Nat Pennington is the founder and CEO of the Humboldt Seed Company. They breed cannabis genetics. They make hundreds of thousands, if not millions of seeds every year for cannabis cultivators all over California and have been slowly branching out into other states and countries as well. Nat moved to Humboldt in 1995 and immediately started getting involved in the cannabis industry. It wasn’t too long and he was actually growing and breeding his own cannabis in Humboldt County.
Throughout the years Nat has raised a family in Humboldt and been involved in local environmental work, primarily with a focus on salmon restoration and fixing rivers, with a real emphasis on salmon genomics for Spring and Fall-run salmon, which recently led to an endangered species act listing. Growing up in New York and Philadelphia, Nat was into counterculture and the Grateful Dead. He toured with the Grateful Dead until Jerry Garcia passed and ended up in Humboldt as an activist to protect the redwoods.
Not long after he moved to Humboldt he voted yes on medical cannabis, Proposition 215 in 1996. Dennis Peron, the author of that voter initiative, was a personal hero of Nat’s. Nat viewed cannabis as a medicine and passed those beliefs on to his daughter Halle, who now works with her dad running the Humboldt Seed Company. Halle grew up in the cannabis culture of Humboldt going on gorilla grows with her dad since she was a baby strapped to his back.
Cannabis Cactus talked to the daddy/daughter duo to find out how they got involved in breeding seeds, what it was like growing cannabis as a family, the jump into legality, how the company has grown, and where they are at today. Here’s what they had to say.
Humboldt is known worldwide as the Mecca of Marijuana, talk about how you got involved breeding seeds?
Nat Pennington: Breeding cannabis was just something that I really started doing just to make sure that I had seeds for the next Spring. It was just like, ‘Hey, if I go and cross this strain and that strain, I’ll have seeds.’ It’s like you’re going to pick the best thing, put the pollen on, and that’s going to produce seeds that are more like the best plant that you had. That’s breeding 101.
While I was doing that I was very involved with the salmon research and biology work. That was a real deep dive into genomics for me. And segueing that work into cannabis breeding was just kind of a no-brainer. It’s been a lot of that, for me, where the activism work that I did for Humboldt’s rivers and in particular salmon being an iconic part of Humboldt’s culture led to a little bit of a better understanding and I think some advantages for us doing cannabis breeding.
I think Humboldt’s got sort of a giving spirit. We’ve got great cannabis and we’re willing to share it with the world as soon as that becomes something that’s not going to put us in federal prison. I think people will respect and appreciate that. And soon we’ll be able to share our flower with people in other parts of the country and other parts of the world. And that’s something to look forward to as well.
What did you think of what your dad was doing while you were growing up?
Halle Pennington: Honestly it took me a while to actually catch onto the reality that we were growing cannabis. For me it was always just a part of our livelihood. My dad was working for our local fisheries department here and he had a regular job and we farmed on the side and had a huge garden and I was that kid that grew up in the tomato patch. I think the first time I really realized it was a drug was when we had one of those school drug talks and they go over cannabis, they show a pot leaf and all this stuff.
I kind of thought it was a big deal for maybe a day. I was like ‘Is my family drug dealers?’ and it was this whole little switcheroo I went through where I was like ‘Oh, no. Are we the bad guys?’ It was kind of scary and I started talking to my friends. I was like ‘I have to tell you guys a secret. My family grows pot.’ And every single one of my friends was like ‘Yes, so does mine.’ After that it went right back to me being like, it’s just another plant. It’s just another garden veggie we have to water every day and that was just kind of the norm.
I got to go on the backpack with him to all the gorilla grows. He would take me up there. We weren’t painting our faces or getting too crazy about anything and I don’t really remember any of that, of course, because I was so young, but he said I was an expert at ducking branches by the time I was eight months old. I’ve gotten to watch a wild evolution in what they now refer to as an industry. So it’s been a trippy ride, but I’ve kind of been by my dad’s side for the whole thing and it’s been amazing to watch the process with him, for sure.
How did the Humboldt Seed Company begin?
Nat Pennington: Breeding cannabis and making seeds for Humboldt Seed Company was something that I actually resisted making money off of it. For quite some time my thing was just, ‘Bring a six pack and we’ll get you your seeds.’ From 1998 to the early 2000s, that was as much as it was. It was people getting together and we’d swap seeds. And folks knew that I was a hub in particular for Northeast Humboldt to have what they needed to get started the next year. And they kind of came to trust that. That was kind of the beginning of Humboldt Seed Company.
I feel like that’s definitely made us a little bit more of something that our local cultivators can rally around. Because I think we’re really obviously not just doing this to get money. And we’re doing it for the county and we’re doing it because we believe in the name Humboldt. We believe in the emerald triangle in general. And we think that we have a ton of knowledge and a ton to offer the cannabis industry. I sometimes don’t like calling it an industry, but it’s turning into one.
Officially I started the company by going down to the local Humboldt County courthouse and getting a business license in 2001. I went up to the counter and I said, I’d like to start a seed company. Is there a Humboldt seed company? And they said, no, we don’t see a Humboldt seed company in the state of California. They were like, what kind of business is it? And I’m like, it’s a seed company. And I didn’t say it’s a cannabis seed company, but we’ve obviously really focused on cannabis and that’s our passion.
What was it like watching your dad grow cannabis and forming this company?
Halle Pennington: By the time I was 8, 9, 10 years old, it definitely got scary and there was constant feeling of ‘Are we going to make it through this season?’ It’s never been a reliable thing to do, it’s farming and that’s just how it is. There’s the weather and there’s all these factors and then on top of that we had CAMP so it was always a risky business. Eventually it got to the point where one time my dog followed my dad up to the gorilla grow and he didn’t know and he came back down and he was like ‘We got to spray paint your dog now.’ He was like ‘They could have game cams on that trail’ and I was like, ‘Dang, this is getting a little scary’.
Then it was like, ‘Wait, hold on. This is a plant, this is normal. It’s fine.’ After that I was down for the cause, whatever we have to do to keep going and we’d hear a helicopter coming or we’d hear our landlord’s car on the driveway and I remember being eight years old and running up the driveway as fast as I could and being like, ‘Dad, we got to get the plants in the woods’ and that was just kind of the life. Not that many people get a chance to cultivate their own medicine. I really started to realize, hey, we’re making medicine here and these seeds, these tiny seeds have the ability to go all over the world and improve so many people’s lives.
I was like ‘This is incredible’ and I got really excited about it. Around the age of 13, I went and painted a logo of a pot leaf with Humboldt Seed Company and I thought I did it super nice. I was like ‘Okay, I’m going to start like advertising. I’m going to start talking about what we’re doing.’ I made a Facebook page. A week later a federal agent contacted my mom. After that stunt, my dad didn’t want to start on Instagram for another three years because he was scared.
Talk about how the company has grown?
Nat Pennington: It certainly has gone beyond Humboldt and the strains that we’ve created have gone across the country. They’ve gone across the world. I feel like that’s a beautiful thing for us to be able to give a piece this amazing thing that we’ve been gifted with to the rest of the world. I always like to give to the indigenous people of Humboldt. This place was shaped by them for many years and the Humboldt Seed Company really has a lot of respect for that and the cultures that came before.
We just feel like our seeds are a way to be able to share those vibes in that culture with people outside of this place. It’s been an honor to be the Humboldt Seed Company. I remember one of the first big events we did, we set up this table, a booth, and a guy walked up and he said, Humboldt Seed Company? You guys got some big boots to fill. And it kind of dawned on me. I was like, holy cow, this is something big that we bit off and can we really chew it?
I think that breeding and cannabis genetics is an interesting thing because it’s something that has happened primarily in closets, in garages and clandestine operations all over the place. It has come an amazingly long way for that being the case, like some of my first breeding happened in a gorilla grow, then eventually we’ve taken it to these sort of fancy breeding chambers that we’ve developed now. We just try to look around and ask people how we’re doing and just keep giving it our best.
What’s it been like working with your dad and running the company with him?
Halle Pennington: Where do I even start? It basically just all happened so fast, almost felt like overnight for me when we actually were finally permitted and the legalization happened, I wasn’t even 21 yet. And so I was trying to sneak into the dispensary shows we would do with my fake ID. And it was a little iffy there for a second, but I still kept myself as thrown in it as I possibly could. And it kind of just took off. One day we were at the farm picking seeds out of bag and handing them to our neighbor and being like, ‘Have fun.’ But it went from a couple of dispensaries and our handful of farmer homies that would come over, to basically expanding across the entire California.
We don’t really know how to run our business as a business. There’s no manual for that. So we kind of just got thrown into it and it’s worked out so far thankfully, but it’s definitely been a chaotic ride. And it’s a lot of guessing. Even for me, when I was setting up our metric, I called them several times and I was like, ‘So how am I supposed to do this for seeds?’ And this whole structure, this whole system is set up for product, for bud. How do you guys want me to keep track of this aspect? And they basically would listen to my suggestion and be like, ‘Yep, that sounds good.’ It was kind of just figuring it out as we were going.
I feel really fortunate to go to work with my dad. Part of my job is just kind of following him wherever he goes and doing what I’m told, but it works out in my favor a lot of the time because I learn something from him every single day. He is an incredible breeder and he really understands the plant and it’s not something you can just learn. It’s a new industry and we’re paving pathways here and so is everyone else in Humboldt, and I think we just all got to keep trucking.
The Cannabis Cactus Magazine has more great interviews.