Friday, June 8, 2012

I'll Take An Enormous Order of Kudzu Please

Today, my three boys and I went over to Chastain Park to take part in a most unusual event for a city of 6 million people: Breakfast With The Sheep. Co-sponsored by Trees Atlanta and the Chastain Park Conservancy, this event is part of a larger initiative to help rid the land of the notorious and invasive plant Kudzu, a ubiquitous climbing, coiling, trailing vine that was introduced to the U.S. as far back as 1876.

A herd of sheep have basically been parachuted down (okay transported) into the park to accomplish this goal in a sustainable way. And funny too. This plant, as you can see at below, is a monster that grows all over the highways and into people’s space. More on its history later.

This was the kick-off of Trees Atlanta’s Have You Herd summer program of invasive-plant-eating around Atlanta. A local land management firm named Ewe-niversally Green hired over 100 hungry, four-foot ovines to be a “low-impact solution for controlling invasive plants on sites that do not contain sensitive or endangered plants, as well as on steeply sloped properties.”

And this is the amazing part: “Each sheep can eat up to 150 square feet of kudzu per day, so we expect the sheep to clear this site in fourteen days or less.” Evidently, kudzu is highly palatable to livestock so the buffet is always open and the customers are happy. They only need a shepherd, an electric fence and guard dogs for their short-term contract work.

So, in a brilliant move, these two nonprofit organizations collaborated with the Ritz Carlton who provided tasty treats and coffee, and other local vendors who prepared arts and crafts and environmental education tables, and made a free event out of it for the public! Pretty savvy cross-promotional marketing. Television news stations and newspaper photographers were on hand to capture the story, which will, for once, be a positive news piece that should lift people’s moral. Beats the near-daily bludgeoning of journalistic fare consisting of apartment fires, shootings and education scandals.

I was so jazzed by the community response; the line of cars just went on and on. People came in droves and of course the little kids were practically hanging over the fence roping to feed the woolies kudzu and branches of some green shrub which of course the sheep were happy to eat. Full-grown sheep, mostly closely shorn, as well as little lambs and a few goats and kids moved around the pen in their typical style of leaderless herd behavior. Occasionally you could hear one of them “baaaa”. Photographers and videographers were in the pen shooting up close and filming in-your-face footage with the cameras literally on the ground. Can’t wait to see the news this evening.
For the nonAtlantans, Chastain Park is a wonderful green space and the largest city park in Atlanta, totaling 268 acres. The local community is very involved in the management of different aspects of the park which include a golf course, tennis courts, a very large pool, playground, amphitheatre that hosts a summer concert series, sports fields, a basketball court, grill and picnic area, hilltop field, walking/biking trails, and a creek running bisecting it.
Now for kudzu. This plant, like cockroaches, may have its place… but it ain’t here. Unfortunately in the
19th century it was viewed as an ornamental plant. By the 1930’s, agricultural experts encouraged farmers to grow it as a forage plant since it could grow in poor soil. It was shipped out all over the South and planted, and by 1945, about half million acres had kudzu was growing on farmlands. It apparently hadn’t yet had time to show how damaging it can be. Finally in the 1950’s people started to figure out kudzu’s true nature, noticing how it grew upward or outward. That bad boy can grow nearly a foot a day and 60 to 100 feet a season! It will crawl over almost any fixed object including cars and will kill other vegetation by smothering them and blocking sunlight. This has become the stuff of Southern folklore and humor (i.e. “the plant that ate the South”).
With present environmental awareness, folks don’t want toxic chemicals sprayed on the vegetation killing the very plants they hope to save, not to mention poisoning the soil, and are wisely are looking back to their agrarian ancestors’ way of life, employing God’s sweet and simple ruminants to do the job cleanly.
            Unfortunately, though the boys and I arrived only 25 minutes into the event, there were no pastries left on the 18-foot table, just juice and coffee. However, there was a cute sculpture of Shaun the Sheep (a character from the hugely popular children’s videos and feature films “Wallace and Gromit”). Here's my new friend, sustainability writer Pattie Baker, creator of Foodshed Planet, and author of Food for My Daughters. Visit her blog!

My guys were incredibly disappointed to miss the gourmet food. So I bought them some gelato that was being sold at the scene.

Once the sheepies munch their way through the Buckhead terrain, they will mow down more kudzu in other green spaces, helping improve Atlanta’s collective urban forest. Despite missing out on the gourmet food, we had a good time and it was an uplifting event. We look forward to spotting the sheep in the next two weeks while they make one of city parks their home for a fortnight.  
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