Building truffle cultivation in the Carolinas

PHOTO COURTESY OF KEEP YOUR FORK FARM.
Rick Smith, who owns Keep Your Fork Farm with wife Jane, kisses a truffle, which currently brings $50 per ounce.

Truffles are a mushroom type that grows underground. Long treasured as a food delicacy, they have been under cultivation since the late 1800s. Most are imported from France, Italy and Spain, but U.S. efforts to cultivate the crop began in the late ’70s and successful production began in 1992. Common species include the French Black Périgord Tuber melanosporum, the Burgundy Tuber uncinatum, the Italian Alba White Tuber magnatum and the Black Tuber brumale. The last two types are not widely grown in this country.

Truffles thrive by attaching themselves to roots of certain trees, such as filberts and oaks, and forming a symbiotic relationship.

Establishing a U.S. industry

In 1979, Betty and Franklin Garland began Garland Truffles (www.garlandtruffles.com) in Hillsborough, N.C., to lead the way in production in this hemisphere. Their first crop was harvested in 1992, a feat never before achieved here. Creating his own production method, originating a tree nursery, writing about the crop and previously serving as president of the North American Truffle Growers Association (NATGA, www.trufflegrowers.com) make Franklin the U.S. truffle guru. He continues to maintain orchards in North Carolina and Virginia and operates nurseries in North Carolina and Oregon.

Franklin founded NATGA in 2003 to help support growers and spread the crop to more farms. A grant from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund, which manages a portion of the tobacco settlement dollars, helped tobacco farmers transition to truffles by providing trees and technical assistance.

Current association president, Jane Morgan Smith, who produces black Périgord truffles on Keep Your Fork Farm (www.keepyourforkfarm.com) in King, N.C., says today’s membership totals about 50. Of the approximately 100 American operations producing truffles, the majority are in eastern North Carolina with a couple in California and Tennessee.

What it takes to produce truffles

Smith and her husband Rick began their operation in 2000. Initially, they experimented on a .25-acre plot previously used for gardening. After plowing, lime was added, as truffles require a pH of 8, which is well above the level of 6 typical in the area. Soil is tested quarterly at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. As the crop requires 1.5 inches of rain every other day, the Smiths installed a drip irrigation system supplied by well water. The 2007 drought forced them to dig a pond.

PHOTOS BY JENAN JONES BENSON, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
Truffle grower Jane Morgan Smith uses dogs Friday [left] and Daisy to unearth the lucrative crop.

The first planting of 125 filbert trees, in six rows, took place in the fall of 2000. That orchard yielded its first truffle in 2006, typical of the five to eight-year lag. During the interim, the trees, inoculated with truffle spores at the Garland nursery, have fungi forming on their roots. The Smiths had to mow the grass between the rows and remove weeds, hoping for a rewarding harvest sometime in the future. Tilling is especially important because it breaks up the roots located near the soil’s surface, yielding two truffle growing spots for each divided root. A buffer zone of 50 feet between an orchard and other vegetation must be maintained.

"[Our orchards have an advantage] because they are in the same latitude as the Périgord region of France," Smith says. "We have southern exposure and a 1,200 to 1,500-foot elevation."

Garland confirms that the mid-Atlantic region is the most appropriate in North America for truffle production, boosting optimal soil types and climate. The ideal site is an open area with good southern exposure. It should be free of trees and roots for at least six months prior to planting. Up to a 15-degree slope is acceptable.

The Smiths planted a second 1-acre orchard of 500 filberts and oaks in 2004; high-density plantings have proven the most successful. Three years later, they planted seedlings whose roots were inoculated by Garland with spores from their own truffles. They hope the newest orchard will produce unique truffles as early as 2011.

Harvesting

Historically, pigs have been used to pinpoint the mature truffles, but are rarely put into service today. Smith says that the animal’s large size is a disadvantage and they must be muzzled. Modern truffle growers look to dogs with a good sense of smell and strong desire to please. Smith purchased a border collie specifically as a farm hand and trained him herself, with a consultation from a professional trainer. Initially, the dog was introduced to the scent indoors and given hunting missions. Outdoors, he learned to uncover truffles hidden around trees within one week. A terrier-mix, rescued dog has since joined the team.

Harvested in the late fall and winter, the treasure spots are marked with flags and dug after the dogs complete their work. After cleaning, they can be refrigerated for up to two weeks or frozen for six months.

Garland expects to harvest 2 to 3 pounds annually per tree and conservatively estimates a 500-tree orchard’s income at $25,000. Smith expects 50 pounds per year from her primary 500 trees. The selling price is governed by the French and currently stands at $800 per pound. Smith’s 2008-09 truffle harvest weighed in at 4.2 to 6.3 ounces each.

Trees can continue to produce for up to three decades.

Marketing

With the domestic supply limited, growers find the crop highly marketable, as restaurants and food brokers are eager to purchase them. Smith creates interest by offering on-farm tours and public speaking engagements. She collaborates with the Ashe County Cheese Company in West Jefferson, N.C., to produce 1-ounce jars of truffle butter that sell for $6 as an introductory item for consumers and food professionals. Smith got an exceptional boost when Martha Stewart visited and featured the farm on a show in 2007. She now has an extensive e-mail distribution list through which she announces availability of her truffles on a first-come, first-served basis. Most of her harvest goes to a restaurant in nearby Greensboro.

PHOTOS BY JENAN JONES BENSON, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
Growing on the roots of filbert trees, truffles require 1.5 inches of water every other day, making irrigation a necessity.

A cooperative has also been established to facilitate sales. Garland Truffles also will purchase harvests or assist growers in selling both domestically and internationally.

Resources

Although it is challenging to "work all year-round and never know how much the harvest will be since it’s underground, I wish we’d started 10 years earlier," Smith says. "Since we were one of the first farms to plant a truffle orchard, we had to learn a lot by ourselves."

Although production guides remain scarce, there are supportive resources for potential truffle growers. NATGA is one, offering online guidance as well as annual meetings. It sponsored the first National Trufflefest (www.nationaltrufflefest.com) in March in Asheville, N.C. The 2010 event will feature expert advice on production and training hunting dogs, as well as cooking demonstrations. The date and location have not been determined.

Tree suppliers also are a wealth of knowledge. Garland, for instance, provides consultation, technical assistance and production manuals to their customers.

Garland’s standard inoculated tree pricing is currently $22 each, although quantity discounts may be available. New growers also need a tractor and inputs.

"Talk to several different farmers and tree suppliers," Smith adds.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the authr has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.