Standing apart as a cannabis brand in today’s competitive marketplace is no easy task. With retail shelf space at a premium, it’s increasingly important for companies to offer unique products that keep customers coming back for more.
That’s why Nathaniel “Nat” Pennington started Humboldt Seed Company (HSC) in 2001. Reputed today as a world-class hub for rare cannabis genetics, the company’s deep roots stretch back to the dawn of California’s Prop. 215.
From its origins breeding cannabis for medical marijuana patients, HSC would eventually evolve to embrace the state’s recreational industry in 2018.
But these days, the company’s award-winning exotic strains and fresh phenotypes aren’t the only things making the operation a rare wonder of the industry.
Perhaps the most unique thing about HSC is the person studying to take over for Nat one day: his daughter, Halle Pennington.
Speaking by phone from their offices in Humboldt, the two acknowledged they might just be the only prominent father-daughter combo working side-by-side in legal cannabis today.
An Uncommon Occurrence
“For someone like my dad to bring me [in] and introduce me to this industry is a major, major privilege,” Halle said, while also pointing to the historic gender disparities that continue to plague the industry at large.
“I feel that a lot of the time, women are not taken seriously in this industry, so having my dad’s knowledge and the respect that comes with that has provided me with this amazing opportunity to become one of the first women to make a serious push into the breeding realm.”
Halle shared that it wasn’t until a recent trip to Spain, where she and her father represented Humboldt Seed Co. at the annual Spannabis conference, that she fully appreciated just how rare it is to see a woman in her role — though hopefully, it won’t stay that way for long.
“I’m really glad that my dad has never been afraid to throw me into anything,” she added, “because I’ve enjoyed getting to experience every aspect of the company.”
On the Hunt
As a business focused on the future of novel cannabis strain development, the apex of Nat and Halle’s work comes in the form of their yearly phenotype hunts.
Incorporating analysis of thousands of unique seedlings in all life stages, these phenotype hunts provide a long overdue opportunity to conduct scientifically guided searches for new and exciting cannabis genetics.
Thanks to a fortunate confluence of timing and interest, Halle became of legal age to work alongside her father — on hunts and in the industry at large — just as California’s Prop. 64 was ushering in legal cannabis across the state.
As a result, Halle, 27, has enjoyed what amounts to a dream apprenticeship in comprehensive cannabis genetics selection.
Of course, staying afloat in an industry suffering from sluggish sales and overproduction comes with plenty of challenges. Regardless, Halle’s inherited a palpable enthusiasm for cannabis breeding for someone who has seen the market rise and fall countless times already over the decades.
The Essence of Innovation
Today she works by Nat’s side as HSC’s product executive, where she’s helped to oversee the launch of a new line of Scratch-N-Sniff cannabis packaging featuring actual terpene extractions.
“It’s funny,” Nat shared, “because when we first tried this, people rolled their eyes. Of course, there’s been cannabis scratch-and-sniffs for ages, but with synthetics, like what you’d find in MAD Magazine.
But here, we went and picked out the plants to process for the packaging, so you have, for example, genuine Blueberry Muffin terpenes that allow you to experience its real essence.”
Following a debut at December’s Emerald Cup in Santa Rosa, Nat and Halle subsequently launched the idea in the EU this spring. “It was great,” Nat said of their time in Spain.
“Last year was smaller scale because of [COVID-19], but this year was the full experience. It was packed and it was awesome!”
The two were there to talk more about their scratch-and-sniff packaging, which utilizes terpenes extracted from specific batches of cannabis to provide a legitimate aromatic sample of a given strain.
The idea behind the innovation is basic if badly needed in the face of restrictive regulations: it gives customers the chance to smell a strain before committing to buying it.
Smells Like Success
Currently available in select California markets on packaging for Burr’s Place and One Straw Farm, the initial line of strains available for scratch and sniff previews include perennially popular HSC options like Orange Creampop, Nutter Budder, and Blueberry Muffin.
To create this packaging, farmers will need to sacrifice a small percentage of a strain’s yield, though the potential for long-term gains like customer loyalty, recognizable products, and increasing the public’s understanding of cannabis science offer plenty in return.
It’s all part of HSC’s work to bridge the gap between world-class cultivars and the end user.
It’s a duty Halle considers herself lucky to fulfill, though she has more than earned her responsibilities as a second-generation legacy farmer turned co-innovator for one of California’s most respected cannabis genetic brands.
With the gorgeous lands of Humboldt serving as her extended backyard, Halle shared that she’s frequently overcome with gratitude for what she’s able to do for a living.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” she said.
“I feel like pinching myself, just to be sure that this is all really happening. Going to places like Spain and having a plethora of customers come up to us to share their stories and experiences with our genetics warmed my heart. Our mindset is that we’re going to do the right thing, no matter how much hard work it takes, because we’re doing what we love.”
“This industry is very much a boys’ club,” Nat added, “so it feels good to be able to buck that trend a little bit.” Next up is a long-awaited return to a familiar adventure: pheno-hunting.
Following several years of scaled-back ambitions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the father-daughter team is chomping at the bit to get back to what they love best.
“Doing something larger scale is always very exciting for us,” Halle said. “It’ll be another big year and another big hunt for unicorns!”
This article first appeared in Volume 5 Issue 1 of Cannabis & Tech Today. Read the full issue here.