Baruch alumnus Owen Martinetti (’17), cofounder of HempChain Farms and Naturae Oils – one of the first licensed hemp farms and cannabidiol processing plants in New York – teamed up with Baruch friend Christopher Abbenda (’18) to make headlines earlier this year: securing millions of medical masks and donating thousands throughout New York when COVID-19 struck the Empire State in late March.
The two alumni and former roommates chatted about their business venture and what spurred them on to lend a hand during the pandemic.
Christopher, you donated 30,000 masks to Northwell Health and supplied more than 3 million masks to three different state agencies. Can you describe how that came about and how you were able to expedite that process?
The idea of importing PPE started when Governor Cuomo first put the state on lockdown. Watching press conferences and seeing how desperate the state was for supplies prompted me to bring the idea up to Owen. We began compiling data for every state and reaching out to key contacts. Within a week, we secured two contracts: one with Tennessee and the other with New Mexico. We successfully supplied over one million masks to each state. This led to business with other state agencies around the country. We have faced many challenges throughout these transactions. As one would suspect, international trade during a global pandemic is not a seamless process. Fortunately, we have assembled the right team of people that have made delivering PPE possible. Given our success in this venture, we felt obligated to donate locally and provided Northwell Health with over 30,000 masks.
Owen, what inspired you to create Naturae and can you describe how it has evolved in the years since you founded it?
The idea to start Naturae was very spontaneous. I had just moved to Astoria, Queens with three other roommates Nick, Nea, and Max. The apartment we lived in was Nick’s sisters place. So, we decided to meet his sister for dinner at her home on Long Island. On the way over there my Mom sent me a text message. It was a cropped photo of a newspaper article that read “Cuomo opens up New York State hemp initiative program.” At the time I didn’t know too much about hemp, but I showed the message to Nick and Max. Nick said to bring it up to his Sister, Renata, when we meet her because she has farmland in upstate and maybe she would let us use it. During dinner, the topic came up, and Renata said to figure out the license and a business plan and we could use the farmland to grow. It was that moment that gave us the drive to figure out as much as we could about hemp and apply for licenses for both growing and processing. Since formation the company has been constantly adapting to new market trends and ever-changing regulatory requirements. When we first started, our business was sending most of its product out of state. Today we’ve seen a shift to a more regional based customer with numbers closer to 50-50.
What has been the most challenging part of this pandemic from a professional perspective?
The most challenging part has been the need to reduce staff. Additionally, figuring out ways to service our current client base whom many of which have been forced to close locations until further notice.
Has your business been impacted by social distancing and how are you adapting?
Naturae hasn’t been impacted by social distancing too much. In order to operate our core business, we have 1 to 2 people on the production floor at any given time.
Finally, what do you anticipate being some of the issues that business owners will have to face in the next few months as we begin getting back to some degree of normalcy?
For the Hemp and CBD industry I anticipate a lengthy process to get back to normalcy. Back in December there was a surplus of farming activity that led to an oversupply in material going into 2020. Coupled with the majority of the distribution of the finished product which is sold in retail shops and c-stores that are still closed. This is all a recipe for disaster for companies across the supply chain. As a result many companies will go under as a result in this space.