The Kudzu Kid

A Valdosta high school junior. The vine that ate the South. This state ain’t big enough for the two of them.

Sixteen-year-old Jacob Schindler has already treated three patches on an acre of kudzu when his mother, Julie, trips over something big. “Jacob,” she yells down to her son as she bends to grab the baseball-bat-thick kudzu root that just snagged her foot. She tugs on it, and the kudzu shakes all around her. After three hours of trying to eradicate the cultivar from a Decatur backyard, this vine—three inches in diameter—could be the secret to it all. This is the parent plant. Kill it, and you kill all the smaller vines that branch off of it. “You haven’t even seen this. This is the mother lode!” Julie says excitedly.

Jacob wipes away sweat from under his shaggy bangs and adjusts his glasses before trudging up the machete-hacked path toward his mom. He’s been right past this root at least a dozen times today, going back and forth into the shadeless, kudzu-covered hillside. Jacob—and his parents—have toiled and hacked and drilled on this humid August day, fumigating kudzu roots with helium. Five years ago, while experimenting for his sixth-grade science fair project in his hometown of Valdosta, Jacob discovered the inert gas was somehow poison to the vine—and, in the process, may have stumbled upon a way to rid the South of one of the most hated agricultural scourges since the boll weevil.

>> Video: See Jacob in action

Jacob lugs his weapon—a 19.2-volt cordless drill with a patent-pending three-foot steel bit—up to the parent root. He inspects it, wiping more sweat from his brow. This is his first paid gig using the technique; the Decatur homeowner, who discovered Jacob while surfing the Internet for ways to kill kudzu, is watching. Today hasn’t been easy. After he and his parents made the four-hour drive from Valdosta, Jacob realized he’d brought the wrong size hose to connect his drill to the helium. They ran to Home Depot, got more hose, and wrapped the connections with electrical tape. On the third application, the drill hit something solid—stone or maybe buried concrete—that prevented the bit shaft from drilling deep enough to get the shaft’s pinholes, where the gas seeps out into the soil, underground. Jacob’s dad, Eric, unchucked the bit from the drill and pounded the steel shaft down with a sledgehammer. The bit came out bent. “We can straighten it,” Eric assured his son. Jacob shook his head miserably in a moment of teen angst: “No. We can’t.”

But now, with the sinewy parent root in hand, it seems Jacob’s luck has turned. Until the drill’s batteries run down. And the valve handle to control the flow of helium to the bit shaft comes off in his hand. (“Obviously not made in America,” he observes wryly, patting down the pockets of his baggy blue jeans for an adjustable wrench.) Then it takes ten minutes to find a pliable spot for the bit to descend into the topsoil.

The kudzu surrounds him. Bring it, kid, it seems to say. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Jacob loves outer space. He once built a miniature satellite probe with a realistic-looking radar dish out of Legos, which now shares a living room shelf with other Lego creations and several of his awards from the FFA (formerly the Future Farmers of America and now known simply by the old acronym). A fifties-style Silver Comet model rocket hangs from the ceiling in his bedroom; a Star Wars poster hangs on his wall. So when it came time to create a sixth-grade science fair project, he told his mother, “I want to reclaim Mars.” In other words, to find something that would grow there.

In later years, Julie would become very supportive of Jacob’s science endeavors, but at first, she was skeptical. “Jacob, are you friggin’ insane?” she asked. “And how, pray tell, are you going to reclaim Mars?”

“I want to plant kudzu.”

“Okay,” Julie said. “What’s kudzu?”

All Jacob knew about kudzu back then was that people hate it because it grows like crazy—up to a foot a day in the summer—which is why it seemed a good candidate for terraforming Mars. His mother drew his gaze back to terra firma, and Jacob tried another angle: What about using kudzu to reclaim deserts? For a sixth grader in Valdosta, desert is only slightly more accessible than the red planet. These ideas, Jacob wrote in his science fair paper that year, weren’t “sensible . . . since the locations were neither near nor reproducible.” He “felt the focus should first be on the virulence of the plant. If it isn’t as strong as people think, then it may not be strong enough to survive either of these extreme environments.” So the project morphed into this: What effects do concentrated gases have on kudzu?

Kudzu may never make it to Mars or the Sahara, but it’s everywhere in Georgia, tangling in pines, climbing telephone poles, encroaching on roadways. It roots as it grows to create new crowns from which more vines will spread like a rash over farmlands and embankments. It climbs anything vertical, enveloping entire stands of trees until they become leaf-covered beasts of every shape—dogs, octopuses, T-rexes—and eventually blocks out sunlight, killing the vegetation below. This plant is part of what makes the South the South.

At least now it is. Kudzu is native to Southeast Asia, not North America. It came to the United States in 1876 as an exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, brought from Japan as a lovely vine that sprouted purple flower clusters in late summer. It showed up in New Orleans ten years later at another expo. Over the subsequent decades, the vine proved a nutritious forage crop for livestock. Farmers loved it, no one more than the original “Kudzu Kid,” Channing Cope, who wrote a daily farm column in the forties for the Atlanta Constitution. He used his column and his book, Front Porch Farmer, to espouse kudzu. He organized a fan club with 20,000 Georgians. He used it as feed on his farm southeast of the city. And he wasn’t the only one. In 1943, the U.S. Agriculture Department published a booklet, Kudzu as a Farm Crop. By 1945, kudzu covered a half million Southern acres. It really did seem to be, as Cope championed it, “the miracle vine.”

Kudzu also turned out to be great for erosion prevention. Anyone with a bare hillside or an open expanse of dry flatland knows that when there’s no vegetation, soil goes where the rain flows or the wind blows. Overuse of farmland, too, degrades soil quality, sometimes to the point where nothing will grow anymore. This deterioration created Providence Canyon, a 1,100-acre, 150-foot-deep chasm in the clay and limestone just south of Columbus that didn’t exist prior to the early 1800s. During the Great Depression, the new Soil Conservation Service promoted kudzu to stop this type of erosion.

By 2005, though—when Jacob first visited kudzu stands around Valdosta, potting small samples of the plants in sealable containers—the vine had been out of control around the South for decades. Using buried IV tubes, he experimented with gassing the roots with nitrous oxide, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and helium. All the plants eventually died, but the one fumigated with helium died almost immediately, after only one treatment.

Other projects followed, under the tutelage of the Lowndes County FFA chapter and Jacob’s FFA adviser, James Corbett. “Georgia’s really on the cutting edge of agricultural education in the nation,” says Corbett. In fact, Georgia ranks third among states with the highest FFA membership, in the neighborhood of 30,000 members. Agriculture is an especially big deal in farm communities such as Valdosta, the Lowndes County seat; the only two national agriscience students of the year who came from Georgia came from the Lowndes FFA.

“It was a good project,” Corbett says of Jacob’s first experiment. “It was very in-depth, very well done.” Corbett suggested Jacob try a “simulated live-growth” experiment for his seventh-grade project. Jacob planted sixteen Loblolly pine saplings in containers with two kudzu plants per tree. He gassed them with carbon dioxide, oxygen, and helium. This time, only the helium completely killed the kudzu. Plus, the pine trees exposed to helium showed accelerated growth even while the kudzu died.

Jacob’s third-year project in 2008 obliterated several stands of kudzu around the Valdosta area using the helium kill; the kudzu never grew back. For his fourth-year project, he designed the drill shaft and used it to destroy kudzu in several more locations around Valdosta in 2009. So far, the helium has killed nothing but kudzu, and it’s worked almost flawlessly each time.

Jacob doesn’t think much about space anymore; since the first kudzu experiment, the plant has taken over his life much like it takes over everything else. Even though all this kudzu killing has brought a lot of attention to Jacob—newspaper stories in the Valdosta Daily Times, radio interviews on Georgia News Network, a web video on Georgia Farm Monitor (“[The attention is] a lot easier than the work itself,” he says)—he’s really just a teenager who likes science. Sure, there are stereotypes about kids who excel in the subject (his mother gleefully shares that Jacob’s favorite sitcom is The Big Bang Theory because “it’s about nerds!”). And granted, he does like to toss out trivia about Archimedes, war inventions, and feng shui over dinner. But he also plays Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on his computer and listens to Coldplay on his iPod. In the summer he hangs out with friends on the Withlacoochee River. He turned seventeen in December, and a 1995 Ford F-150 awaits him when he gets his driver’s license next month. (His parents bought it so he can haul helium tanks.) But the kudzu has pushed him in a certain direction, and he’s still on that overgrown path. He took agricultural science eight times in middle school, writing his own curriculum after the fourth. As a freshman, he took environmental science with mostly juniors and seniors. And though he’s good at science, he struggles with math. “But six holes is not algebra,” he says, pointing to the three-foot drill bit.

That hollow steel bit with the pinholes and the gas valve won him first place in the Senior Engineering division of the Georgia Agriscience Fair last April and took Jacob to Indianapolis to compete in the national convention in October. It was his second appearance at the national convention with a kudzu-themed project. Even though he didn’t place this time at nationals (in 2008, he took second), his mother contacted a patent lawyer. “I did it because I saw potential for him to actually make something that’s feasible—that could be sold, marketed, used,” Julie says. She hopes he’ll be able to get a scholarship out of his research; as an osteopath, she’s still paying off her own medical school loans and fears she and Eric can only help Jacob out a little bit on their own. “We wanted to have it protected. I told him he’s not going to the science fair without a patent pending.”

That patent could mean big money if the portable process continues to work. The annual cost of controlling invasive species in the U.S.—Japanese climbing fern, Chinese tallow tree, Chinese privet, cogon grass, and the most invasive plant species of all, Japanese honeysuckle (which we just call honeysuckle)—is around $120 billion. Still, kudzu is the poster child for creeping, pesky plants, says Dr. David Moorhead, codirector of the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. “Those dense mats of kudzu will just smother other plants out,” he says.

In his Tifton office, Moorhead clicks through digital images of kudzu infestations in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. The vine now covers around 7 million acres in the South. “Here, it doesn’t have some of the natural predators [like insects] and pressures [like weather] that it might have in its native range,” explains Moorhead. Recent droughts aside, our traditionally long and wet summers encourage aggressive growth. Short, mild winters keep the subsoil from freezing and killing the root crowns. The roots store enough starch to keep the plant alive just below the surface, so when spring hits, new vines spurt forth from the crowns right where last season’s growth ended. Miracle vine? More like devil weed.

As devastating as kudzu can be, it also has benefits—in certain places. “It will grow in poor-quality soils,” Moorhead says, which is why it was planted so widely in the South in the thirties and forties. “Look at some of the early plantings on highly eroded sites, at how much leaf area gets recycled every year as a mulch. It’s part of the soil-building process.” Moorhead clicks an image on his monitor, an aerial shot of a Mississippi infestation. A green carpet of kudzu covers a dozen or so roadside acres. Afternoon shadows reveal the deep, veinlike pattern of a vast gathering watershed, a baby Providence Canyon, perhaps, that once threatened to wash away the land until kudzu came in to stop it. “In some places,” Moorhead observes, “kudzu is literally the only thing holding the world together.”

The Decatur kill didn’t quite work.

By October, the only obvious dead kudzu was along the machete-hacked path, though Julie was convinced the kill had worked on the plant’s lower layer. Not only that, but two weeks before this paying Decatur gig, Jacob treated a large patch of kudzu by some railroad tracks in Valdosta. After about twenty minutes of hacking through vines with a machete and a small hatchet, he found a thick parent root, drilled one hole, and emptied a small party tank of helium into it. Six days later, his mother sent pictures of a car-sized patch of brown, desiccated vines where the kudzu had shriveled up and died, just like it had for all of Jacob’s science fair projects. But come October, Jacob said it, too, was growing back.

“I have no clue how the helium is actually affecting the kudzu,” Jacob freely admits. Nor does he know why the adjacent plant growth seems to accelerate, at least in his controlled experiments. Familiar by now with the scientific method, he has hypotheses. Valdosta sits atop the sandy Coastal Plain of Georgia, but Atlanta’s Piedmont soil is rich in dense red clay, which may have limited the dissipation of the helium through the soil. August is peak growing season for kudzu; all the successful eradications in Valdosta had occurred in the early fall, “when kudzu starts receding and sending all of its nutrients and starches down into the roots” in preparation for winter hibernation, Jacob says. Maybe that’s when kudzu is most vulnerable.

The Decatur job raised some questions, but the method still shows potential to Dr. Stephen Enloe, an assistant professor of agronomy and soils at Auburn University. He heard of Jacob’s research through Internet chatter and is helping Jacob apply for research grants from the Weed Science Society of America and the Alabama Invasive Plant Council. Enloe calls Jacob’s science fair research papers “impressive.” Of the most recent results, he says, “It’s very fascinating to see differences like that. One thing we know is, not all kudzu patches are created equal.” Jacob’s theories on the soil density and time sensitivity of the kill are good ones, but Enloe says the age of a kudzu stand could be a factor; older patches may have much larger and deeper root tubers, which could be more resistant to the helium method.

“Helium is biologically inactive,” Enloe explains, which means it doesn’t typically bond with other elements to create new substances. “My hypothesis is the helium is purging other gases [such as oxygen and carbon dioxide] from the system.” Enloe has discussed the process and Jacob’s research with colleagues at Auburn, including a soil chemist and a soil physicist, and hopes he can leverage some Auburn resources for Jacob in addition to what the teen might get from research grants. “You can often do quite a bit when you’re resourceful with a little bit of money,” Enloe says.

Jacob came back to Decatur in early October to hit the stubborn patch one more time. Based on his theory of dense soil, this time Jacob riddled the ground with twenty holes using the steel bit. Instead of using the bit to disperse the gas, he used two irrigation hoses from his third-year project, each with ten shorter branch tubes, to flood the subsoil with helium from two large tanks that each cost about a hundred dollars. A week later there is an overall dwindling of the kudzu, with some leaves looking slightly yellowish. But cooler temperatures have knocked back summer growth everywhere.

What happened where it counts, down below the soil? When spring puts away another Southern winter and April rains send a biological wake-up call to those starch-filled roots, what will the kudzu do?

Jacob can only wait. He’s looking at his data, gathering reinforcements with help from Auburn, charging those drill batteries, and preparing for another battle.

The kudzu waits, too. Bring it, kid, it seems to say. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Photo by Michael Cogliantry / Design by Eric Capossela