Kudzu: A Lesson in Big Government Failure

Wherever you may go in the southeastern United States, you will see a vine swallowing whole buildings and forests.  It is as relentless as Sherman, destroying whole areas of the South.  Chances are you've seen the plant before, even if you don't know exactly what it is.  The vine is called kudzu, and it symbolizes all that is wrong with Big Government.

Native to Asia, kudzu was brought to the United States in the 19th century for an expo in Philadelphia.  Renowned for its impressive growing abilities, the vine was distributed small-scale to private interests, particularly for garden use.  While it is likely that kudzu would have spread in some areas, it is unlikely to have reached crisis levels had the government not negligently incorporated kudzu into its agricultural policy.  

During the Great Depression, the farming industry was in shambles.  Many farmers left their farms to wither away in the winter.  In the Midwest and prairie states, winds snatched up the soil in giant sandstorms known as the Dust Bowl.  In the Southeast, giant fields were eroded, leaving the farmland ruined.  

After a triumphant election, the newly sworn in President Franklin Roosevelt set forth on an aggressive policy push known as the First Hundred Days to create policy and programs known collectively as the New Deal.  Among these was the Soil Erosion service, formed under the authority of the Department of the Interior in 1933.  The SES attempted to address the growing crisis surrounding the erosion of the nation's soil.  Reorganized in 1935, the SES was handed over to the Department of Agriculture, where it began to actively take on the disaster.             

It was inside the Soil Erosion Service that the decision was made to use kudzu.  SES higher-ups were aware of kudzu's growing abilities, but they did not think of the ramifications that mass planting would have on local ecosystems.  The Department of Agriculture used the Civilian Conservation Corps to distribute and plant the seeds.  Over a period of ten years, one hundred million kudzu seeds were planted, mostly in the South.  The government even bribed farmers to plant kudzu at eight dollars per acre.  By the end of the program, 46 million acres of kudzu had been planted.

The idea behind kudzu was simple.  The vine could hold the soil in place until the farmers were ready to plant again.  All a farmer needed to do was plow it over.  In fact, it re-nourished the soil and provided food for grazing livestock.  The government touted the program as a success, but that success was short-lived.  The farmers who covered their land in kudzu soon learned just how fast kudzu could grow.  The South proved to be the perfect environment for kudzu, as it has a long warm season, plentiful rainfall, and no natural predators or diseases to threaten the plant.  In some areas, kudzu continues to grow up to a foot a day.

Kudzu can cover a large area in a small amount of time.  It can destroy an entire forest -- and regional timber industries -- in a few short years.  The vine grows over the trees and other underbrush, smothering everything under its weight.  Kudzu also causes headaches for telecommunications and electric companies, whose poles are snapped or shorted out by the vine.   Farmland covered in kudzu by the U.S. government has been permanently lost, to say nothing of the millions of dollars wasted.  Just how bad is the spread of kudzu?  Each year, it spreads an additional 150,000 acres.  To date, kudzu covers around 10,000 square miles in the United States.  To put it in perspective, the area lost to kudzu is roughly the same size as the state of Massachusetts.

Kudzu is regarded as a Southern ecological disaster, but in the past few years, it has been discovered as far north as Ontario, Canada and as far west as Oregon.  In fact, kudzu is growing in thirty-two states.  While it's arguable that it cannot spread at the rates found in the South due to the colder climate, it could do considerable damage to various markets, especially the northern timber industry.  

By the 1950s, the federal government realized its mistake.  Government officials advised against planting kudzu as a cover crop, though they largely did nothing to ameliorate the damage they had done already.  The end result is what we have today: huge tracts of land rendered completely useless by government policy.  It wasn't until the 1990s that Congress labeled kudzu a noxious weed, but still the problem persists.            

Kudzu can be seen in a larger context when examining the New Deal.  Roosevelt's aggressive domestic policy and massive expansion of the federal government are still with us today.  The bureaucracy created under the New Deal is continually spreading, tightening its grip, and smothering the American people -- just like kudzu's effect on the environment.  There is little to no political will to curb and fix Depression-era policies like entitlement programs (and kudzu).   One day, America will wake up to find herself smothering -- not under the green leaves of a vine, but under the red tape of the same government who created the kudzu crisis.


Alderman, Derek H. "Channing Cope and the Making of a Miracle Vine." Geographical Review 94.2 (2004). Print. 

Bennett, H. H. "Adjustment of Agriculture to Its Environment." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 33.4 (1943). Print.