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As a teenager, Nathaniel Pennington was an avid cannabis consumer. He grew up on the east coast, and cannabis was everywhere. But for all the warnings and hype attacking the plant, he didn't see cannabis as the monster everyone was making it out to be.
When Pennington turned 18, he moved to Humboldt, California, just in time to vote for Proposition 215. It was his first time voting and the beginning of medical cannabis in the United States. He soon started growing his own cannabis with friends and mentors; little did he know that breeding cannabis would become more than an interest or hobby but his entire existence.
Pennington's seed-growing skills stemmed from a need to be self-reliant. He didn't want to worry about where he could find next year's seeds. In 2001, he acquired a seed company business license and founded Humbolt Seed Company. Given his experience in cannabis, Pennington believed his background would put him ahead of other competitors coming into the market from other crops. Cannabis is unique and, as many have found out, doesn't behave like traditional crops.
When Humbolt Seed first started, clones were en vogue, but Pennington felt seeds grow better than clones. For example, they have a taproot, and Pennington says a plant grown from a seed is much less likely to have pests, pathogens or viruses — they grow healthier plants.
Lately, seeds that autoflower are becoming more popular. In autoflower seeds, flowering isn't triggered by sunlight or grow lights. Instead, the plant will have finished buds within three months; all you have to do is plant the seed.
Pennington sees a bright future in autoflower seeds, but the industry sometimes falls victim to misconceptions over the autoflower trait. For example, people don't understand that autoflower is a trait achieved through good breeding practices. Pennington says that a clone autoflower will flower out if you try to keep it longer than three months.
"If we stay the course with simple clone lines, we're missing a lot of what cannabis has to offer," Pennington says. Breeding creates new cannabinoid and terpene combinations, as well as new and unique ways to use cannabis. Much work is being done in the genome that is only achievable with DNA combining and splicing.
When Pennington started his seed business, he didn't want to scale too fast. At first, it was a delicate dance of just being bold enough to avoid any run-ins with the law. As a result, the company grew organically for the first 15 years.
In 2016, when Proposition 64 legalized recreational use in California, Pennington was initially disappointed with how the industry played out. He hoped the law would remain true to promises made to help foster small businesses. While many small businesses faltered and large companies emerged, Humboldt Seed scaled (everyone needed seeds) and eventually became the largest licensed seed company in California.
The company recently signed partnerships with licensed companies in Oklahoma and Oregon to ramp up seed production in other markets. The company also has a partnership in Canada, where it produced the world's first certified-organic feminized cannabis seeds that are now exported from the country.
Seed production involves years of creating purebred cannabis and using the lines to make consistent hybrids. Perfecting pure lines without any genetic drift can take years, but Pennington will continue to push seed technology.
Life at the head of the largest licensed seed company hasn't been glamorous; Pennington says it's been a years-long grind of serious effort and bold choices. Though, he admits that he may have had a little luck along the way.
The seed side of cannabis isn't often thought of as a lucrative venture, but Pennington still enjoys it. His company bootstrapped itself into existence for a long time, and in the process, the pioneers carved out a nice niche with a solid reputation.
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