by Margaret Osborne
Zach Sarkis has had a love affair with the cannabis plant for years. At Canandaigua Academy, he gave his senior speech on the utilitarian value of hemp.
“It was the only topic that could prevent me from stuttering and being scared because I cared so much about it,” he laughs.
Now in his early 30s, the self-proclaimed “cannabis and hemp nerd” directs NY HempLab, a Rochester-based nonprofit that helps accelerate sustainable industry growth for small and mid-sized cannabis businesses. The company guides and educates its members with the goal of helping the cannabis industry thrive in New York.
Zach is also the owner and operator of FLWR CITY COLLECTIVE, a craft cannabis company; and lead organizer of THE FLWR CITY CUP, an annual New York State CBD and THC flower competition. He also serves as the chair of the education committee of the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association.
Zach worked on cannabis farms out West after college, where he was inspired by the way the cannabis industry was revitalizing communities. “I witnessed how a degrading community, challenged by exodus, had an epic revival when young people returned to grow cannabis,” he explains. “I also saw how much money, then, came back into the community for roads and schools. It helped me understand the economic potential and impact of cannabis, and what a community could become as a result. I was really blown away.”
Recognizing that an opportunity existed in Western New York to work with small businesses in the emerging hemp industry – specifically helping businesses navigate compliance – Zach came back to New York and founded NY HempLab in 2018.
“I immediately began to do whatever I could to create room for education and conversations about legitimizing cannabis,” he says. Growing up in Canandaigua, Zach saw and experienced the stigmatization of cannabis use in this area. Today, he’s working to build up the industry in the state and end the stigma.
In the last three years, NY HempLab has hosted several conferences; inviting speakers, professionals and Ph.Ds here from across the country to share their knowledge of hemp and the hemp industry. When the pandemic hit, the nonprofit pivoted to online education, creating expert roundtables and online workshops to dissect and understand New York’s cannabis legislation.
Zach has high hopes for the Finger Lakes. He wants people in the area to embrace not only craft cannabis, but also regenerative practices – ones that heal and improve rather than simply sustain.
“I’m so committed and so protective of this region. It’s very important to me,” he says, pointing out that the craft food and beverage culture is firmly entrenched in the Finger Lakes. “I would love to see small farms maximized and massive farms limited.”
“I’d also love to see a diverse community of cultivators, not just a bunch of white people,” Zach continues. “It’s imperative to reflect the actual economy and ecosystem of New York State. The cannabis industry is incredibly diverse socially, racially – even by gender – across the board today. We need to continue to support that, especially since we know that the trend for emerging adult-use markets is predominantly white dominated and specifically white men.”
Zach, who is also a partner of Growing Family Farms in Spencerport, an organic vegetable, fruit, industrial hemp flower, and nursery stock CSA, plans to get into adult-use cannabis cultivation.
“We’re gonna go all in with our energy, time, love and labor to hopefully get some good returns and launch the full-spectrum cannabis brand that I aspire to create,” he says.