Seed Processing Plant Sprouted Under Delaney's Guidance
LECOMPTE, LA (AP) — Even though he didn't major in forestry at LSU, Derwood Delaney, at age 81, continues to be a major player in the forestry business as the owner of what forestry experts hail as the premier forest seed technology business in America
Louisiana Forest Seed Company, Inc. was founded by Delaney in 1984, and he and his sons built the plant on six acres just down the road from the home where Derwood was born on a woodsy hill near Lecompte.
As the son of Luther Delaney, the first state nurseryman in the South, Delaney balked at his father's suggestion to study forestry at LSU, believing that would lead to a job working for the state.
"I didn't want to because there was a lot of politics working for the state," he said, "and you didn't know whether you'd have a job every four years."
Instead, the 1952 Lecompte High graduate majored in animal industry, or husbandry, and graduated from LSU in 3 1/2 years in January of 1956. After a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army, where he worked as a supply clerk and mail clerk for a light artillery unit and was a marksman on the rifle range, he returned to Lecompte in search of a job and realized "all my contacts were in the field of forestry."
Life was about to change for Delaney. A member of the livestock judging team from LSU that went to a national competition in Chicago during the Thanksgiving holidays, Delaney recalled being part of a crowd-attracting snowball fight on the way while on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Now, this fellow who was a sprinter in high school was ready to begin the distance run of his life's work.
He used his forestry contacts to get a job in 1958 with Howell Cobb, a Lutcher native who founded the American Forest Seed Company in Alexandria in 1956. Cobb, a forester and former Naval officer who served with amphibious forces in the Pacific during World War II, started the company because he saw the potential of providing pine seeds for burgeoning direct seeding businesses, and he devised a quicker and more effective method of opening cones and extracting seeds.
The soft-spoken Luther Derwood Delaney Jr. got married in 1959 to Carolyn Smith, who grew up in nearby Lamourie. Delaney, who worked for 50 cents an hour and ultimately $1 an hour in the reserve reading room at the school library while studying at LSU, worked for Cobb for 19 years. Meanwhile, he and Carolyn were also building a family with four sons: Mark, John, Paul and Gary.
"I did everything," he said of the variety of duties he handled as Cobb's plant manager at the American Forest Seed Company. "There, I got the basics for the business end for when I started this job. After Cobb sold the business to International Seed Company, Delaney stayed on as plant manager for five years before he got his "pink slip" when the plant closed in December of 1982.
He spent 1983 brokering pine cones to seed companies before building his current business in 1984.
"The banks were real tight then," Delaney recalled. "Only one bank, the Bank of Lecompte, loaned me the money I needed ($250,000) to start the business. It helped that my brother-in-law was a lawyer for the bank."
The interest rate at the time hovered between 12-14 percent, and Delaney said, "Every day I woke up and owed $100 of interest."
Delaney started his seed processing business a little more than three decades after his father, Luther, had been commended in a letter from Gov. Earl Long for having produced 100 million pine seedlings in 25 years. One story about Luther is that he once needed some help establishing some credibility with some French-speaking men he was trying to recruit as workers, but they were initially "dubious" about dealing with him because they didn't know him and were worried about not getting paid for their work. They were squawking in French among themselves about it.
To the rescue came Derwood's mother, the former Rosella Dubois of Ville Platte, who had a French background "and understood everything they were saying," Delaney said.
Under Derwood's guidance, LFSC has become a thriving business for processing tree and shrub seeds. The Delaneys, like modern Johnny Appleseeds, distribute those seeds, which produce hardwood and pine trees across the country and beyond — even to help reforestation efforts in China and South America.
He has even sent seeds to the moon when NASA wanted to test the effects of other-worldly conditions on seed germination more than 40 years ago.
Custom processing is its major business, but it also offers hardwood and pine varieties for sale by the pound. Seed processing is a seasonal business, and this is the off season, when only six are on the payroll. About 12-15 are generally on the payroll in the seed processing season, which annually begins in September and runs to February or March, depending on the harvest.
Delaney, while still involved in the business, has turned over the leadership to two of his sons, John and Gary. John, 50, a mechanic by trade, is in charge of the production, and Gary, 45, who got his master's in business at Louisiana Tech, runs the office.
John has, over several years, developed methods of cleaning seeds to improve their germination rates as high as 85-90 percent.
"He can take an 18-wheeler load of yellow poplar seed, and when he's finished (cleaning them), put it in the back of a pick-up truck," Derwood said.
John said he sometimes takes machines that were designed for something else — like cleaning vegetables, for example — and modifies them to clean or sort seeds. Samples of seeds are sent to whatever lab the customer wants to test such factors as moisture content, purity, seed per pound and germination rates.
Pine seed — slash pine, loblolly and longleaf — used to be the mainstay almost two decades ago, but not any more.
"We handle about 180 different species, and the pine is about 25 percent," Derwood said. "It was 100 percent when we first started."
Louisiana Seed Company, "realizing the pine wouldn't carry us with its 5-6 year cycle of peak production," has expanded and flourished in the hardwood business with different seeds that vary in their bounty and popularity from year to year, Derwood said.
"We don't need to go to the casino to gamble," he cracked. "We gamble every year right here."
He did admit that the gambling odds at his plant are generally better for the bald cypress than anything else.
"One year," Derwood said with a smile, "I picked up the phone and it was a lady from Tennessee calling to say she noticed a neighbor was getting good seed germination and the neighbor wouldn't tell her where she was getting it from. She told me she dug through her neighbor's garbage and found my number and was calling to ask for a catalog."
James Barnett of Pineville, recognized as a world authority on reforestation issues, has worked with Delaney for many years, especially in the early years of his business when the pine was the business' mainstay. He is among many experts who consider LFSC the best seed processing country in the South and even the country.
Delaney plays that acclaim down, though, saying he has only two chief competitors, one in Alabama and another in Georgia.
"Derwood was always looking for the newest and best technology that was available," said Barnett, who was inducted last month into the LSU Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries Alumni Hall of Fame in recognition for nearly five decades of research for the U.S. Forest Service. "We kind of helped him along the way. He was always dedicated to putting out a first-class product and would go to great lengths to insure that it was.
"When he sold something," Barnett went on, "the people who bought it were confident about what they were getting because it was always as good or better than he said it was."
"Jim has really helped out over the years," said Delaney. "He'll donate seeds, and he's done a lot of research that's been beneficial."
Gary Delaney said the plant has two freezers and four coolers that are used for cold storage of various species of seeds. Some seeds, such as cypress, go into a freezer with the temperature set at 0 degrees Fahrenheit while acorns, like some from the nuttall oak, go into a cooler set at 34 degrees.
During the seed processing season, they work seven days a week and from 10-14 hours a day — "whatever it takes to get the job done," said Derwood, for workers to move cones and seeds through the processing steps. Green cones that are shipped to them, for example, go through a 30-day maturing process, and then are moved into a natural gas-fired kiln for about 48 hours to open up and dry in 100 to 110 degree heat.
The cones open up during the drying process allowing the seeds to be more easily removed. The dried cones are then run through a tumbler to get the seeds out, and the empty cones are graded and boxed and sold for decorative use or as fire starters.
"Pine capacity is 1,000 bushels a day," said Gary. "Hardwood is a little different since there is fleshy fruited species and winged seeded species. We may start with 1,000 pounds and end up with 10 pounds of seed on a particular specie. The conversion is highly variable on hardwood seed. The capacity of hardwood seeds depends on the mix of species."
Among several fascinating machines at the plant is a "gravity table" which, when turned on, vibrates a perforated screen in such a way that the heavy seeds will "walk up to the top," said Gary, while the empty seeds will stay at the bottom. There is a "lab model" for smaller quantities of seeds and a much bigger version of the same machine nearby for larger quantities.
They have a wooden pine cone cutter, made from longleaf pine by master bladesmith Tim Potier of Oberlin. With that cutter, they can slice pine cones vertically in a method developed by Barnett that enables them to count the good seeds and, based on a formula, make a good prediction of what the yield will be per bushel.
Derwood said his continued eagerness to be involved with the seed processing business he founded comes from "a love of the outdoors" and a desire to deal with "different problems and solutions every year. It keeps you on your toes."
John said he and Gary appreciate the autonomy their father gives them in running the business, and they've learned some moral lessons from him about running a business.
"He always told us to be honest with people, and if you make a mistake, own up to it," John said. "Everybody's going to make a mistake, but that's OK. The main thing is to own up to it and learn from it. He also told us to treat everybody the same way, no matter who they are, whether they are the richest or the poorest in the world."
– by AP/ Reporter Bob Tompkins with The Town Talk