It’s April 1, 2015, and Lindsey Renner and her husband, Jon, are struck with an unthinkable tragedy: a total loss fire that destroyed their farm, Native Humboldt Farms, as well as their family home.
At the time of the fire, they had been cultivating cannabis on Native Humboldt Farms for eight years. Together, they parent five children (who are now ages 20, 16, 12, 8 and 4), three of whom they had together.
Renner says the fire started at their neighbor’s house and traveled to their property within 15 minutes. They live in a rural area in Humboldt County, Calif.– about an hour away from the nearest fire station–and by the time firefighters arrived, the destruction had already taken its toll. With their home and farm up in smoke, the couple also lost all their cannabis crops from the previous year, Renner says, adding that Humboldt growers historically hold their product until the next year.
While everyone remained safe, including their dogs and goats, the only items they were able to save from the fire were 2,500 sour diesel clones, “a strain that Jon had gotten in 1999, and we had carried with us over the years,” Renner says.
Facing a fork in the road, Renner took a glass-half-full perspective, rolled up her sleeves, and started to rebuild.
“As devastating as [the fire] was, it had to happen, and I’m actually weirdly thankful for it because of the path it put me on,” she says. “Honestly, when you go through something like that, you have two choices: You can just give up or you can figure out how to soldier on and figure it out. And that’s what you have to do in the California [cannabis] industry.”
And so she soldiered on. Using the sour diesel clones and donated soil from their friends’ grow store, Renner continued the Native Humboldt Farms legacy.
“Lindsey’s great. She always sees the positive opportunity unfolding when there’s challenges and headaches and just things that are not good,” says Javier Armas, founder of Budtender Education and the Bay Area Latino Cannabis Alliance (BALCA), both of which Renner supports through memberships. “She sees them as just speed bumps. She’s like, ‘Well, that sucked, but that’s over.’ She just really has this great energy and trajectory.”
And while rebuilding her cultivation (and home) certainly wasn’t easy, Renner is growing cannabis with clear intention and a mission in mind.
“The mission is to get a higher quality cannabis or the best quality cannabis,” Renner says. “I’ve spent a lot of time with cannabis, and I feel like the mission of cannabis is to express her truest, fullest form, and that’s what we’re trying to get to the people. … That’s what all of this is for–just to get the best quality cannabis, the truest expression of cannabis, to the people.”
Native Humboldt’s Legacy
Renner was born in 1982 in Humboldt County, which is rich with Native American history. Her Native American father cultivated cannabis at the time she was born, which set the blueprint for her future success, but also led to a custody battle between her parents.
“My biological dad and his family [were faced with the] choice of, ‘You can either fight for her in court, but we’re going to say that you guys grow cannabis,’ which clearly was not an option for them. In 1982, they could have been federally prosecuted, so they did not take it to court,” Renner says. “So, I grew up without them completely. My mom remarried, [and] I was adopted by her new husband.”
Transitioning into her professional career, Renner sold real estate before joining the U.S. Army in 2006. In 2008, she met Jon shortly before she was medically discharged from the Army.
Six months before they met, Jon purchased a piece of land in Blocksburg, Calif., with the intent of growing cannabis—and that land is where Native Humboldt Farms resides today.
Flash forward to 2011, Renner and Jon had been cultivating cannabis outdoors for about three years. Renner says that led to her mother trying to take her kids away from her in court because she was cultivating cannabis.
“Clearly the difference between 1982 and [then], a lot had changed,” she says. “And so, I fought it, and I dealt with the sheriff. We went through the whole court process. It took about a year and a half. I won, and we were operating under [California Proposition] 215.”
Renner then decided to reach out to her biological father and grandparents (on her father’s side). When she did, she was surprised to learn they had been keeping tabs on her and knew exactly where she was and even knew the Blocksburg plot of land intimately.
“The craziest thing they said was, ‘Walk down to the bottom of your property, pass this, and go back up on this hill,’” she says. “And you would not know it was there unless you were led to it. I had been there for three years, and I never even realized anything was back there. And there was a grave site. It was my great, great, great grandmother’s daughter, Ellen Hoaglen.”
Renner’s connection to the farm doesn’t stop there. The land that Native Humboldt Farms is on also belonged to the Wailaki Tribe–which Renner belongs to–before white incursion in the mid-1800s, which enslaved tribal members and ultimately forced them off the land into a neighboring county.
“My grandparents told me that property after white incursion had belonged to my great, great, great grandmother. She was a survivor of white incursion,” Renner says. “She married my grandfather, and they owned a lot of the property around my farm and also my farm. You could say cannabis really led me home.”
Starting From Scratch
From 2008 to 2015, Jon acted as the head cultivator at Native Humboldt Farms while Renner assisted him in the cultivation and focused on taking care of their children.
“We always joke that our biggest fights are over potassium,” Renner says. “He uses way too little potassium, and you have to use more, and you have to start it earlier.”
But after the 2015 fire, roles reversed as Renner took the lead on Native Humboldt Farms’ cultivation while Jon anchored their home. Renner says the fire forced her, her family and Native Humboldt Farms into “survival mode.”
“It felt so devastating at the time for sure, but it pushed me into a leadership position to lead my family and this company,” Renner says. “I was the one that was supposed to do it.”
From 2015 to 2020, Renner worked on the farm mostly by herself. During that time, Jon helped her with accounting and regulatory-related tasks, she says, adding that he didn’t return to the farm until 2020.
“In 2019, he tried to come back. We were all ready; it was April, [and] he was going to help that year. And he was kind of being standoff-ish in the morning, and he turned around, and he was teary-eyed. He’s like, ‘I can’t go out there, I just can’t.’ And I was like, ‘It’s okay, I got it. I’ll go. I’ll do it again,’” Renner says. “He was just so heartbroken; it was everything he had ever worked for.”
When California legalized adult-use cannabis through Proposition 64 in 2016, Renner knew she had to vertically integrate her business to remain competitive with the state’s market, adding that the fire also compelled her to do so.
“I knew pretty early on I needed to move into manufacturing to be able to have something bigger than my tiny 5,000-square-foot outdoor sun-grown farm,” Renner says.
Renner received her local manufacturing permit in 2017 and, in 2018, was licensed for Type 6 Manufacturing in California, which is for non-volatile solvent manufacturing or mechanical extraction. In August 2020, Renner was granted a distribution license.
Renner also holds licenses for a local jurisdiction retail location in Eureka, Calif., and a provisional license for a non-storefront delivery service in Oakland. She estimates the delivery service should be operational by end of this year, while the brick-and-mortar retail store should be up and running in early 2023.
She also purchased the land above Native Humboldt Farms earlier this year, which was also the former village and cook site for her native Wailaki Tribe. She is working on finalizing the paperwork for that, which will give her 51% ownership of the land, she says.
“Not only has she been out in Blocksburg running her own farms, but she also has set up pretty much her own supply chain of licenses. She’s vertically integrated as a sole owner-operator,” says Amanda Friedman, director of social impact at Cookies, where Renner is an instructor through Cookies U in Humboldt. “I think that representation of being a total boss and doing that as a woman in Humboldt, where her people are from, that story is so impactful and so important for people to see.”
In addition to cultivation, Renner also manages Native Humboldt Farms’ contracts and taxes while still overseeing cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, and sales, where she drives a distribution van to retailers in the Bay Area on a weekly basis.
“She just does everything,” Armas says. “She’s really a one-woman, super CEO who hires part-timers [and] contractors. She owns 100% of her brand and has gone this far without any of that. Pretty amazing.”
Renner is opening the Oakland delivery service with Armas in an effort, she says, to “create a pipeline for not only my products but for other small farmers in the Emerald Triangle and in Northern California in general,” noting it can be difficult to get products from Humboldt County to urban areas throughout California.
Armas says he and Renner had mutual friends, which led to Renner attending BALCA sessions beginning in 2020. Soon after that, Renner, as the cultivator, and Armas, with connections in retail, helped each other accomplish mutual business goals. Armas says he helped Renner get into four retailers in the Bay Area that he had close connections with and the two have had “high-level collaboration” ever since, with her speaking at BALCA events and the pair working together to open the Oakland delivery service.
“Once we started putting our community organizing together, me on the equity side, her on the Humboldt legacy side, we saw this really dynamic pipeline unearthing, which we’re working on making [a] reality,” Armas says. “As her friend [and] business partner, I try to support her … in getting her leadership position more crystallized in her business, because it’s growing.”
Renner says she has found a second home working with Armas and BALCA, given that Humboldt County’s population is nearly 83% white. BALCA says it supports members through its five pillars of business development, education, professional development, civil rights and cultural expression.
“[They’re] a really amazing group of people. I’m up in Humboldt, and there’s not a lot of diversity up here. I’m one of the only Native American farms up here,” Renner says. “And so in BALCA, I’ve found my people and somewhere where I really feel supported, and so I just want to support them as much as possible.”
Friedman also notes her appreciation for Renner’s engagement with the community.
“Lindsey is one of the most outspoken people that I’ve seen in terms of communicating and talking to different groups and trying to find common ground and acknowledging like, ‘Yes, those are the realities of the situation and how can we work together for a common benefit,’” Friedman says. “That’s one of the primary things with Lindsey, how she stands out as just this complete leader and [she is] exactly what the industry needs right now.”
Renner partners with Cookies through the company’s Humboldt Grown Initiative, which launched in 2021 and represents a tribute to the area’s pioneering cannabis history, according to Cookies’ website.
The partnership between Native Humboldt Farms and Cookies came from serendipitous circumstances. Renner says during a drive from Humboldt County to Los Angeles in January 2021, she was listening to a podcast by Gary Vaynerchuk, a serial entrepreneur, speaker, author and CEO of VanyerMedia, that urged her to create a LinkedIn account. “And then literally the next week, the district manager from Cookies found me on LinkedIn and reached out and was like, ‘Hey, do you want to come for an interview?’” she says.
While Renner admits she was initially wary of corporate cannabis, she was pleasantly surprised at Cookies’ approach to its Humboldt Grown Initiative.
“You could say cannabis really led me home.” Lindsey Renner, Owner, Native Humboldt Farms
“They came to me and were just like, ‘We just want to support you. We love what you’re doing. We love the product that you’re creating, and we just want to support you and get behind you,’” Renner says.
A month later in February 2021, Renner penned a contract for Native Humboldt Farms to grow Cookies cultivars. While Renner does the cultivating, the two companies co-brand the packaging, and products are dispersed to all Cookies stores throughout California.
Renner also serves as an instructor at Cookies U in Humboldt County, where she just completed her first semester teaching an 8-week, hands-on cannabis course to five social equity applicants. Renner taught students a range of lessons, including introductions to topicals and edibles, indigenous microorganism collections, plant ferments, how to make hard candies infused with rosin, and shared the history of her tribe and the history of Humboldt cannabis.
“Everybody absolutely loved her. She was definitely a crowd favorite,” Friedman says. “She’s really utilizing her business success as an opportunity to teach people about the history of Humboldt, about the history of her people in Humboldt, and of cannabis in Humboldt. She’s really leading with her native history and how that ties into cannabis.”
Renner also serves on the policy committee for the Humboldt County Growers Alliance (HCGA), which represents about 275 farms throughout Humboldt. Renner was elected to the policy committe in December 2021 and represents one of five districts, serving as a conduit between Humboldt farmers and local and state government regulators to communicate the challenges farmers face while lobbying for reform.
Taking all of these commitments into consideration, Renner admits she rarely rests, but is thankful for the opportunities she’s earned.
“If it’s not the farm, it’s manufacturing. If it’s not manufacturing, it’s distribution, then licensing for retails–it is all work,” Renner says. “But a lot of it I can do from home [and] I still get to be around my kids a lot. … My most favorite hobby is hanging out with my kids when I’m not working.”
Continuing the Legacy
With her can-do attitude, Renner is so often used to working for the “now” while also planning for the future. But when asked to pause and reflect on her journey through life and cannabis, she’s adamant about her connection to the plant.
“A couple of the years, it was just me out there, and that’s when my connection with cannabis really started–just me and the plants out on this property,” she says. “I was just there on my ancestral land, me and the plants, really connecting, almost like healing me.”
And through all the lessons learned along the way, she notes a few that stand out.
“The most important lesson is just to persevere, just to keep going, just to put one foot in front of the other,” she says. “Nothing is the biggest deal. Even if it’s soul-crushing, even if it seems like it’s the biggest deal in the world and it’s just going to end your entire company, you can’t look at it like that. It’s just another challenge. How are we going to find a solution? What are we going to do to fix it?”
And through it all–the trials and tribulations, setbacks and surprises–Renner says she’s stronger than ever, adding that she’s proud of how far she and Native Humboldt Farms have come.
“I had a hard upbringing. I’ve really dealt with a lot of pretty traumatic instances in my life, and I haven’t always been as strong as I am now,” she says. “And the more I work in cannabis and every little achievement that I make, the more I’m with the plants, the more strength I see in myself. Since I’ve been working physically with the plant and building this company, I really did find myself–like someone who had been lost for a long time. And I’m proud that I finally know who I am and what my purpose is, and that I can be proud of myself.”
And now that she’s empowered herself through her work in cannabis, she says her goal is to take what she’s learned and encourage others to believe in themselves and succeed in this industry.
“I want to inspire hope and let [people] know that no matter what happens, there’s always a solution, and there’s always a way forward, and we have to be in the moment and just figure out a solution,” Renner says. “The fact that I get to be in that position and offer even just one person hope, it means so much to me. It really does.”