Faces from the Past




Howell Cobb developed forest seed technology

By James Barnett
Journal Correspondent

With the rapidly increasing use of artificial regeneration to reforest vast acreages of cut-over land in the early 1950s, availability of seeds became a limiting factor. Howell Cobb, a forester with the Louisiana Forestry Commission, saw an opportunity to address this need and organized the American Forest Seed Company, Inc. of Alexandria, LA.

Cobb, a native of Lutcher, Louisiana, obtained a degree in forestry from Louisiana State University in 1937. Prior to World War II, he worked for short periods on land acquisition and appraisals for Masonite Corporation, administering farm loans for muskrat trappers for the Department of Agriculture, and making forest product surveys for American Creosoting Company.

He entered the U.S. Navy in 1942, was commissioned an officer, and served with amphibious forces in the Pacific. He was assigned as a training officer afloat in Maryland and then returned to the western Pacific before his discharge in 1946. He twice won the Silver Star while serving as commanding officer of landing craft in combat operations.

Upon his release from the Navy, he became chief and first forester for a 500,000-acre tract owned by Southwestern Settlement and Development Corporation (later Temple-Inland Forest Products) of Jasper, Texas. In 1950, he returned to Louisiana as district forester for Louisiana Forestry Commission in Natchitoches.

In 1956, Cobb saw the potential of providing pine seeds for the growing planting and direct seeding programs and organized the American Forest Seed Company. The primary species of interest was longleaf pine; at the time its seeds could not be successfully stored from one year to another. The traditional means of processing cones and seeds was to place the cones on racks in barns or warehouses, turn heaters on and try to circulate hot air through the area. The method could take as much as three months to open cones.

Cobb's idea was to provide a quicker and more effective method of opening cones and extracting seeds. He decided to adapt and modify the process used on hybrid seed corn to longleaf pine cones. Basically, the process involved placing cones on racks in compartments in a closed building, forcing air heated to 105F into one end, controlling air movement through all racks, and letting the cooled air exit at the other end.

This process resulted in seed extracting in about three days and allowed quantities of cones processed to expand dramatically. Once the method was demonstrated to work with longleaf pine seeds, other species were quickly adapted to the process since they are less difficult to process successfully. This process provided the capacity to support developing direct seeding technology that speeded reforestation of southern pine forests.

As Cobb began his business, he hired L. Derwood Delaney, Jr., a recent graduate of Louisiana State University, to become his plant manager. Derwood's father, Luther Delaney, was the first state nurseryman in the South, beginning Louisiana's nursery program in 1925.

The American Forest Seed Company was a definite success and expanded with a new plant to meet the needs of developing reforestation programs. With Howell Cobb's untimely death in the early 1970s, the company's ownership changed a couple of times. However, Derwood Delaney remained as the plant manager throughout this process. In 1983, he formed the Louisiana Forest Seed Company. The Louisiana Forest Seed Company became a Delaney family business with two sons involved. This has allowed the company to expand its services by collecting, processing, and storing over 200 species of tree and shrub seeds in addition to the southern pines. The company is now the premier handler of forest seeds in the nation and supplies seeds of many species to a number of other countries.

Howell Cobb's idea of improving quality and expanding production of southern pine seeds has come a long way with the help of his plant manager, Derwood Delaney. Louisiana Forest Seed Company now sets the standard for efficiency of production and seed quality.

(Pat Camp's 1972 article in the spring issue of Forests & People entitled "Cobb's cone kiln-an international business" was used as a resource for this article)