It was 1990. Karen Byars, founder of Mendocino Cannabis Resource, was driving her VW Minibus, coming to California to support environmental activists gathered for “Redwood Summer,” the historic protests that called attention to unhealthy logging practices in the region. “I saw a convoy of military vehicles carrying cages full of marijuana. My first response was to chase them. My second response was to see if they’d dropped anything,” she laughs.
As a younger woman, Byars discovered cannabis helped her cope with severe PMS. She aligned with the cannabis community, learning to grow the plant, getting busted and becoming involved with statewide legalization efforts.
Beginning in 1999, for the next 12 years, Byars was part of an all-women’s gardening collective in northeastern Mendocino County which cultivated cannabis for women’s health issues. Through a combination of luck and science, the collective discovered they were growing some of the world’s earliest CBD-rich cannabis strains. “They were my neighbor’s strains, but because we were doing plant-by-plant harvesting, we were able to help identify protocols for analytic testing and breeding. I didn’t seek this out. The plant chose our women’s collective for this experience,” Byars smiles.
Byars moved to New Mexico, working at the enormous, legal, state-run outdoor cannabis harvesting program. Her years of hands-on expertise were valued. “I discovered that Nor-Cal farmers are valued as the world’s cannabis experts. Our casual conversation wows people in the rest of the world.” Byars returned to Mendocino County several years ago. “This is where my heart is. I wanted to support my community in a new way.”
For cannabis farmers, the steps to become a legal business can be overwhelming, particularly for those who have spent years hiding in the hills, fearful of authority. Byars created a workshop and consulting business, with the goal of increasing education, empowerment and entrepreneurship.
Her first conference consisted of a one-day workshop on cannabis compliance, followed by another conference on canna-business development. Through her longtime associations within the cannabis community, Byars was able to convene a powerhouse lineup of guest speakers. The response was tremendous, with about 250 attendees packing the Willits Grange.
In 2017, Byars repeated the conferences, garnering an equal measure of success. More workshops are scheduled for this year. Topics include the drafting of cannabis business plans, filing taxes with the State Board of Equalization and creating standardized operations procedures. “These are important maps for business success. Pot isn’t just pot. It’s a huge world and with regulations, and actually, it’s a very exciting time.”
In her role as consultant, Byars provides intake and coaching. “I’m helping people apply for permitting—determining which permit modality is the correct choice, outlining paths to success.” She recently counseled a couple, both in their late ‘50’s, interested in growing cannabis. “I asked them, if they got this garden going, how long would they oversee it? Was this their retirement project or something they wanted to monetize and sell? They hadn’t considered these questions. I’m hoping to assist people in how they can best participate in this business arena.”
Byars attends numerous canna-business conferences, and says there’s no doubt that Mendocino has drawn the attention of investors. “We’re definitely causing a stir. Industry job recruiters are eager to meet farmers, product producers, trimmers. People are using their ‘underground resumes’ to get hired. States with fledgling medical marijuana programs are begging for our talent.” Byars sees the region’s cannabis brain trust as a huge asset. “Not all of us need to get a gardening permit. We can bring forward many levels of job development.” To that end, she sees her next project as coordinating a county cannabis job fair.
“My long-term vision is to bring an incubator/accelerator program to Mendocino County. I’d like to pull mentorships from the Bay Area and our region to help develop canna-businesses, and get our funders to invest in each other. Some of our elders are land-heavy. We can create different levels of participation and develop local businesses. We’ve got brilliance in our area. More groups are willing to fund “hands-on” projects—canna-businesses directly involved with the plant. With local and state regulations in place, people are getting ready to invest in cannabis and invest in our area. We have the attention of the business world.”
Byars has created a work and meeting space in downtown Willits, which she intends to develop as a membership-based site, particularly useful for rural residents who need access to office space. “Mountain folks don’t always have Internet. This is a place to meet others working on a parallel path and to help create community.”
“I think of Mendocino as the merger of branding, ethics and belief systems. Anytime we feel stuck, I suggest we take a few steps back and ask, what can work here? Other legal states have undergone the same amount of confusion. More rational policies are coming forward. Every industry goes through regulation changes, but in many ways, it’s up to us as elders to help bring this industry forward.”