We met in the coastal town of Arcata, California on a cool July morning for a drive up the mountain, and through northern Humboldt County. Winding up the mountain, the sun glistened on the river as we talked pot shop. Hours and many picturesque miles later, our farm tour team arrived at Humboldt Seed Company.
Humboldt Seed Company takes a holistic approach in both their breeding and farming practices. Even though HSC uses cutting edge science to develop their seed varieties, they somehow maintain a welcoming “homesteady” atmosphere. Everything on this farm is 100 percent carbon neutral and Clean Green certified. For 17 years, Humboldt Seed Company has prioritized the environment and community involvement, in addition to cultivating cannabis and seeds. “You can’t have really true Humboldt cannabis unless it’s contributing to the environment in a positive way,” stated Nat Pennington, owner of Humboldt Seed Company.
Over a dozen small greenhouse-like structures spread across the property. The focus on genetics flipped the farm tour into an outdoor lab tour. “Every year we breed all of our different strains in a way that brings us closer to our ideal plant through ratings, selection, and genetic preservation,” Pennington explained. The mini greenhouses are pollination chambers used for breeding cannabis and genetic preservation, which he described as “taking genetic samples via tissue culture or rooting cuttings, and then preserving it in a vegetative growth state until we have an opportunity to rate all of those different phenotypic variations. We’re looking for the very best of the best.” By building a database of genotypes and phenotypic variation, Humboldt Seed Co. can query specific traits from their catalogue to develop their seed lines.
Their focus is seeds. The flowers they grow are destined only to test their seeds. Each chamber contains a different strain, such as one of their newest signature strains Blueberry Muffin or classic strains like Jack Herer. Most of what they produce are stabilized strains. Beau Quinter, Breeding Coordinator, and Eric Fieberg, Field Coordinator, lead us around the property, joined by Lynn Sigsworth, Hawk, and Willy G. who also works with Humboldt Seed Company.
“It all started years ago when we were growing outdoor plants for flower,” Quinter recalled. When a plant with favorable traits cropped up, they wished they had seeds from it. They started taking cuts every year of everything they grew. “So, if we do find that one, unicorn plant, we have it for future breeding.” Seeds deliver genetic diversity for strain evolution. “If you just take a clone year after year after year, and try to breed seeds with it off the same clone from the same mother, you’ll eventually regress and lose the desired traits. That’s why we feel it’s important to develop seed varieties.”
“It’s all about selection,” Pennington said, “and the large population size allows us to make selections based on testing and measurable factors.” About 30 different variables go into their rating system, for example the initial selection is for size, vigor, growth, and other observable characteristics. Final phenome selection hinges on rating and testing finished flowers. This year they provided an exclusive genetics license to HendRx Farms nursery in Mckinleyville, California, who loved the Blueberry Muffin #10 and Royal Highness #18 phenomes and released them to the public.
Bryan Willkomm at Humboldt Patient Resource Center (HPRC) said, “Humboldt Seed Company has offered our patients great value and customer service. Their 20 packs of seed have done great for our patients for the last four years and we hope many years to come!” Humboldt Seed Company works closely with Phylos BioScience and other genetic laboratories. Phylos helps guide Humboldt Seed Company’s breeding practices and selection process.
Ben Adams, the Science Ambassador of Phylos talked with me about the company and their galaxy of cannabis genetics. “We use the same Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machines as the Human Genome Project,” Adams said. He explained that “DNA is broken into four chemicals, the basic buildings blocks of all life [including cannabis] on Earth. That shows how we’re all interconnected in an evolutionary and genetic way.”
Adams said roughly 50-60 percent of cannabis strain names in stores are wrong. “Cannabis has been underground for so long, there are no checks or balances for strain accuracy. With genetic testing, we’re seeing a lot of names are actually wrong. This is really helpful for consumers and for breeders, so you know what you’re actually working with or consuming.”
Phylos BioScience has a database, a vast galaxy of genetically mapped cannabis strains. Anyone in a legal cannabis state can mail in a sample to confirm or uncover the true cannabis identity. “Cannabis is one of the largest agricultural crops in the world,” said Adams, “but we know little about it. We know everything about corn and soy and apples, but we know very little about cannabis. There’s a lot of research to be done.”
“Humboldt Seed Company employs a rigorous phenotyping process to arrive at new varieties, and what environment they grow in the best. I think the genetic research they are doing with their plants is fantastic,” he said, “We are happy to see more farms going in this direction.”
“We take it to the next level by having our male [plant] be specific to the group of females,” Pennington said of their focused approach to pollination and genetic preservation, adding “you can’t move it in the right direction unless you’re isolating it completely. You can’t produce enough seeds unless you’re doing it in a big, outdoor scenario like this. We produce a large number of each variety, and it’s that production that allows us to do the selection that comes back.”
In addition to Phylos, Humboldt Seed Company works with Peak Extracts who makes vape pens, Ice Cold Extracts to make bubble hash, and Morsel Bakery to make Blueberry Muffin Bars with their Blueberry Muffin strain.
What sets Humboldt Seed Company apart is the number of different community projects they are involved in. Lynn Sigsworth and Hawk are local Karuk tribal members and very involved in their community. They have been working with Humboldt Seed Co. for many years.
“I’ve known Lynn and Hawk for many, many years. We’re like a family out here. Our community is not cannabis-centric, but growing cannabis is one of the things we do to support the community,” Pennington mentioned. “It’s the type of people we are,” said Sigsworth.
When Sigsworth was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she began chemotherapy and radiation treatments. A cannabis consumer prior to the diagnosis and familiar with the healing benefits, she continued using cannabis during chemo and radiation. Her doctors discouraged her, but the positive benefits like increased appetite, ability to sleep, and reduced pain and nausea, outweighed her doctors’ skepticism. So, she persisted. “The doctors didn’t believe it was the weed working for me. They really watched me during recovery and treatment because I didn’t feel sick or have nausea,” said Sigsworth.
Hawk, Sigsworth’s husband, recalled the Humboldt Seed Company strains Sigsworth used throughout her cancer battle: Blueberry Muffin, Royal Kush (RK), and Jack Herer (Jack). She also used high CBD strains to get through daily activities, and then switched to the the stronger strains in the evening to wind down and sleep. Now, Sigsworth is in remission, having finished 18 weeks of radiation on May 8th of this year.
]Willy G. is working with rare cannabis seeds from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, and teamed up with Humboldt Seed Company to develop the variety. Our tour takes us to their landrace, Lebanese pollination chamber. The seeded colas are thick atop the dark green plants, which waft a rich, spicy, and fruity aroma in the warm afternoon sun. As Willy G. cuts down the first branches, a bold smile breaks out across his face.
“As a medical patient, genetic diversity is very important,” said Willy G., “especially in today’s cannabis market, where it is not the medical patient that decides what is popular, but the consumer. We’re working ourselves into a genetic bottleneck,” he said. “One day are we only going to have Girl Scout Cookies, OG, and Sour [Diesel]? What is that going to look like? What kind of drawbacks do we get from only having access to certain types of cannabis? That’s why I’m really interested in landraces.” Landrace strains are essentially the heirlooms of cannabis. They are indigenous to an area for over a thousand years, self-reproductive, and genetically isolated, untouched by hybridization and cross-pollination.
Willy G. is a 22 year old from the East Coast. He told his doctors he didn’t want to take their prescribed medication for his cerebral palsy anymore, due to negative side effects. “I think smoking cannabis works better for me,” he said, “and they laughed at me. They told me that was ridiculous.” He stopped [taking the pharmaceuticals] anyway. That was five years ago. Every year he’s been back since then, his doctors say, “whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
BlueBerry Muffin is one of Willy G.’s preferred strains because it relaxes his muscle spasms, a symptom of cerebral palsy. “A lot of Humboldt Seed Company strains are very medicinal and that’s what I like,” Willy G. said.
Fieberg and Quinter also volunteer with the Salmon River Restoration Council, Mid-Klamath Watershed Council, the Forest Service, and the Karuk Tribe. “That’s a big part of who we are out here,” Fieberg said. For example, they regularly participate in noxious weed removal rafting trips, where volunteers float down rivers removing invasive species by hand as an environmental alternative to spraying pesticides. “Through this effort,” he added, “we help monitor the fish populations on the Klamath and Salmon Rivers. We feel that the fish and rivers are the most important things in this area, and that’s something we stand behind as a seed company.” Fieberg noted, things come full circle.