Thursday, May 14, 2015

Nello's teams with Whitted Bowers Farm and Whole Foods to produce first certified biodynamic tomato sauce in U.S.

From left to right: Rob Bowers, Byrne Huddleston,
Cheri Whitted Bowers and Neal McTighe walk through
the Whitted Bowers certified organic and biodynamic
farm in Cedar Grove. The Whitted Bowers Farm
will produce tomatoes for Nello's Sauce.
(Indy Week photos by Alex Boerner)
The imminent arrival of local tomatoes has long served as a sad reminder of the limits of Neal McTighe's entrepreneurial dreams.
The maker of Nello's Sauce, a line of premium tomato sauces produced and bottled just north of Raleigh, sources his tomatoes from California, where they grow abundantly year round. The volume he needs—currently about 20,000 pounds each month—and North Carolina's relatively short growing season made his goal of using locally grown fruit unrealistic.

Until now. Just weeks after announcing that Whole Foods was expanding regional distribution of Nello's Sauce to 140 stores from Texas to New Jersey—doubling the amount of tomatoes he processes each month—McTighe reveals the chain awarded him a loan to introduce a new product with specific local ingredients.

"It is truly groundbreaking," McTighe says. "It's the first in their business's history to support biodynamic agriculture. The real kicker is that this will be the first biodynamic, U.S.-grown, U.S.-made, tomato sauce ever. And we're doing it right here in North Carolina." Other sauces labeled organic and biodynamic contain non-U.S.-grown ingredients or were produced outside of America, most likely in Italy, McTighe says.

Nello's Biodynamic Marina will debut this summer with both USDA Organic and Demeter Biodynamic certifications. The limited edition sauce, labeled Summer 2015 Harvest, will be sold exclusively at Whole Foods. It will be made from the yield of 6,000 heirloom tomato plants (plus basil and garlic) grown for the express purpose at Whitted Bowers Farm in Cedar Grove. Sea salt, extra virgin olive oil and tomato paste have been sourced from other certified organic providers.

"I am willing to claim this will be the cleanest jarred tomato sauce ever produced in America," says McTighe, referencing the rigorous seed-to-shelf standards with which Nello's has to comply.

In fact, the standards are so tough that McTighe delayed announcing the new sauce several times while awaiting final approval from Demeter USA, the nonprofit American chapter of Demeter International, the world's only certifier of biodynamic farms and products.

Nello's Sauce founder Neal McTighe holds a
Bradywine tomato from Whitted Bowers Farm
in Cedar Grove. Whitted Bowers plans to produce
15,000 pounds of Bellstar heirloom tomatoes
to be used in the marinara sauces
of Raleigh-based company Nello's Sauce.
Established in 2005, the 52-acre Whitted Bowers Farm has been certified by Demeter since 2009. Co-owner Rob Bowers explains that the term biodynamic includes a range of protocols that improve the quality of farm land with fertilizer-free herbal and compost-based remedies. This not only protects soil from being drained of nutrients during the growing process but also discourages development of plant diseases that can destroy crops and devastate animal health. Given agreeable weather, he says the result of such mindful farming is "more and better output."

The stars also play a significant role at the farm, just as they did in generations past, when growers consulted the constellations for bountiful harvests. "It's the axis of biodynamic farming that raises the most eyebrows," Bowers concedes, "but paying attention to the alignment of the moon and close planets works.

"My grandmother once told me, 'Everyone knows you're not supposed to plant potatoes when the moon is in Pisces,'" recalls Bowers, who provides produce to numerous fine-dining restaurants and sells at the Carrboro Farmers Market. "There is a lot of folk wisdom, but it's evolved to the point that we know by the hour what to do. I don't know if it's causal, but there is a construct that works."

The farm's website prominently features the current phase of the moon to assist others who aspire to farm this way.

Since growing produce this way is expensive, the 18-ounce jars of Nello's Biodynamic Sauce will sell for either $7.99 or $8.99, depending on final production costs. The 14-ounce and 25-ounce jars of the current line sell for about $4.99 and $7.99, respectively.

Given the relatively small production, McTighe cautions that Nello's Biodynamic Marinara may sell out quickly.

"We didn't want to go too big this year because we're all a little nervous about introducing an entirely new product to the market," he says. "There is a lot riding on this, but we hope to grow quickly in future years."

This first appeared in Indy Week.

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