In the world of cannabis, much like that of politics, too many males in the field can ruin a whole harvest. For growers who use clones, it’s easy to ensure that the plants you are growing are female, but for those planting from seed it can be trickier.
“A cannabis seed just looks like a seed, but what’s inside it is unbelievably important: the genetics that will guide the life and production of the plant,” says Humboldt Seed Company CEO Nathaniel Pennington.
Large-scale producers of hemp or marijuana who use seeds for propagation often have to trust that seed suppliers are honest and the seeds are all truly feminized. But that’s not always the case.
“There was massive issue with hemp in 2019 and it led to just devastating losses for a lot of family farms, particularly in Oregon,” Pennington says.
This year, Humboldt Seed Company became the first seed company to carry the LeafWorks Feminized Seal, guaranteeing that the seeds in the bag are, in fact, females. LeafWorks is a botanical identification company working in the cannabis space that offers third-party verification.
“We have a huge issue with fraud in botanicals in the global supply chain, so having correct identification is important, especially when talking about high-value plants,” says LeafWorks CEO and co-founder Eleanor Kuntz, adding that last year there was litigation filed over seeds that contained a large percentage of males or were accidentally fertilized. “LeafWorks offers feminization and we’re working with Nat’s organization to certify all of his feminized seeds, so that everyone knows what they are getting.”
The collaboration is the product of a years-long friendship between the two CEOs of the Northern California companies. Marijuana Venture spoke to them about the collaboration, the future of seeds and the importance of protecting genetics.
Marijuana Venture: Why is it so important to certify that seeds are feminized?
Elanor Kuntz: It’s important for two different reasons. As a seller you really want to be representing the quality of your product and you want to be able to say you are producing a feminized seed and truly giving your consumers that product. And on the consumer side, you really want to know it’s feminized because that’s going to dictate your entire farming practice: how you’re going to sow your seed, how you’re going to treat your crops, the scale you’re going to grow at. So it’s really in your best interest that you are getting what you think you are getting.
MV: Are you seeing a shift of more cultivators using seed as their means of propagation?
Nathaniel Pennington: We’re seeing more and more that the way cannabis has been propagated often in the last 15-20 years is through cuttings or clones, and there are certain advantages to clones, but there are certain advantages to propagating through seed. One of the main disadvantages of clones is the passing of diseases and pests from cultivator to cultivator. It’s a much better way for pests and pathogens to travel because you are taking a host that an insect or a virus can live on and moving it from place to place constantly.
At the end of the day there is no easier, efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to propagate plants than how nature intended, via seed. It’s the perfect germplasm that 99% of the time will be free of pests and diseases. And it’s so much more efficient. Even hemp and larger scale cannabis production has shifted to using seed rather than clone.
One thing we’ve really identified as a goal for our company is to produce a uniform product for people. If you’re a tomato farmer and you want to plant a field of cherry tomatoes — you know they’re all cherry tomatoes. I think that’s where we’re headed with cannabis and I think having a third-party group that can certify all these different factors about this seed is unbelievable valuable.
EK: It’s been really interesting to see that transition to seed. I’m a huge fan of seeds. I’m really interested to see how it shifts the dynamic of agriculture in this country with respect to hemp and cannabis. Clones have all kinds of good attributes, but they are really high maintenance and they have an environmental impact in a way that a seed doesn’t.
To keep a clone alive is a much larger imprint of resources. When you get good quality seeds that are suited to your environment, they flourish and they’re much less needy. So that’s a good thing for the farmer and the environment.
MV: What do you mean when you talk about putting the right plant in the right environment?
EK: I think if you look at trends in agriculture, farmers want plants that work well in their environment. And our environments are so varied. Certain genetics and certain seeds and certain plants are really going to do better in certain areas and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s one of the aspects of cannabis that’s interesting and unique and different.
With cannabis, I think that’s not only true with the environment in which those seeds are going to grow, but also in their interaction with the humans they are going to serve as medicine to. Taking a look at the phytochemistry and the terpenes and then also looking at how the plant interacts with the environment and making plants that are suited to specific needs and specific environments.
NP: We at Humboldt Seed Company are really focused on two things: developing new and exciting types of cannabis that interact well in different ways with humans, and helping not only the farmers, but people in general be able to grow good, clean cannabis and grow it efficiently.
MV: How can smaller growers, in particular, and the market, in general, benefit from creative genetics and breeding?
NP: Particularly for the mid-size or small cannabis venture, I think that they need a way to differentiate themselves. And while I feel like growing from seed is not enough to differentiate yourself, the capability of working with craft breeders or creative, inventive breeding companies allows those farms to essentially have not just a commodity product.
I think a way for a small farm is to have different strains, different flavors and people will kind of home in on those the way folks homed in on the IPAs of the world. I definitely feel like cannabis is headed that direction.
EK: I think it’s actually more important for the small farmer to have a connection to their genetics in that way. One of the services we really aim to offer to the community is the ability to convey to their market the uniqueness of their product and really call out the strain or the cultivar that they’re growing. I think that’s really important, and I agree about having some different plants that really are unique and special to your area or your farm.
MV: How can farmers and breeders protect their intellectual property?
EK: If farmers have unique plants, one of the services LeafWorks offers is our cultivar registration program. We make a physical copy of that plant, and then we work to document its physical attributes with the farmer, just like if you found a new species or created a new cultivar of apple. And then we also work to link that physical plant to a genetic profile so those individuals that have a unique plant can claim that IP for themselves and their farm.
NP: As an example, about 10 years ago we developed a strain called Blueberry Muffin. We had made a cross of some varieties we had been working with and magically this phenotype came out that smelled just like a blueberry muffin. It was uncanny. It was the product of a lot of work, but we just wanted to share it. But something like what LeafWorks is doing can be a great balance because you are keeping the credit, because if there’s no credit then why do this work?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.