New Trees, Deep Roots
How Wayne Bell and the International Forest Company are popularizing genetically improved container seedlings
“This is what a bare root seedling looks like,” says Wayne Bell as he cradles the slender trunk of a tree no longer than his forearm. He taps its root plug against a metal tray, crumbling the soil in dense chunks to the ground until a nest of straggly roots, like threads, is all that remains. “Now, this one has more roots than actual bare root seedlings because it was grown in a container, like all of these,” he motions wide with his free hand to reveal millions of containerized seedlings spread green around him at the International Forest Company’s nursery. “But you get the idea. Containers grow healthy roots.”
Healthy roots are important to Bell, who was raised just a few miles up the road from IFCO’s present location in Moultrie, Georgia. His dad grew peanuts in a small town called Sycamore, where his land bordered a then brand new interstate highway. “When I was twelve,” recalls Bell, “I’d plow peanuts beside a rest stop on I-75. People from Ohio and other places up north would pass through and shout, ‘Hey! What’re you doing?’ I’d tell them, ‘I’m plowing up peanuts.’ They were surprised, saying, ‘We thought peanuts grew on trees!’ So I’d toss them a vine of peanuts over the highway fence.”
The thrill of resolving confusion stuck. And after a Forestry degree from the University of Georgia and several decades of growing pine seedlings, he’s well-prepared to unravel misconceptions about how things are grown. “I was with a group of foresters a few weeks ago who were showing us some survival problems. I asked them, ‘What are your survival ratings with bare root seedlings?’ They said, ‘About 70%.’ We did the math and found that they wasted sixty dollars an acre with bare roots. I asked them, ‘How would you like to tell your landowner that you wasted that much of his money?’ They were shocked. You see, container seedlings would have solved the cost of their empty space.”
Bell’s conviction about containers began in the mid-80’s, when a then Swedish-owned International Forest Seed Company hired him to build a nursery and start cloning pine trees with rooted cuttings. Though the procedure is considered archaic now, it was the first of its kind in commercial seedling production. They would take a small piece of a pine tree, plant it in soil, and watch it grow. The catch, however, was that cloned plant could survive only if it was grown in a container.
Like most leaps in technology, the rooted cutting procedure was expensive in its earliest form, and the market was not ready to pay for clones. But the containers stuck. Bell found that growing seedlings in a container offered major advantages in terms of survival and growth. He tried containers with regular seedlings; one species of pine went from a 50% survival with bare root seedlings to a 95% survival rate with a container seedling. They started selling containers as an opportunity to offer something valuable and unique. Though many places around the world had long been using container seedlings to grow trees–Sweden, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, even the Northwestern US–the southeast was dominated by bare root practices.
Despite the dramatic improvement to survival rate, the industry in the south was hesitant to make the switch. “That’s just the way it is,” recalls Bell, “The timber industry is conservative.” Trees take a long time to grow, and therefore change tends to be slow. Bell and IFCO continued to sell container seedlings at a steadily increasing rate, but they kept their eyes open for an opportunity to show the industry the value in containers.
In the early 1990’s, the vegetable industry experienced a sudden and massive shift to container seedlings. “A huge part of what changed the vegetable business over to container seedlings was genetic research. When expensive hybrid seed and very specific varieties began being bred, farmers wanted to make sure their investment would survive. They started using containers to ensure survival.” IFCO took the cue, and decided to give their long-existing genetic research programs a boost.
Since then, IFCO has become a leading player in tree genetics research. “We’re one of two major seedling companies working on tree genetics,” says Bell. “The biggest timber companies do genetics research too, but they own millions of acres–And where do you think they put the best seedlings they get from their research?”
This conflict of interest for large timber companies has prevented common landowners from benefiting from genetics research. In other words, the companies funding the studies have kept the best and sold the rest. But IFCO, who participates in six of the premier research co-ops on tree genetics in the US, has no incentive to keep the best for themselves–they don’t manage timberland. Instead, they provide top-level seedlings to regular-joe clients who want to grow amazing trees. IFCO has opened the flood doors for everyone to benefit from common improvements such as accelerated growth rates, smaller limb size, and fusiform rust resistance.
“We’re a powerful story for landowners and independent foresters,” says Bell as he walks through IFCO’s expansive plant breeding orchard, “We bring the big time research to common folk.” Kneeling down to grab a pine cone, he continues, “The trees in our orchard are bred from the best genetics in the research co-ops. This tree here is one of the best that came out of the co-op a few years ago,” he says as he grabs its thin trunk. “It out-grew and out-produced everything else in the study. Now, it has some characteristics that aren’t perfect. For instance, it has a slight propensity to fork. But we’ll breed it with something that doesn’t fork until we have an offspring that captures the best of both–the productivity and the absence of forks. That’s a simplistic explanation, but you understand.”
Walking further, he stops next to a pair of pre-pubescent pines grown chest high and starts pointing in various directions at plots of perfectly rowed trees extending for miles around him. “Those trees over there are genetically customized for the Piedmont region. And those ones are for Chattanooga. In fact, one of the first questions we ask a client is: ‘Where is your land located?’ If you put a selection from Florida in northern Georgia, it’s going to start flushing earlier than it’s supposed to, and the frost will kill it back.”
Knowing how to cater to specific needs comes naturally to Bell, who along with his wife raised two daughters with disparate interests. Both adults now, one oversees an Academy Sports and Outdoors retail center in Kansas City, and the other is a social worker who counsels children and teenagers in Alabama. Driving back to the seedling nursery, Bell holds his steering wheel with one hand, tilts his head to the side, and flashes a full southern grin as he talks about his girls. “The one who runs Academy called me last week and said, ‘Dad, we’re hosting a store fundraiser for kids, and you wouldn’t be able to guess who I’m going to play a game of horse with.’ I said, ‘Who?’ She said, ‘Andrew Wiggins, the number one draft pick in the NBA this year.’ I told her, ‘You better get out there and start practicing!’ You see, she was real good player in high school. Not tall, but she could shoot the eyes out of it. She called me up after the game of horse all excited and said, ‘Guess who won? I did! I beat the number one draft pick!’” The excitement lingers on his face a few moments and slowly transforms into an expression of focus and strength. Gripping the wheel with two hands now, he fixes on something in the distance ahead of him and continues, “My other daughter, the social worker, meets with kids eight hours a day, rough backgrounds, one behind the other. It’s not easy,” he sighs and shakes his head slowly to communicate a mixture of pride and awe, “She fulfills a huge need, I’m telling you.”
Back at IFCO’s seedling nursery, Bell points to several massive metal contraptions extending like horizontal ladders above the tiny trees. “We pioneered the concept of growing container seedlings under pivot irrigation. It’s normally used for crop circles, for peanuts and other things, but we found it’s perfect for containers. Under each pivot we’ve got roughly four million seedlings.” He nods at the metal trays raised four feet in the air, “The beds are raised for airflow. When air hits the roots, it prunes them off. We designed the tray ourselves for optimal root length. Auburn just did a research study on container root formations. Guess whose container design came out number one?” he asks with an eyebrow raised and a slight grin, “That’s right, ours.”
His competitive tone is not easily mistaken for hubris; Bell is driven to provide the best product possible to landowners. He understands the stakes. Due to the nature of the timber business, IFCO’s clients will not see the return on their investment for at least ten years, and in some cases, fifteen to thirty. But he has spent his career–and perhaps his lifetime–learning the long-term value of investing in life’s youngest stages. “Children are the common link between humans wherever you go,” he says, explaining why he and his wife teach second and third grade Sunday school. “If I look a kid in the eye and talk with him, the mom gets excited and says, ‘I’ve never seen him talk with anybody like that!’ I tell her, ‘That’s because no one ever looks him in the eye.’” For Wayne Bell and the International Forest Company, it’s pretty simple: give seedlings the respect they deserve, the nurture they need. Now that’s a new idea.
Editor // Timber Update