Pait, Bell’s careers span decades of exciting tech changes
John Pait was attending a small liberal arts college in Kentucky when he took a job at its science library. One day while shelving books, he came across a Society of American Foresters book on careers in forestry and started flipping through it.
“I was just totally blown away,” he says.
Finding that book in the returns pile may have been completely random, but it put Pait down a path that took him to the University of Georgia and ultimately a career at the forefront of changing how forest landowners grow trees.
In the past couple of decades, improvements in technology—and a shift in forestland ownership—has seen the rise of genetically improved tree seedlings, giving landowners more options than before in forest management.
Pait’s not the only Warnell alum who has watched over this change in the forestry landscape—Wayne Bell also had a fortuitous path to Warnell, and these two alumni have had instrumental roles in the seedlings industry in the Southeast.
But if you ask Pait, he’s just been in the right places at the right times, saying, “I’m probably one of the luckiest guys I’ve ever met.”
Lucky Alumni, Fortuitous Starts
Wayne Bell was sitting in his high school’s agriculture class back in the 1960s, down in Ashburn, Georgia, when his teacher focused that day’s lesson on forestry. Those lessons were fun, he said, and it was the first time he’d really seen how attractive forestry could be as a career, especially “because in the late 60s we didn’t have as many options as people do now.”
Bell went to Abraham Baldwin Agriculture College first, but transferred to UGA in 1969. After a one-year National Guard tour, he graduated in 1972, and his forestry career began in earnest—first for the now gone St. Joe Paper Company. It was there that Bell got his first exposure to working in a tree nursery. After a couple of years there, he moved on to International Forest Company.
At the time, Bell said, it was owned by a Swedish corporation called Hilleshög, who wanted to expand the company into the nursery and genetics business. By 1983, they’d built their first nursery in Alabama, but by the 90s their Swedish owners decided to exit the forest business.
So Bell and two others bought it, and in 1990 he became president and part-owner of a company that by 2003 grew 140 million seedlings and revolutionized growing them in containers instead of the ground.
When they sold IFC in 2003—and Bell became the chief operating officer—they began to penetrate the market even more with 110 million containerized seedlings. By 2017, they added another 120 million bareroot seedlings. “We became the second largest player in the nursery business in the South,” Bell said.
Who’s the first? ArborGen. And that’s where Pait works.
Pait and Bell have been friends for decades, first meeting when Pait was a rookie at his first job out of college. Bell bought the new forestry grad lunch, and the two have had a comradery ever since.
Pait’s forestry story begins in that science library. After telling his dad about what he’d found, the elder Pait set up a meeting with someone he just happened to know at UGA—Dr. Reid Parker, one of Warnell’s most renowned professors. Parker easily swayed Pait to UGA, and the young college student came for his undergraduate degree and then stayed for his master’s.
Along the way he was a student worker at Whitehall Forest making $2.77 an hour, helped renovate Whitehall Mansion, worked as a dendrology teaching assistant, and met his future wife.
It was his first job at Container Corp when he met Bell, and it was there that he got his first taste of what it was like to work in the changing forest industry. Taking that job over working on a PhD at Mississippi State, Pait never regretted joining the workforce instead. Over the next few years, he rose through the ranks, starting out as a research forester and then ultimately overseeing a million acres and working in silviculture and applied genetics.
In 1985, though, he came to Atlanta to work for Georgia Pacific as its productivity director for North American timberlands. He went from overseeing a million acres of forestland to six million, and while there he was working on technology development and seed nurseries.
It was in the 1990s that both Pait and Bell saw the change in forest ownership.
Changes on the horizon
When Bell first started, he said, paper companies had a real interest in growing better trees, “but private landowners didn’t have access to those improved genetics.”
Wall Street may have changed that, Bell said, basically telling the paper companies—which historically owned the nurseries—that they’d stop selling their stocks “because you’re not giving us enough return to recommend it.”
That, Bell said, got them thinking about how to be more attractive to Wall Street. And the landscape changed. Companies started selling their lands, and investors snapped it up because of rising land values and potential timber sales. Pait said Georgia Pacific “took the first big experiment” in what became widespread across the industry when it took its lands and put them in a public company.
Pait and Bell watched it all happen—and they also saw the technology develop. “We started seeing opportunities in genetics where you could improve the genetics on your planted trees, combined with silviculture,” Bell said. “That sort of revolutionized productivity. It doubled what we could produce on an acre of land.”
Improving tree genetics isn’t new—planting based on desirable traits has been around for a century, with the US Forest Service documenting their own tests in the early 1900s—with increased interest throughout the following decades.
By the early 1980s, dozens of private companies, state agencies and forestry university programs were engaged in forest genetics research. But it was the technology of the late 20th century—coupled with forest industry corporations divesting their land holdings to real estate trusts (REITs) and timber investment management organizations (TIMOs) and downsizing their research arms—that transformed forest genetics research.
Bell was at IFCO when this started, and said that once they got into the nursery business, they had to get into genetics. “That’s what’s driving people to forestry,” he said. “They want the highest quality genetics. There weren’t any companies out there working on that who weren’t paper companies until my company and ArborGen came along.”
In 2002, Pait began working for CellFor, a tech company he’d worked with while at Georgia Pacific.
They were focusing on taking cloning technology and applying it to pine trees, he said, which “was the Holy Grail of genetic improvement.” Over the next decade, Pait was in the midst of this genetic work when ArborGen bought CellFor in 2012. And now he’s watching ArborGen grow more than 400 million seedlings as the largest producer in North America, with operations in Brazil and New Zealand.
Pait is excited about what’s on the horizon.
ArborGen has multiple nurseries, deep technology that focuses on pine and eucalyptus, and a “full array” of genetically improved seedlings. It can take 15 years to do a full cycle on a new product, Pait said, from testing to breeding to seedlings. They’re doing advanced research using 50,000 to 60,000 genetic markers to identify genes for good growth and other desirable traits to rapidly develop the next generation of high quality seedlings, he said.
“We’re now ready to come out with our first genomic-based product that is resistant to disease,” he said. “That’s never been done in pine before. We use genetic markers to test for rust resistance.”
Genomics is the kind of genetics research that sequences, assembles and analyzes the function and structure of genomes, then identifying all the genes in an organism. This technology helped spur this fundamental shift in forest genetics improvements.
Pait said it’s only going to get better from here. “I think in the near future we’ll see a greater application of genomics science to more rapidly improve the rate of development of elite trees,” he said. “Compared to when I started my career, we are looking at trees that grow three times as fast. We’ll look at the next levels, which would be doubling of pine productivity and wood quality.”
Better genomics means better trees, he said. And that’s only good news for Georgia and the South, already considered the “wood basket” of the US. “When we increase productivity like this,” Pait said, “it attracts business. It attracts lumber mills. It attracts new markets. The contribution of new technology toward keeping the South positioned in this premiere role it has, I’m just privileged to be a part of that.”