinder humidification.

"And just look at this kudzu duff!" He scooped up a handful. Those big, delicate leaves, shed from last year's crop, make a flaky mold that covers the ground completely and enters as organic matter to lighten topsoil fast. The cover on that field felt like a deep mattress under your feet.

Kudzu stands drought well. Some roots go 12 feet deep. Each crown puts out from one to four vines, and new crowns form in the joints and nodes. Five hundred crowns will plant an acre--about one crown to every 85 square feet. On rich soil the vines may grow 12 inches a day at the peak of the growing season, and 100 feet of growth in a year is not unknown. Even the first year's yield may be considerable, but it usually takes three years for the crop to take full possession of the acreage. Kudzu may be pastured or cut with a mower and taken as hay. "This 35 acres will make at least 3 1/2 tons of hay to the acre this year, drought or not," Cope told me.

I do not think that I ever saw a more erosible soil anywhere than on this farm. It washes like sugar. Even a cart track through new grassland will start a gully. But once Kudzu has taken hold thoroughly, the trouble ends. That solid mat holds the soil.

Hugh H. Bennett, Chief of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, said recently: "What, short of a miracle, can you call this plant? Kudzu has forced our Service to revise our appraisal of a lot of severely eroded land as having been ruined for further agricultural use. And it is not only a crop for gouged-out land; it is a splendid crop fro good land, too. It will cover a cornfield in one year; the next spring or early summer it can be plowed and that land planted to corn; then after the last cultivation of the corn it will again spread over the field, stop the erosion, store more nitrogen, and at the first hard frost lay down a carpet of rich leaf litter at least the equal of forest litter. All this in one year!"

Northern farmers are beginning to envy the South in having this marvel. Geneticists are now working to develop hardier strains that will push the kudzu belt northward. The general range of the crop is south of the Potomac River, although in my home county of Harford, Maryland, I have seen a growth as luxuriant as any.

In a part of the country farmed almost to death under the old crop-and-chop system, kudzu is lively, hopeful, exciting. "A strange ecstasy," Cope says, "lifts southern growers' hearts and exalts their language when they get together to praise kudzu." At a meeting of the Kudzu Club of America in Atlanta last spring one man told me how he raised eggs for three cents a dozen on kudzu hen pasture; others testified that corn yields had risen from fourfold to sevenfold on fields that had been in kudzu. One man told of his progress in dehydrating kudzu for stock feed and human use. It makes fine breakfast food, he said.

The Kudzu Club has set as its goal a million acres of kudzu in Georgia by 1950 and eight million acres for the South as a whole. "That wouldn't be a bit too much to support the livestock economy we need, and help make our agriculture permanent," Channing Cope says.

*RUSSELL LORD has written about farming for more than 20 years and is a consultant to the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Even as a boy of 13, he found agriculture on a Maryland farm so exciting that he began to report farmers' doings for a country weekly. At Cornell University he specialized in agriculture, and later he became a contributing editor of The Country Home, Country Life and The Progressive Farmer. He edits The Land, published by Friends of the Land, a nonprofit society formed four years ago to combat the alarming waste of our natural resources, and is author of Behold Our Land, The Agrarian Revival, and To Hold This Soil.


Rachel said...

That's a terrific article! I remember when I was learning to ride my bike as a child in rural South Carolina and I went off the road and into a kudzu ditch taller than I was... felt like drowning.

Ron Mohring said...

What amazes me is all the language that's sickeningly prophetic, a kind of imbedded subtext of ominous doom... "The kudzu had made a riotous growth, hip deep, all over the hill."