Seedsman Blog

Interview with a Breeder: Humboldt Seed Company

Cannasseurs have long sought out and treasured cannabis genetics derived from Humboldt County – a county situated in the heart of Northern California’s legendary ‘Emerald Triangle’. For over 60 years this region has been one of the most important places in the world for cannabis breeding and propagation, and Humboldt cannabis is widely considered some of the finest in the world. The Humboldt Seed Company is one of the most reliable and environmentally responsible seed companies from this region. Their mission is to build upon the generations of cannabis breeding expertise that exists there to create the best possible cannabis seeds and clones, in the most sustainable way, to support home growers and commercial cultivators.

We sat down with the founder and co-founder of the Humboldt Seed Company, Nathaniel Pennington and Ben Lind, to learn about their journey with cannabis – the highs, the lows and what’s to come…

How did you both get into breeding cannabis?

Ben Lind, Co-Founder & CAO: I watched my aunt and uncle when I was growing up. They would hand me a bag with seeds, and I understood, even as a young child, that this tiny, hard little seed is so important. My aunt and uncle saved seeds out of necessity. Back then there was no easy access to clones like we have today. My aunt would hide the seeds in the Amish cornfields up in the Appalachian Mountains. She would tuck them in between the corn plants. It was a pretty cool way to grow up. Watching it all unfold during that time period.

I met Nat at the Forks of Salmon Harvest Bazaar up in Humboldt. We shared similar backgrounds and work ethics. I ended up helping him with a harvest, and we just hit it off. I have a degree in environmental geology and Nat’s background is in biology, so we really understood each other, and both have a very science-based approach to our work in breeding. I’ve done a lot of environmental work in Mongolia, and Nat is passionate about the environmental projects he’s been involved with up on the Klamath River in Humboldt County. We have in some sense had parallel experiences, in terms of learning from our elders and then applying modern science to both save and create unique genetics.

Nathaniel Penington, Founder & CEO: I’ve been breeding cannabis and working on river restoration in Humboldt County for the past 20 years. Prior to founding Humboldt Seed Company in 2001, I worked in Salmon genomics. This really gave me the background to understand the need for unbiased cannabis genomics research. It’s important to me to be able to provide cannabis genetics to the community that are strong, and that don’t require the use of pesticides or fungicides. Living on the river, and having a background in biology, it’s clear to me that the way forward is creating varietals that are suited to specific bioregions, and that are resilient enough to produce high yields with minimum inputs.

I enjoy being involved with the local community, and see that involvement as essential from a stewardship perspective. I’ve founded several non-profit organizations through the years, most recently Nature Rights Council, an environmental organization led by Humboldt’s indigenous youth. I also worked extensively on the negotiations that led to the agreement to remove four dams that blocked salmon runs on the Klamath River, thought to be the largest river restoration project in the world. Ben and I have similar backgrounds and both have a real reverence for the history that has brought the cannabis industry to where it is today. I think that, and our shared enthusiasm for using science-based methodologies to both preserve the heirloom strains and
create the strains of the future are what makes us a good team.

I think creative breeding is what will keep the craft market relevant and competitive in the future. Invigorating the craft market, and creating medicinally stable seed lines are two of our main objectives as we grow the company.

Courtesy of HSC

How have you seen things change in this domain over time?

It used to be that you could only really grow your 6-36 plants, so everyone just wanted to grow the largest plants possible. Nowadays we have really moved into growing for vigour, and not just size. Breeding has become more specialised. We are targeting for the specific cannabinoids and terpene profiles in our breeding efforts much more seriously.

What are the best improvements that you have seen in cannabis breeding over the years

The increase in stability, definitely. The fact that you can now grow 100 seeds, and every plant comes out exactly the same is a real game changer.

What are the major challenges you have encountered along the way?

Prohibition! The cops coming and telling you to cut it all down. We’ve overcome a lot in this industry, and it has matured and come a long way. Now that we’ve made some progress on the legalization, and business fronts, we are grappling with how to prevent the loss of the many amazing heirloom genetics, and also the scarcity of new and novel genetics. Simultaneously preserving the old and creating the new is the challenge of the moment.

What have been your major successes?

Surviving and continuing to operate as a legal cannabis company in California. Having the opportunity to work with folks in Jamaica to help preserve what is left today of the original heirloom island strains. Working with growers down in Columbia. The Punta Roja and Panama Red strains they gifted us served as the foundational genetics for some of the varietals we are working on today. The rare cannabinoids we discovered in South Africa, CBDz and THCv will go into continuing our work on creating new strains using landrace-based foundational genetics. We also feel very fortunate to be able to grow the company without needing to take on any outside investors. This really allows us to make decisions based on what feels right to us and to really stay true to our mission of creating the best possible seeds, and distributing them widely to both backyard growers and commercial growers.

What is your vision for the next ten years of breeding? What do you hope to see and what are you excited by?

We are excited about all the new research we are getting to do now that prohibition has been lifted. Being able to do real foundational science and study the different properties in a methodical way that we can track and share is pretty cool. Also getting to be open about it and have discussions with others all over the world and learn from each other is great. It’s nice to see the international cannabis community being brought together more and more. California is kind of a hub for that in many respects. We hope to see the normalization of cannabis continue and we hope more research into the benefits gets done as quickly as possible so people everywhere can enjoy the many benefits. Hopefully this wave of momentum sweeping the globe picks up steam and just keeps going.

Everyone talks about the importance of good seed genetics – what do you consider the principle markers for good genetics? What traits are you breeding for?

In terms of traits, we are really considering all of them in our breeding. Every little thing gets looked at. Stability is key. It needs to be stable so that every plant is the same, has high vigour, is free of genetic disorders, and is free of disease.

An example of an interesting trait we are currently breeding for in a new release for next season is our Transkei Red inspired varietal. This high THCv strain is known as “skinny weed” and has an appetite suppressing effect. This could be useful for people looking to lose weight, without negative side effects. It also produces a nice, uplifting easy feeling which is great as well.

Have yours and other people’s definition of what makes good cannabis genetics changed since you began breeding, and if so how?

It has become much more specific than it used to be. It went from ‘how stoned can I get?’ – to ‘what kind of stoned can I get?’ People are looking for a specific, more curated experience.

How do you know when you have hit upon a winner?

When you grow 10,000 seeds and bring a group of experts out for a pheno hunt and at the end of the day they all gather around 1 special plant, you know you’re onto something. You know you’ve found the unicorn. We bring together dispensary owners, farmers, nursery proprietors, avid consumers, geneticists, laboratory owners and technicians, and experts in bioinformatics. We even had world-famous Reggae music artists, the original experts. This kind of diversity and experience helps us to identify the very best of the best.

10. What do you not want to do when breeding? Can you tell us about a significant mistake you have made, or something you regret doing.

Ben Lind: I regret not keeping the seeds from my childhood days. My family’s genetics were pretty unique. I was young. I couldn’t see it as clearly as I see it now.

What are your favourite three strains you have produced and why?

1- All Gas : It gives a super strong physiological reaction. Your nose runs. You begin to salivate. It’s good for sleep and appetite stimulation. A lot of people say it smells like roast beef.

2- Blueberry Muffin : It’s so unique. You walk into the breeding chamber and it really smells like you just walked into the kitchen and the muffins just came out of the oven. It’s really weird and special.

Credit: Cannagraphics

3- Vanilla Cream Pie : Super gassy and it tests really high. THC in the 20s. It checks all the boxes. Super dependable to grow and has that loud smell. The California large-scale growers will be excited about this one.

What would you consider a good entry level strain for someone to try, and why?

Apricot Papaya would be a nice and easy one to start out with, or maybe Blueberry Muffin . Apricot Papaya is light and fruity with an uplifting, euphoric kind of high. It’s great for being active, going for a hike or hanging out with friends. It’s approachable, easy to grow, and finishes early. Blueberry Muffin is on the other end of the spectrum with more sedative properties, better for watching a movie.

Can you explain genetic stability, how you achieve it and why it matters?

It’s important to have every plant be the same, and as a grower to know exactly what you’re getting. The marketplace is competitive these days. You can’t be ending up with a handful of plants that are nothing like what you expected, after putting in considerable time, money , and effort. We have a very clear methodical approach when breeding for a new varietal. We identify exactly what we want, and then set up strict criteria that are adhered to throughout the breeding process. We then employ a multi-year or grow cycle approach to stabilize the genetics.

There has been a discussion on our blog about genetic instability contributing towards the more negative or unwanted effects of cannabis such as anxiety and paranoia. What do you think about this?

Everyone’s experience is uniquely their own, but with that said we are definitely focused on creating strains that don’t illicit negative effects such as anxiety or paranoia. It’s really important to us to create something that is enjoyable, and to target the positive effects and minimize the negative effects. Careful, consistent breeding can address this problem. If you have instability you don’t know what you are going to get from plant to plant.

If you were to start breeding all over again knowing what you know now, how would you do things differently?

Ben Lind: I would have paid a lot more attention to the underdogs. The strains now lost and forgotten. I crossed paths with some truly unique genetics along the way, but was too young and inexperienced to realize it. If I could go back I would meticulously save them all! My uncle used to grow this variety that smelled like roses. It was very special. I wish I had that now. My aunt also had this one strain that was pure lemon & lime soda. It gave you a hilarious, silly feeling and was roughly 8% THC.

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