Halle Pennington, daughter of Humboldt Seed Company founder Nathaniel Pennington, considers herself fortunate to have grown up in Northern California’s famed Emerald Triangle marijuana empire.
The region comprises tens of thousands of square miles of wilderness, forests, and coastline that provide a verdant homeland to several generations of marijuana growers and their families.
People who love marijuana, ancient redwood trees, free-running rivers, and personal freedom started migrating to this rugged remote region in the 1960s, bringing with them landrace cannabis genetics from around the world. They adapted those genetics to the challenging conditions of this sparsely-populated region, creating unique Emerald Triangle cannabis strains. They also adapted their community values to the region’s cannabis economy.
But the Emerald Triangle is now experiencing rapid, unwelcome change due to California cannabis legalization. Long-time black market growers are scrambling to become compliant with strict state and local regs implemented since 2016. To become legal, they have to out themselves to authorities, grow, process and distribute their crops in costly ways that comply with a confusing set of rules, pay exorbitant taxes, and keep meticulous records of their costs and profits.
Legalization has driven down wholesale prices, robbing growers of profits at a time when their business costs increased, and is allowing large-scale vulture capitalist cannabis consortiums to gain increasing control, forcing out small craft cannabis growers who’ve been in the region for decades.
Even worse is that California’s government has floated the idea of increasing the use of military-style raids to attack growers who prefer to stay in the black market. Officials propose continuation and enhancement of the much-hated C.A.M.P. (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) program run by state and federal law enforcement, which has turned Northern California into a drug war zone during summers and harvest seasons for at least 30 years.
Generations of young people have been raised in the Triangle’s marijuana culture, seeing it as a legitimate industry and an extension of the idealism of those who created the region’s cannabis and ecology-based empire. And Halle Pennington is a perfect symbol of the independence, intelligence and empowerment of the younger generation of Emerald Triangle citizens.
Her father Nat is a native species activist who co-leads scientific research to protect the region’s native salmon, rivers, old growth forests, and other natural features. He’s also a cannabis genetics and seed breeding pioneer who long ago recognized that Emerald Triangle breeders have incredible strains found nowhere else in the world, which is why he founded his renowned cannabis seed company in 2001.
Nat’s company offers strains you can’t get anywhere else. But until Halle was almost finished with elementary school, she wasn’t aware her family was into more than just “vegetable gardening.”
“I knew we were farmers, but people referred to cannabis plants as ‘basil.’ My classmates and I finally figured out our families weren’t just veggie farmers and that growing cannabis isn’t an unusual occupation for parents in our area,” she recalls. “In fact, almost everyone in Humboldt is in one way or the other connected to the cannabis industry because it’s an economic engine in our county.”
Female Flowers, Female Cannabis Heroes
Now in her early 20s, Halle’s increasingly important role in Humboldt Seed Company is a sign of the marijuana industry’s ongoing gender role transformation. Until recently, the industry was blatantly sexist, perhaps more so than other industries because it was an outlaw industry that attracted mostly men. Women were seen as “grow wives” or “bud girls” whose involvement in marijuana businesses mostly involved manicuring buds and other mundane chores. Women were also used as sexualized, objectified bodies in marijuana magazine centerfolds and at cannabis industry events.
But times have changed. Halle Pennington is part of a burgeoning cadre of female cannabis entrepreneurs, experts and growers. She’s a member of the Grow Sisters consortium that uses video and other media to promote Northern California’s craft cannabis market. Halle makes and markets craft CBD topicals and other cannabis products via her company Tri-Emerald CBDs.
“In almost every industry, women still struggle to gain sufficient recognition and respect,” Halle says. “The cannabis industry is becoming more and more commercialized, which has mixed effects on gender roles. For example, lots of outside money is being invested into cannabis businesses, so our industry is strongly influenced by the culture of capital markets usually dominated by men. Ironically, at the level of cultivating cannabis, our industry is devoted to the female flower, and other than for breeding, we discard the males!
My dad has been a cannabis breeder for as long as I can remember so I definitely understand creating and maintaining high-quality stabilized seed lines,” Halle continues. “Our discovery and caching of rare seeds actually came before the idea of selling them. But then after years of being on a passionate personal quest to find the most awesome genetics and make new seed lines from them, we decided it was time to share those genetics with the world. I see more cannabis in a year than most people see in a lifetime, but growing up in Humboldt, that’s a regular part of the culture. Our breeding program is based on growing or analyzing at least 20,000 plants per year, so I’ve learned about plant tissue testing, phenotypes, terpenoids, cannabinoids, and what makes a strain a winner.”
Murder Mountain: Sensationalism & Bias
If you’ve watched the Netflix marijuana drama series called Murder Mountain, and that’s all you knew about Halle’s Emerald Triangle home territory, you’d believe she grew up in a lawless backwater run by vicious, greedy black-market marijuana gangsters. Murder Mountain depicts Halle’s homeland as “the Humboldt killing fields”—a place where you endanger your life just by going out in the woods because armed marijuana growers are quick to kill you to protect their crops and identities.
Although the Netflix series is based on the true story of a grisly crime, Halle says the Humboldt County depiction in Murder Mountain is highly sensationalized and rife with bias.
“I grew up seeing our community as my extended family because we all take care of one another. This is a small-town place in the best ways. The grower community has always been a huge portion of our economy, but it’s not based on greed. In fact, most growers are here not for the money, but to preserve the environment and the small-town social feeling that make us close-knit. Growers are generous too. Big donations to local schools and civic organizations often come from growers. I remember selling a pie at an auction for my class trip—for $460,” Halle says. “I never feel in danger on the backroads in Humboldt. Like, I got a flat tire on my way to visit a farm hours up a mountain so remote that there was no cell service. Three different sets of people stopped to help. Some were local growers, and others were trimmigrants. Murder Mountain’s bad vibe isn’t at all the norm here.”
Growing Up in Stoner Paradise
In contrast to Murder Mountain’s dark vision of the region’s cannabis growing industry, Halle says the Emerald Triangle is home to a high percentage of idealistic hippies, environmentalists, survivalists, and spiritual seekers whose lives are governed by ethics, ecology and a spiritual path.
“Growing up in Humboldt County was a blessing. I spent my childhood exploring its magnificent forests, rivers and beaches. My dad does fisheries biology on the Klamath River and other salmon rivers so we spent a lot of time rafting, and hiking up and down riverbanks. We were part of the Un-Dam the Klamath movement, and I’ve always shared the passion my father has for preserving our ecosystems and native species. My parents met because they were both environmental activists. My mom was in Alaska protesting logging when she realized she was pregnant with me. Along with the seeds company, my dad and I run a company called Eco-Flo Rafting doing river rafting trips for local environmental organizations and the forest service so people can conduct biological surveys, and do invasive species removal and general cleanups in areas like Willow Creek, Orleans, and Somes Bar.”
Halle is candid and astute about the effects on children of growing up where marijuana growing and selling are everyday parts of the economy. She believes the pervasive presence of marijuana gives young people a very accurate understanding of its positives and negatives. Compared to alcohol, opiates, pharmaceuticals and other drugs teenagers are tempted to use, she says, cannabis is the most helpful and least harmful.
“I first tried cannabis when I was 13, which seems way too young to me now. A few of my friends and I snuck out to my mom’s barn and got high. We got busted by her within a few minutes. She was pretty upset, and made me promise to wait until she said it was okay for me to try it again. I smoked weed a few times without her permission, but when I was older and had insomnia and anxiety, I knew cannabis is good medicine for those conditions. Using it medically has helped me fully appreciate its benefits, and develop intense interest in different strains and their effects. There’s so much more to cannabis than just THC. Cannabis works so well that I have no need for prescription medications,” Halle says.
Halle says she and her Humboldt peers know more about cannabis than most young people do, which helps local teenagers use cannabis less rather than more, and engage in wise use instead of mindless abuse.
“Our parents told us not to let cannabis interfere with your health and success, and don’t get in trouble with the police. Plus, we had our Prop. 215 [medical marijuana] licenses, so it wasn’t seen as a recreational drug, but a medicine,” Halle explained. “I’ve seen it save people from serious illnesses, alcoholism, and opiate addiction when nothing else helped.”
And if anyone still believes cannabis makes people slow, lazy, or stupid, they only have to look at Halle’s schedule to see how inaccurate that is. A typical week in Halle’s life could find her staying up all night to harvest seeded buds, looking after Humboldt Seed Company’s 50 breeding chambers, visiting connoisseur cannabis farms looking for incredible phenotypes (such as Spire Ridge Farms where the article photos were taken), operating seed processing equipment, and helping with Humboldt Seed Company’s customer support services.
She also guides rafting trips through rapids on wilderness rivers, and makes extracts for her CBD company. On top of all that, she’s majoring in business and botany at College of the Redwoods.
“I’m fortunate to live here, have great parents, work in vast fields of cannabis plants, and make outstanding cannabis seeds and strains that help people everywhere,” Halle says.
And as you might expect, Halle has a very proud father.
“Halle has been my sidekick from day one,” Nat says. “Strapped to my back as I hiked through the hills of Humboldt during the early days of what has now turned into the cannabis industry, Halle didn’t just learn from me, she had a natural ability and intuition for the work we do. She understands it has to be about way more than just making money—it has to be about making something really great and being passionate about it, and fortunately, that’s her forte.”