From Green Menace To Green Moneymaker: The Sakae Bio Inc. Kudzu Factory, 1990-1999

Scholars such as Mart A. Stewart and Derek Alderman have shown how the southeastern United States’ economic transition from forage agriculture to lumber farming resulted in kudzu vine becoming a weed. The fact that attempts to farm the plant continued afterwards, though, suggests that this narrative can be complicated. In 1990, Sakae Bio Inc., a Japanese corporation specializing in food products, negotiated with Opelika’s mayor the purchase of a 175-acre cotton farm with the hopes of converting it into the world’s first kudzu factory. The depletion of the vine in their native country and the southeast’s abundance of the plant inspired the company to import the vine from Alabama to Japan. This effort, however, failed. The plant’s own traits resisted mechanical farming, while the region’s native insects and animals threatened the plant. Moreover, Sakae Bio Inc. faced financial issues and had to contend with the monopoly that Chinese companies had on kudzu products. Despite this failure, however, the initial excitement in Japan and the United States around this project inspired further consideration of the vine’s beneficial qualities in the southeast. Through newspapers covering the company’s efforts, interviews with former employees, and recipes, this paper will show how the company shaped attitudes towards kudzu in the southeast and encouraged some southerners to view a long detested invasive species as a potentially useful crop.