Rob Bowers handed Neal McTighe a green grocery bag full of newly ripened tomatoes. McTighe put his face inside the bag and inhaled.
“Yes,” he said with a sigh.
That evening earlier this month, McTighe used those tomatoes to make sauce, a test batch for a new marinara that will join the three other varieties of his Nello’s tomato sauce brand.
His latest sauce, scheduled to hit shelves exclusively at Whole Foods in August, is made from Bellstar tomatoes, garlic and basil, ingredients all grown by Bowers and his wife, Cheri Whitted Bowers, at their Whitted Bowers Farm in Orange County, the only biodynamic-certified grower in the Southeast.
Since McTighe started making marinara sauces for his North Raleigh tomato sauce company Nello’s Sauce in 2010, he envisioned partnering with a farm. He fulfilled that goal when he began collaborating with Whitted Bowers Farm in Cedar Grove in mid-2014.
Biodynamic farming, a type of organic farming that requires an extra certification, is gaining popularity among retailers like Whole Foods Market, said Elizabeth Candelario, co-director of Demeter Association, a nonprofit that aims to help farmers adhere to biodynamic practices. But because of biodynamic’s tough standards, it’s difficult for farms to grow products on a large scale.
McTighe saw a need in the marketplace for biodynamic grown food and knew a partnership with Whitted Bowers Farm would mean he could fill it.
“It’s so cutting edge within the sustainable food movement,” he said. “It gave us an opportunity that the big food companies don’t have.”
Although Nello’s Sauce is now sold in about 350 stores – including Harris Teeter and Publix – it was Whole Foods, the national grocery store chain that specializes in organic foods, that loaned McTighe $30,000 to invest in his partnership with Whitted Bowers Farm to produce the biodynamic marinara sauce.
In the partnership’s first year, McTighe will use about 10,000 pounds of tomatoes, stretched out over four harvests and 6,000 plants. After they’re picked, the tomatoes will be ground into a smooth puree for the sauce.
Biodynamic farms limited
Biodynamic farms, like organic farms, focus on sustainability. The goal, Bowers said, is to use as few synthetic products as possible. But unlike organic farms, biodynamic farms must be completely self-sustaining.
According to the Biodynamic Association’s website, “Biodynamic farmers strive to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem that generates health and fertility as much as possible from within the farm itself.”
The concept of biodynamic agriculture was developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s. It gained popularity with wineries in Europe, Candelario said.
A long list of requirements must be met to be certified by Demeter. High standards make for few certified farms. There are only about 200 in the U.S.; about half are crop farms and a third are wineries, Candelario said.
Growers like Whitted Bowers Farm are especially scarce in the Southeast, and the next-closest certified biodynamic farm to the Triangle is near Philadelphia.
McTighe initially contacted Bowers on Twitter, and soon the pair began negotiating. Struck by McTighe’s passion for his product, Bowers agreed to grow the produce for McTighe’s marinara.
Bowers splits agriculture into three types: conventional, organic and biodynamic. Organic farmers, unlike conventional farmers, recognize that soil is a limited resource so they try to maintain it, Bowers said. The way he sees it, biodynamic growers go the extra mile.
“What we’re trying to do in biodynamics is make the soil better so we can keep on growing the best quality food,” he said.
Biodynamic farms are limited in what they can produce. The process requires an incredible amount of planning, Bowers said. McTighe said he was lucky to find a biodynamic farm able to produce the volume of tomatoes he needs to market the new sauce.
Some of the primary beliefs in biodynamic farming often raise eyebrows, Bowers said. Biodynamic farmers believe the moon affects the growing cycle of plants.
Another common practice is burying a cow horn stuffed with manure in the fall, according to a study from Washington State University. The horn is uncovered in the spring, then the manure is processed into a rich compost and used in low doses.
Bowers has seen the results of practicing biodynamic farming. He recalled a day at the Carrboro Farmers Market, where a lot of Whitted Bowers Farm’s produce is sold, when a girl ate one of his carrots, and said, “Mommy, I feel like I’m eating stars.”
“There’s something about the vitality of the food that’s just different,” Bowers said.
There are about 24 biodynamic-certified products at Whole Foods, said the grocer’s Executive Global Grocery Coordinator Errol Schweizer. The products range from frozen dinners to teas.
Selling biodynamic products can be tricky, Candelario said, because buyers are not yet familiar with the benefits of the technique. But Schweizer said customer response to biodynamic-certified products has been amazing. Whole Foods is “deeply committed” to organic foods, he said; biodynamic products take the grocer to the next level.
Candelario thinks McTighe’s new product will be successful due to the existing popularity of Nello’s.
“The beautiful thing about Nello’s is that he has a strong consumer base that really believes in his brand,” Candelario said.
Birth of Nello’s
McTighe studied in Italy and earned his Ph.D. in Italian language from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007. Wanting to share his love for the country and its culture, McTighe began writing a blog called “Nello’s Italy.” He had hoped to make travel videos and books about Italy.
The idea of selling an authentic Italian marinara sauce came to McTighe as he was lying in bed in his apartment in the spring of 2010. McTighe and his wife, Heather, wrote their first recipe for Nello’s marinara sauce in July of 2010 after attending Carrboro Farmers Market Tomato Day.
By January 2011, McTighe had set up an online store to sell the sauce. At first, only family and friends bought it. Selling a pasta sauce online proved to be difficult, and soon after McTighe turned to retailers. He kept his first invoice — $183.60 for jars of his 14-ounce marinara — from the Weaver Street Market.
In early summer of 2011, McTighe took a jar of sauce to Whole Foods in Chapel Hill and urged a customer service representative to try it. She did, and McTighe’s relationship with Whole Foods quickly expanded. The following August, Nello’s Sauce appeared on Whole Foods’ shelves in the Triangle.
Now the retailer is sponsoring the biodynamic sauce through its Local Producer Loan Program, which has lent about $15.7 million total to more than 200 primarily small, local suppliers, including the $30,000 it loaned to Nello’s.
This growing season, frequent thunderstorms have been hard on Whitted Bowers Farm’s tomatoes. Bowers and McTighe expect to yield about half what they originally hoped for. While disappointed, McTighe said he expected challenges when he decided to pursue a biodynamically grown sauce.
The sauce will be limited release, appearing in Whole Foods stores nationwide for about two months. But if the new recipe sells well, McTighe said he and Bowers will double or even triple their production of the biodynamic product.
“This is probably the single most exciting thing this business has ever done,” McTighe said. “In the history of food, I think it’s very significant.”