Does the “designer cannabis market” exist? If you know where to look, the answer is yes. Halle Pennington, Product Executive at the award-winning and world-famous Humboldt Seed Company, is a second-generation breeder who grew up learning to identify the most unique plant genetics in California’s cannabis production hub, the Emerald Triangle. Rare flower crosses ignite her imagination, and every year, the best cultivars from a Humboldt Seed pheno hunt are the reward for a long but exciting adventure. Those strains also set the trends for what cannabis consumers need to experience.
What Is Humbold Seed Company's World's Largest Phenotype Hunt?
Founded in 2001 by two biologists, Ben Lind and Halle’s father Nathaniel Pennington, Humboldt Seed has a rich legacy of breeding quality cannabis with a commitment to “unparalleled excellence.” The company made history in 2018 with what was called the World’s Largest Phenotype Hunt, a groundbreaking collaborative effort that brought experts on an extended tour of the brand’s partner farms to seek out the highest-rated and most interesting flower clones. In October 2023, the Humboldt Seed team expanded on that success with a New World’s Largest Phenotype Hunt, inviting colleagues, academics, and press in a group of over 100 participants to join in the process of identifying stunning cultivars.
“Eight full days of pheno hunting,” Halle Pennington describes. A pheno hunt – the method by which breeders select their next strains to bring to market – is always important. But a process on this scale allowed Humboldt Seed and its partners to conduct a crucial sort of focus testing before the product has even been refined. For cannabis connoisseurs, this is likely the wave of the future.
“We took all of the attendees to numerous farms in central and northern California,” Pennington says. “It was super fun for us to showcase what we normally do behind the scenes. [The pheno hunt] is a really special part of our process, and to us it’s all about the numbers. Some people think hunting through 10,000 plants is a little crazy, [but] it just makes so much more sense to do it in that environment and see what it turns out with the basic setup that you could ideally give your plant. If it’s still thriving in a gorgeous field where it’s fed some simple nutrients and has the sun and water, then once you’re putting it into one of these curated, highly specialized [indoor] environments… that potential is going to be even greater.”
The goal is to consistently hone in on outstanding strains, curating down from the 10,000 samples to 100 or fewer winners that will then go through a more rigorous process of trials in Humboldt Seed’s indoor cultivation. That second step can take months, sometimes a year or more. This is why certain seed / flower drops that seem new to consumers have actually been in a holding pattern of testing since the previous season.
Humboldt Seed Company's New-For-2024 Strain Drops: Orange Creampop And Granny Candy
Two of Humboldt Seed’s strains recently released for 2024, Orange Creampop and Granny Candy, have been in development for a while. “We’re pre-releasing them as clone lines to our trusted R&D partners like Terp Mansion and Ridgeline Farms,” Pennington states. “Some of the things we pheno hunted this year are from stock we held onto from our initial selections last season. Both [Orange Creampop and Granny Candy] are ones that we’ve been getting really excited about for a year and a half now.”
Strain enthusiasts will find both gems now available, having dropped January 1st. Orange Creampop is a Hella Jelly x Orange Creamsicle cross initially harvested with Burr’s Place in Calaveras, California, and finessed by Humboldt Seed’s collaboration with Casa Flor. Granny Candy, lovingly noted by the geneticists as “a unicorn,” came from the Cannabis Cup-winning Errl Hill Extracts, the proprietors of Fire Mountain Farms. The Mountaintop Mint x W. Runtz Muffin descendant became a staple as Humboldt Seed worked with Lucas Sanders of Terp Mansion to refine it into the “belle of the ball.”
Other cultivars from this fall’s World’s Largest Phenotype Hunt will be coming soon throughout the year. For Pennington, it’s just another reminder of how powerful the system of rooting out great strains really is – full of surprises and falling somewhere between science and magic.
Humboldt Seed Company Product Executive Halle Pennington Shares Insights From The World's Largest Phenotype Hunt
While Honeysuckle was privileged to get some up-close-and-personal time with the Humboldt Seed team on the pheno hunt itself, we also caught up with Pennington after the experience for her insights into the latest evolutions in cannabis genetics.
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: From a breeder’s perspective, walk us through the important steps taken in a pheno hunt.
HALLE PENNINGTON: It’s an all-around process. The background is that, prior to things fully going into flower, there’s a few weeks where they’re transitioning into flower. So I’ll go around and take one or two cuttings off each plant. The goal is to have at least one living cutting from each plant by the time we go back and revisit. What we’re doing is getting this data in and then letting our nursery crew know, “You can kill of these ones or pot up these ones right away.” We’re taking those genetics that we already have preserved in our nursery, and from there we’ll do flower samples from each plant in the field, so we’re simultaneously collecting this flower sample and [potting] up the clone in the nursery.
Our second point of analysis is taking the lot of winners from all eight farms, generally 100-200 specimens, and then narrowing that down with testing. Say only 30 to 40 percent [of the flower samples] are actually testing up to our standard as far as terpenes and THC go, so then it limits our winning circle to maybe 80. From those 80, we’ll take a couple clones off of each plant and immediately start trialing them in light [deprivation], indoor rooms, and any environment that we see fit for testing. That’s when we start to get down to the nitty-gritty, and we’re doing the smoke tests that come out of those environments. It usually takes about a year to come to a solid conclusion. What we’re doing is going from 15,000 plants to a couple hundred winners, to 80, to our top 10 or 20 at the most.
And the World’s Largest Phenotype Hunt defines that first step of culling down the 10,000 to 15,000 plants?
There’s a lot more that happens behind the scenes following the big hunt, but that’s the most fast-paced. You’re really getting to lay eyes on everything. You’re seeing all these beautiful new farms with these very diverse little microclimates, which is something that we love to be able to experience. We’re one of the world’s biggest feminized seed distributors, so that means we constantly have people interested in what the results are going to be in different environments. And that's one of the special things about breeding at Humboldt. It's a place of many diverse microclimates, and sometimes that can be frustrating, but for us, when we're trying to experiment with things that are going to be successful all across the globe, it definitely can be helpful.
Terroir has a significant impact on growing cannabis. So if you’re taking plants from outdoor cultivation to indoor, how does that affect the flower as you develop it for testing?
Yeah, it’s hit or miss sometimes, but we find generally we’ll have very similar physical representations. The main differences are in things like THC production and terpene profiles, [which] can change very easily based on environment. But in all eight locations we’re hunting through a lot of repeater lines, so we’re looking at everything at least three times in different places. Not every single farmer is getting their own brand-new fresh cross… Some seed companies will release a “BX1” or “F1” seed line, which means that it’s a brand-new fresh cross.
[I compare it to] having a pug and a poodle, and then in your first initial litter of puppies, there’s going to be a lot of variance in the physical expression of those dogs. But then you breed and select in for the traits you’re looking for. That’s where you get hybrid crosses of different dogs. For us, we’re at the point where we’re never going to be releasing something that’s such a brand new cross that you’re going to have extreme variances to the public or to our bulk farmers. We save all of our BX1s, BX2s, F1s, F2s, and we call those pheno hunter lines. We have about 5 or 10 that we look into every single year that are repeated throughout these different farms in different microclimates, and we keep them in mind as we’re dishing them out at the beginning of the year too. So if we have one guy that’s [in] low elevation with a lot of warmer weather, and another that’s super high up on the mountain and he deals with colder weather winds, it’s interesting for us to see what the representations are like for both.
Speaking of new ventures, you’re also working on Humboldt Seed Company’s triploid breeding project. How would you explain it to the average consumer?
The easiest way is to say it’s basically the same concept as a seedless watermelon. It’s these additional sets of chromosomes that make [the plant] infertile to pollen from something that would be a diploid species. Then what we saw this year, what we had proven correctly is that we’re seeing a lot of increased vigor and trichome production. Right now we’re waiting for the labs to get back to us with the results, but we’re curious to see if it also might lead to increased cannabinoid production. Higher THC, higher levels of terpene production. There’s a lot of potential to come from them, and we’re still getting to the middle of it all and trying to figure out exactly what this means, but it’s definitely going to be an exciting thing for the world of genetics.
Let’s jump back to the World’s Largest Phenotype Hunt. How do you select your first-round winners?
There are several different factors that we look into. Usually visual factors are the first step, and then we go into testing because there’s just no way we can test 15,000 plants. But we [have rating sheets that we use in the field], and we look into trichome density, bud color, plant structure, mold resistance, and general pest and disease resistance. We’re looking at vigor. And it’s important to say that in an outdoor condition, the plants usually have fewer environmental factors that may cause them to have different… effects. If certain things are done in a light dep, a lot of the time people are going to flip them into flower sooner than you would see outdoors. So [in that case] you’re not seeing the exact structure on that plant.
[For Humboldt Seed] to start clean sweep, as naturally as possible and let the plant do all the work for our initial monitoring, we want to be able to see what it does. If Grandma was to throw it in her tomato garden, would it still produce quality, solid and reliable bud? That’s the goal… We want to make it easy enough for people to grow their own weed without having to worry about getting the fanciest new nutrients and light systems. We encourage things to at least be satisfactory, even in the simplest growing methods. That’s an important place for us to start.
When you do such a large pheno hunt, is there an element of crowdsourcing that happens in the testing?
When we do have such large groups, it generally goes that I will do my data output by looking for something that my dad, Ben, or I have [pre-selected]. Then I go through everyone else’s books, which are the rating sheet booklets. This year we had probably 15 to 20 books out at a time. Then I’ll take our data for the day and put it into my computer, and essentially what I look for from that point on is things that have been selected multiple times by different groups. As long as it has my dad’s notarized stamp of approval first, we can go through and say, “Oh, [pioneering cannabis horticulturalist] Ed Rosenthal picked this one too. That’s a good sign.” We’ll write that down. “[Award-winning cultivator] Jorge Cervantes selected that one.” Then it becomes the game of which one was the overall main selection for the group, and we’ll usually keep the top five.
Has there ever been something that surprised you that made it all the way to the winning rounds?
There are always surprises every year. That’s what keeps it fun, but it can be frustrating. The lab test phase is generally something we hold our breath for, because it’s hard to get too excited over certain selections until you get your results back. We are starting to see newfound interest in terpenes from the consumer bases, and people are starting to ask what the dominant terpenes are on the strains. But it’s still not the first priority. So if we test something that we all thought we were totally in love with and it comes back to us at like 14 percent THC, that might be something worth saving in the arsenal. Maybe we’ll put it in tissue culture and try to fix it one day. But at this point in our breeding careers, we also just know what the people want, and playing that THC game has become pretty relevant.
That’s one of the few things that can be disappointing, if you have soothing you were really getting behind and excited to work with, and then it comes out and you’re like, “Oh, it doesn’t have the market that we were hoping it would.” Of course, we don’t ever want to set our bulk cultivators up for failure either. So when we’re providing them with something to grow and they’re trusting us just based on our expert opinion, we can’t necessarily go, “Here, try this out.”
I do think that there is always going to be demand and room for people to produce things on more of a small batch, niche market than just the average consumer than we’re getting in the market currently. But it’s tricky for us because we only have the capacity to dive into developing so many things at once without overloading ourselves. We’ll do fun new projects, like our CBD release last year – that was one out of five or six releases in the season – but it’s never something we can turn our entire attention to, unfortunately. But for me personally, I’m interested in smaller markets getting into that. Honestly, I’ve been super happy to see things going more in that direction as everyone’s finding their places in the industry. It’s more the authentic cannabis culture that I remember. Because for me, smoking the same weed is like eating the same thing for breakfast every day of your life. If I had to smoke another Ice Cream Cake joint, I might lose my mind.
You’ve already mentioned a couple of the notable industry figures you had at the World’s Largest Phenotype Hunt. Can you tell us more about your time with them?
We had so many role models that I’ve always looked up to in the industry that attended, and that made it extra special for us this year. Two of the first that come to mind, who I’ve mentioned, are Ed Rosenthal and Jorge Cervantes. They have both just produced so many pieces that have shaped the entire world of cannabis and so many people’s careers and passions in growing cannabis. Having them come and be part of the whole experience with us, being able to share the passion for the plant with somebody who has seen so much history in cannabis, was an incredible part of the journey. We had Dr. Machel Emanuel from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica; he is humble but extremely brilliant, and he always provides additional unique perspectives on what we’re doing. Getting all of these people together in a group, especially our geneticist Richard [Philbrook] – who has done a lot of the development of our triploid breeding projects – having all of these authors and scientists and amazing minds experience a journey that was all based on our dedication to cannabis. We’re continuing to share this plant and the culture that comes with it, to the world, in the most authentic way possible.
What was a memorable moment for you during this pheno hunt?
There’s a lot that will probably stay with me for a really long time. But I think one of my favorite moments of all was at the very end of the hunt. I had been complimenting Ed on his super with-the-times bucket hat the entire trip. Like, “Ed, did you know that these are back on trend right now? You’re looking on point today, my friend.” And the whole time, he would tease me back, like “One day, you’ll have one.” Then on the very last day, we all go to pack up and I look on our little table. Ed had just left the hat right there for me. That is something I will definitely cherish forever. Forever. I got to take home Ed Rosenthal’s pheno hunting hat.
For more about Humboldt Seed Company, visit humboldtseedcompany.com.
Find Out More On Social
Featured image: Humboldt Seed Company co-founder/CEO Nathaniel Pennington (left) with his daughter, Product Executive Halle Pennington, at Full Moon Farms in California during the World's Largest Phenotype Hunt (C) Zak Powers, courtesy of Humboldt Seed Company.