A scientist as well as a breeder, there always was a dual track of scientific research with seed production somewhere in the mix. “I did environmental work, but I also bred cannabis actively and had this company for almost for 25 years.” he said. “Of course, it would have been stupid for me to be outward about it back then; I would have ended up in jail or prison. Back then, I was program coordinator for a salmon research group that focused on Northern California salmon populations. I thought a genomic study would prove my hypothesis that this certain type of salmon should be listed as an endangered species, and that that would in turn trigger changes in the way things are managed, the way the rivers and forests are managed, and even the ocean. I started the study, and those papers, which went through years of peer review before publication, were published in Science Magazine. I also initiated and researched a study on salmon bones that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an equally prestigious scientific journal.”
It took many years, but his research finally triggered significant change. “It was in 2006 that I initially got the grant to do all that research, and about two weeks ago, the Spring salmon of the Klamath Basin was finally listed as a permanently endangered species,” he said proudly. “So, essentially, over the course of 15 years we got one of our most important salmon runs locally protected under the Endangered Species Act through genomic research. Those are the kinds of projects that interest the heck out of me and are what make me tick every day.”
In fact, little seems to separate the scientist from the cannabis breeder who envisioned, founded, and built Humboldt Seed Company into its current role as a leading provider of seeds and plants to every stratum of today’s cannabis industry. Passion and intellectual curiosity rather than self-interest seem to drive both activities. “I personally feel like what we do helps the planet, whether some staunch enviros out there might disagree,” he said. “I think, especially on the homegrown side of what we do, the fact that people are getting out into their backyards, or even if it is a little indoor LED grow tent, it’s still getting people back in touch with nature. And our little tagline that we use when we talk about that is that cannabis is a garden gateway plant, and it even gets young kids, by which I mean 30-somethings or 20-somethings, into gardening. I feel like that’s something that we do that can help us reconnect with the planet as a society and understand how important the function of our ecosystems is.
“I literally started this company because I liked making cannabis seeds,” he added. “A bunch of people would come to my house every winter, and they wanted to give me money but I never took it until a girlfriend at the time said, ‘Dude, people keep bringing you beer, and you’re just getting wasted. Can you please take some fucking money?’ So, that was it, but at the end of the day, our peers and colleagues here know that we’ve just happened upon this unique role.”
That said, Pennington’s inner-businessman also found its voice as new opportunities presented themselves. Recent moves reveal a company expanding its global influence and solidifying its position as a leader in the field of cannabis seed production:
- Seed breeding and production in Jamaica, Columbia, and Canada.
- Recently began exporting seeds to Spain, with other European countries to follow soon.
- Active R&D project ongoing in South Africa.
- Domestic seed production and sales underway in California, Oregon, Michigan, Maine, and Oklahoma.
- Breeding collaboration with California’s largest Native American tribe, the Yurok, focusing on CBD seeds (feminized hemp seeds). Just released a new variety: Sugar Pine CBD.
- Announced world’s first organic-certified seed available to Canadian LPs and all legal markets around the world.
- Seed sales currently in the millions. HSC can now legally export seeds to legal markets from Canada and will continue to add states in the U.S.
“We’re looking international because there are entire countries like Canada where we can play ball,” explained Pennington, “and we’re already exporting from Canada to South Africa, Spain, and several other countries. Just to be able to play in the international export of cannabis genetics world, that’s where we’re putting our technical focus, because every time we do that, we have to have phytosanitary certificates accompany each variety, we have to have import-export approval, and so just getting that practice under our belt is invaluable. And as far as I know, we’re the only company that went to Canada to make a large number of seeds and then make them available to the world.”
The company is California-based, of course. “We have two main production locations and three main locations in California, including our distribution hub, and then our big nursery, where we do most of that planting, and in Nevada County, where we access the I5 corridor to drive north and south and deliver the 200,000 plants that we delivered this year to farms in California,” said Pennington. “And those are just the plants; we’ve sold millions of seeds already this year.”
I asked if they would need more acreage to meet increasing demand. “We are already thinking about adding more seed production square footage and acreage,” he said. “We’re already over an acre of pure seed production, which doesn’t sound very big in the grand scheme of things, but we can produce one million seeds in 1000 square feet.”
photo credit: Betsy Samuelson
Those million seeds are produced in just four months from start to harvest. “Just on production now, we’re not maximizing our space because we’re being careful about pollen contamination,” added Pennington. “So, without having any risk of pollen contamination, we’re only using our square footage maybe two times a year to produce seeds. Maybe.”
As mentioned, HSC, which does not do clones, does grow plants from seed for customers, which it then delivers to them. ‘We have a distribution center in Eureka, where we have vans that we use to deliver anywhere, but mostly we leave it up to other distributors that are going to the dispensaries every week already,” said Pennington. “Our distribution is for seeds and plants, and this year I think we sprouted about 200,000 plants for other cultivators and delivered them.
“We have seeding assembly line, and a vacuum drum seeding machine that can seed 10,000 plants an hour,” he added. “That’s when it’s really chugging along. An average delivery might be 10,000 plants to a farm, and they’re anywhere from two and four inches tall when they’re delivered in trays.”
People choose strains from a menu. “We have a brochure that describes everything they can and cannot order in that form, because we don’t condone all of our varieties,” said Pennington. “Some of the catalogs we give out to dispensaries includes strains that are almost novelty, like Trainwreck or Jack Herer, which are legacy strains you and I may have experienced in 1990 or 1980, but we don’t really recommend them for commercial cultivation because they either don’t have the THC that seems to be driving the market, or structurally they don’t grow the proper way for a commercial application.”
A True F1
A deep dive into Humboldt Seed Company’s breeding program of necessity begins with a basic tutorial by Pennington on cannabis breeding and the peculiar manner it is frequently practiced in the industry. “Amazingly enough,” he began, “there is this phenomenon that essentially shaped modern agriculture probably more than any one discovery, and that is the discovery of what is referred to as heterosis, or hybrid vigor, or what is commonly described as an F1 hybrid. And there is a pervasive misunderstanding in cannabis about what the term F1 hybrid refers to, and the reason for that is because cannabis has predominantly been propagated, at least commercially, via clone. The reasons why are obvious: you’ve got this dioecious plant that has both a male and female, and you don’t use the male for hardly anything but reproduction. So, absent the feminizing process, it’s cumbersome to discard 50 percent of your brood stock. The other reason is that breeding comes along when something is financially profitable as an [agricultural] commodity or crop. This tends to drive breeding because otherwise it’s just breeding for fun, which is great. I’m not trying to belittle the work that I and many other amazing breeders have done for the last 50 years.
“But my point,” he added, “and I do tend to be tangent and long-winded, is that when you suddenly turn a corner and it becomes a commercially viable industry, you now have a desire to create homogenous plants, homozygous with the proper alleles, or whatever terminology you want to use for uniform brood stock from seed. And I feel like one of the advantages of being Humboldt Seed Company is that we had growers in 2003 that were like, ‘Hey, we’re having people coming to us that want 20 pounds at a time, and they want them to look alike. So, we can’t keep growing your seeds – even though we love your seeds and they’re the best plants and the best weed and all that – [because] we need them to be uniform.’ That was when I first started getting the pressure, and it’s a long process to create that [uniformity].
“If you talk to any conventional ag plant breeder,” he continued, “the first thing they will tell you is that your tool chest as a breeder is what is referred to as your IBL, which just stands for inbred lines. With the phenomena I just referred to – heterosis, hybrid vigor, or an F1 hybrid seed – there are downfalls to inbreeding – you start to lose vigor and have mutation – but the upside is that you get uniformity with every seed smelling and looking the same, the cannabinoid [profile] the same. You inbreed and inbreed and inbreed until you start to have these deleterious effects, and that’s when you’ve reached a magic place in the genome. Now, when you hybridize that with something else that is also a highly inbred line, you create a true breeding F1 hybrid. So, on a seed pack you might order online or get from a dispensary, often it’ll say F1 or F2, but that is not the real nomenclature.”
Pennington believes the error is one of ignorance rather than deceit. “Most cannabis breeders don’t understand what a real F1 refers to. If you read the terminology, an F1 refers to the first crossing of two unique cultivars together. The idea is that you know they’re going to produce something amazing because you’ve tried them before, but the reality is that almost every single cannabis breeder out there is taking what’s called a poly-hybrid – which I liken to dog breeding. Mutts are some of the best dogs ever – I had a mutt that was my favorite dog of all time, smart, healthy – but whether that mutt mates with another mutt or with a purebred German shorthair, it’s going to produce a litter of mutts, and they’re going to run the gamut. It’s not breeding. Breeding is making something that’s reproducible, like a science experiment, where you’re able to do it 10 times over with the same methodology and the same ingredients and get the same results.”
HSC is getting those results, added Pennington. “One of the ways that we’re creating these incredibly highly inbred lines is the same the way all sweet corn that we eat today was created, by inbreeding two corn varieties to the point at which they were just horrible, awful, mutated plants, and then bringing them together. That concept is the core of all breeding for conventional ag, and it takes time. Often, it takes nine generations of selective inbreeding to create a true inbred line, and essentially there are very, very, very few cannabis breeders that are putting any energy into that kind of effort at all.”
The Inevitable Ubiquity of Autoflowering Cannabis Plants
The seed market on Humboldt Seed Company’s website contains four basic categories: regular feminized, auto flower, hemp, and CBD. I asked about the consistency of those categories and whether auto flowering will become ubiquitous. “I’m confident enough to say this and I think there are enough of us that are deep enough into this industry and have seen the way things have worked that they’ll understand why I’m saying this,” he began. “I think sometimes I kind of shy away from saying it because a lot of people think that it just comes from some stupidity of ours or mine, but after having a long career in science and in genetics and in plant breeding, starting with fisheries biology, ironically enough, I’ve learned that traits are not static in a genome and they don’t need to carry baggage with them.
“People think autoflower and they liken it to the first time they ever saw an autoflower plant,” he continued. “15 years ago, when that subspecies was brought into the cannabis space, it wasn’t as attractive as its Indica and Sativa counterparts, which came from unique places in the world – Siberia, the Northeast Asian plateau, southern Russia – but the plasticity of that [autoflower] trait essentially being able to be cut and pasted into our modern cultivars that we’ve developed these love affairs with, makes it so that you’re not really losing anything. And with that gain of 25 percent efficiency, not having to use light deprivation, if you’re an indoor grower, now you don’t need to design your [grow] to accommodate two completely different heating, lighting, and air conditioning cycles. Normally, you have the vegetative period where often you need to cool the grow room, which is very different from when you’re on a 12 and 12 hour [cycle] and you have to change everything, and the plants are not able to photosynthesize for half of the day, whereas with an autoflower, the ideal light cycle is anywhere from 20 [hours] – it’s nice to turn the lights off for a few hours. Often people will have the lights off for two hours in a 24-hour period, or for three hours, or something like that, but you don’t really have to change much and you don’t have to change your HVAC. It’s only for an hour or two that there’s a change, and your plant is so much more efficient, your flowers are so much bigger and so much denser if they’re able to photosynthesize for 20 to 23 hours a day.”
I asked about yield and whether autos produce enough for commercial cultivators. “So, there’s something called harvest index that’s often in conventional ag,” he replied. “If you’re looking at something like broccoli, let’s say, and you’re a broccoli breeder, your harvest index is how much of the overall broccoli plant you’re growing on your farm that is the part that you’re selling at the market. So, in broccoli, it would be the head and then those little leaves that they often leave on. With cannabis, the worst harvest index you can have often comes from the bigger, taller plants, because you’ve put on all this mass underneath the plant that is just stem and leaf, and it’s doing you no good in the marketplace. The best harvest index would often come from an autoflower, because you’re raising your efficiency, you’re getting more dense bud because you’re able to flower and photosynthesize for 20 to 23 hours a day. And if you’re doing it outdoors, it’s the same, you would have 18 hours a day, but you’re still making much more efficient plants.”
What about terpene and resin production in autoflowers, all the good things that put the concierge in cannabis. “So, that’s the thing,” responded Pennington. “It’s been amazing since we undertook the process of turning photoperiod-type plants, which is what we’re used to – plants that are the opposite of autoflowering plants, that flower when the fall comes, and are what cannabis growers, especially in the United States, have been used to growing forever. Those photoperiod plants are where our common sort of hyped-up strains have tended to come from, and that’s fine, with some of our most popular varieties – Vanilla Frosting, Blueberry Muffin, Caramel Cream, plus some new things – and it’s taken us about five generations on average to turn them into autoflowers, and we’re not seeing any baggage, nothing deleterious from the autoflowers, and it’s more and more so, because the more we breed within autoflower and the more that we create autoflower that is similar to conventional popular cannabis types, the easier it is to move something from [one category to the other]. If our Vanilla Frosting is popular, and one of our new strains, say the Humboldt Pound Cake, is crossed, you save time now that you’ve already got some of your stock into the autoflower subspecies. It’s just much easier to then be creative within the subspecies.”
Another benefit is that the autoflower does not seem to have anywhere near the propensity to hermaphrodite. “Our studies are now showing that between 80 to 90 percent of the time, when you have hermaphrodite issues, it’s related to the change in life cycle, because often it’s done artificially,” he said.
Thus far, added Pennington, all the work is paying off. “We have gotten kind of a reputation of being the seed company that