The S.B. Questionnaire: Sara Rotman

Talking Healing and Entrepreneurship with the Cannabis Farmer and Owner of Busy Bee’s Organics

In a lawsuit filed on April 23 in county Superior Court, the vintner-backed nonprofit Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis alleges that Busy Bee owner Sara Rotman (right) illegally expanded a medicinal operation from a single greenhouse in early 2016 to more than seven acres in 2018. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

“I bought the farm for my horses, but within five weeks, I was in the hospital,” says Sara Rotman. “That is what started this whole odyssey.”    

After being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2014 and told by doctors that they couldn’t alleviate her debilitating pain, Rotman tried cannabis. This led her to begin cultivating the plant on that property and diversifying the farm with her husband, Nate Ryan. She’s also developed the recreational cannabis brands Bluebird805 and, coming this spring, Wellfounded Botanicals, while also selling her crops to some of California’s leading cannabis companies.    

Located in Buellton, Rotman believes her farm, which is called Busy Bee’s Organics, has become a place of healing. “We know it works, but we couldn’t get reliable supply,” Rotman explains of what turned her into a cannabis farmer. “Dosing was inconsistent, even from a medical dispensary. It was unreliable what you were getting. I’m a big proponent of regulation in the industry.”

Rotman’s odyssey is quite a yarn. She grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but moved to New York City in 1987 to attend Parsons School of Design, later transferring to the School of Visual Arts. “I always drew,” she says. “Art was a passion.”  

Upon graduation in 1991, she started teaching. “Teaching keeps you connected,” she explains. “Teaching greatly influenced my management style.”   

She began designing album covers for Sony Music and formed the punk band Crotch with her friend Jen Sincero, as they both felt that the corporate music industry was eroding their love of music. “We started playing, for it would be ridiculous not to,” she blurts out. “We were fucking terrible, but we had so much bravado. We got gigs before we had learned how to play a set. We never got great, but we were really great at mediocre!” 

They hit their peak in 1993, playing at CBGB’s and seeing the music video for their song “Power Tool of Love” appear on Comedy Central. Sincero went on to become the bestselling author of You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life.

Rotman continued working in the music industry until 1998, when she moved into the advertising world to work for Saatchi and Saatchi and as an art director for RDA. But she couldn’t work for other people much longer. 

“My spirit of entrepreneurial leadership is deeply ingrained,” Rotman says. “I worked for some wonderful companies and people, but I’m delighted to have left them all. I do not look back.”  

In 2000, she opened her own creative agency called MODCo, for “My Own Dawn Company.” She was responsible for the original branding of designer Tory Burch, including her iconic logo. “I’ve always loved the strategic and conceptual world,” Rotman says. “It was good to be a big part of image, concept, and creativity.”    

As if her world wasn’t fast enough, Rotman took up polo. “I got the bug really bad,” she says. “I played for a medium goal team called Dark Horse.” She came to Santa Barbara in 2012 and bought the farm to keep her horses in nice weather. 

“They diagnosed me as an ‘ambitious woman’,” she says about her Crohn’s disease, which was repeatedly misdiagnosed from 2003 to 2014. That led her to selling her company in 2016. “I was too sick,” she recalls. “I was at Cedar Sinai in renal failure. I was in horrendous pain. I’ve never experienced eye-popping pain like this, and they put me in all of these western medicines that just kept getting me sicker.”  

Her husband encouraged Rotman to try CBD, the non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis and hemp. “I’d never been a recreational drug user,” she says. “I was desperate. I wasn’t a smoker. I didn’t know there were options.”

How does she feel about people opposing the cannabis industry in Santa Barbara? “It’s staggering, the willful ignorance,” she expresses passionately. “When presented with scientific facts, they still don’t want to change their minds. All forms of prejudices are based on willful ignorance, and it’s disappointing. Opposition is not coming from a majority but from a noisy small minority that makes a lot of noise.”    

Hoping to combat that noise and increase education around cannabis farming, Rotman co-founded an organization called Good Farmers, Great Neighbors. “It’s about advocacy and education,” she says. “With regulations being a moving target, cannabis remains the focus, but the organization is all inclusive.”

Sara Rotman answers the Proust Questionnaire.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Our farm mantra is, “No choice is also a choice,” which means to me that getting up every day and doing what’s necessary to succeed, survive, and thrive is a choice. Even when what’s necessary feels impossible. Having no choice can be the ultimate test of optimism. The act of emphatically doing what’s necessary, when presented with zero other options, is courageous and something I embrace every day.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Relentless optimism — special emphasis on the relentless. I gratefully possess an unhealthy tenacity and a stubborn refusal to quit. Ever. Which is why I’ve been able to succeed as an entrepreneur. 

I think this is the single most valuable personality trait for anyone who wants to run their own businesses. The glass is always half full even if someone just shot the bottom out with a 12 gauge. Failure can’t be anywhere in your line of vision — even if it is inevitable. For me, it’s always: head down, eyes forward, shoulder into the wind, and smile along the way if you can. 

Of course, I have my share of failures, but my stubborn refusal to quit keeps me moving forward anyway. My husband often reminds me: all successful people experience failure; they just don’t let it stop them.

Who do you most admire? 
I’ve never been prone to hero-worship, but I have a deep admiration for anyone possessing the courage to doggedly pursue the improbable, impossible, or ill-advised. I will always cheer on the inventor, the entrepreneur, and the dreamer. Magical thinking only looks crazy till it succeeds. So obviously I’m saying I admire Dwayne Johnson — love me some Rock.

What do you like most about your job?
This list is endless. I love that we are nurturing plants to their full potential. I love that we grow medicine that has not only made me well again, it helps countless people. I love the color of the sun at the end of the day as it kisses our fields of frosty ladies and casts a pink light on the mountains beyond. I love that I get to work at home with my husband and dogs around me. I love our dedicated team members who share their brilliance and discipline to ensure our success. I love the smell of the morning marine layer working it’s magic on the plants and trees around the farm. But mostly what I love is that we get to do all of this as an independent family farm. Our destiny is our own as are our failures and our successes. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 
Well, the notion of perfect is boring. Can you imagine achieving perfection — what would be left to pursue?  

That said, I am completely happy now in (almost) every aspect of my life. So, I guess I’d have to say, a snapshot of my perfect(ish) happiness is waking up at daybreak on the farm, having a coffee with my favorite person (my husband), big ole dogs at our feet, and looking out at the freshly planted fields while we contemplate the activities of the day. 

This is pretty much our every day and for me, it’s heaven.

What is your greatest fear? 
Being trapped. I’m deeply allergic to any type of confinement. And mediocrity. Being dull is a crime.

What is your greatest extravagance? 
I played competitive polo for many years. I don’t think there exists on God’s green earth anything more extravagant than that. That part of my life firmly behind me, I now consider sleeping till 8 a.m. a great extravagance. Perspective is everything.

What is your current state of mind?
This is a moving target, but yesterday, while walking through the streets of Manhattan on my first trip back to NYC in a very long time, I was overcome with the strangest sensation: inner peace. That was a new one for me and I’m so delighted to have experienced it — fingers crossed it’s hangs around a while.

What is the quality you most like in people?
A quick mind, a wicked sense of humor, and a steady willingness to tell the truth even when the truth isn’t easy.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?
I can’t stand passive aggressive behavior in anyone. Tell it to me straight or get the eff out.

What do you most value in friends?
See above for qualities I most like in people and add to that a healthy appreciation for good food, good drink, good music, and a natural capacity for forgiveness. 

Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I could sing well. I will belt out anything with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, hopped up on eight pounds of cotton candy with a free pass to Disneyworld. But truth is, I’m terrible. I always imagined that being able to sing well must feel as magical and free as being able to fly.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’d like to be able to not interrupt people. I work so hard at not doing it, but I get too excited in conversations that I tend to blurt out my thoughts before others are done talking. It’s a terrible habit that I’m ashamed not to be able to break. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
For me, achievements tend to feel hollow once they are complete. There’s always another mountain to climb, so I try not to dwell on what I’ve done. I prefer to think about what I intend to do next. However, I am quite proud of the fact that we remain independent on our farm. Not many folks are able to do that in our business and that independence is a source of relief and something I am coming to understand is vital to our happiness and success.

Where would you most like to live?
I love our home here, but I also yearn for a place that is wild and free. We adore Baja for these qualities — there are no guard rails around life there. That slightly dangerous, raw, beautiful life and landscape is eternally seductive for me. 

What is your most treasured possession?
My dogs.

Who makes you laugh the most?
I have to admit my East Coast friends tend to have that rapacious wit that I miss while living way out West, but laughter is a vital part of our lives so we get our giggle on with pretty much anyone with a pulse. 

What is your motto?
As noted above: No choice is also a choice is the current mantra and it seems to be sticking.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Gandhi. Not because I am anything like him, and certainly not because I admire the way he treated women. But as the most outsider of outsiders, he was a badass, and his teachings continue to inspire me. I mean, he took on the British Empire and won — without an army, or even clothes. Total Badass.  

Also, Joan Rivers. That is a woman I admire. Completely ahead of her time, she was another perennial outsider. She did funny in the face of excruciating loss, sexism, and was always thought of as less than by her peers till the day she died. And yet, she still did it better, harder, faster, and stronger than all of them. I should be so lucky as to have a teeny tiny fraction of that tenacity and talent.  

On what occasion do you lie?
I really don’t lie, which is kind of a problem. Folks don’t always like to hear the truth. But at least they know where I stand.  

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