Digging dirt on the planet’s most prized fungus
Think truffles are an agricultural sideshow? A billion dollars in demand says otherwise.
U.S. growers are late to the game, but the neck-snapping profit potential is drawing attention from across farm country. Almost 100% of truffles consumed in the U.S. are imported from Europe and command prices ranging from $150 to $3,000 per pound. Unlock the mysteries behind truffle growth and buyers will eagerly slap down cash on the barrelhead for the planet’s most prized fungus.
Tom Michaels is a truffle whisperer and his company, Tennessee Truffle, outside of Chuckey, Tenn., is proof positive of the crop’s potential. Initially his idea was mocked, but with world class delicacies bursting from his ground, no one is laughing now.
In 1997, he was struck by how the dirt and climate of eastern Tennessee seemed to parallel the soil of southeast France, the mecca source of high quality black truffles. He rode the hunch, dusted off his graduate school thesis and took a shot at a truffle farm.
Truffles grow several inches below ground but require a host tree and gain nutrition from hazelnuts and oaks. In 1998, Michaels turned his backyard into an experiment station with a network of plots, stakes and flags. “I crossed my fingers and limed the hell out of the soil. My neighbor saw 10 dump trucks filled with lime and was in shock,” Michaels recalls. “He thought I was a total nutcase.”
When farmers watch 40 tons of lime salted over a single acre, the lime might as well be plutonium. But truffle soils need high pH and Michaels recommends starting with grasses and pasture. “You need land that hasn’t had competitor trees. Sod, pasture and hay fields are good places to start.”
Michaels bought and rented land in roughly 10-acre sizes, and continued with three more staggered plantings of oaks and hazelnuts, hoping to reap a bonanza of black Perigord truffles, an exquisite, pungent tuber with insatiable demand across the world. Depending on the host tree variety, Perigords take six to 12 years to mature. With his die cast, Michaels began an anxious, wait to see if his soil alchemy would bring forth the magical fungus.
Current import volume of European truffles into the U.S. is 15 to 20 tons annually, estimates Charles Lefevre, founder of New World Truffieres Inc., in Eugene, Ore. “The price range is far wider, but let’s arbitrarily establish a crude price of $800 per pound. We’re talking about a large amount of U.S. money leaving for the European agriculture industry.”
Lefevre has published numerous research articles on truffle cultivation. U.S. production doesn’t merit mention in global demand coverage, but he says truffles can be an ideal crop for small farms—regardless of location: “It doesn’t matter where you are; there is a truffle to fit your climate in the contiguous U.S.”
Well-drained soil is a necessity for truffle cultivation, he emphasizes. Lefevre estimates truffle investment at $12,000 to $14,000 per acre to establish an orchard. Inoculated trees can amount to 50% of the overall cost, with irrigation and soil preparation accounting for other expenses.
New World Truffieres produces inoculated hazelnut trees with three European truffle species: Perigord,
Burgundy and Italian Bianchetto. “For Midwest states with colder winters where the ground freezes, the best option is the Burgundy truffle,” Lefevre says.
Burgundy truffles sell from $150 to $450 per pound. The nose and palate call for Burgundies two to three days after harvest—essentially impossible with imports. Yet, a truffle harvested in Ohio can be served in New York on the same day—a direct avenue to higher values. “The quality we can produce locally is superior to anything we can import,” Lefevre says.
Truffle orchard maintenance costs run $2,500 per acre, similar to apple orchards. “You can’t just sit back and let the crops make money. Orchards need care from producers who know how to tend land,” he adds. “People who make their living farming have a real advantage over the lifestyle farmers who have pioneered the truffle industry so far.”
Fast forward to January 2007. Michaels was windrowing leaves in his orchard and froze mid-step, recognizing the telltale blistering of truffles breaking the surface.
It was a 5 lb. haul within days, but Michaels’ focus was on growing and he hadn’t given a thought to marketing. His girlfriend, Knoxville native Vicki Blizzard, grabbed the yellow pages and made a blind call to The Orangery, a Knoxville restaurant acclaimed for its haute cuisine. To executive chef Chris Stallard, Michaels might as well have claimed to have found the Holy Grail. “Local Perigord truffles? He thought I was crazy or a liar, but agreed to let me come in,” Michaels recalls.
Secured in a Tupperware container, Michaels took his truffles into the posh eatery and opened the tub. The aroma took over the room and the chef was stunned. All doubts died.
Michaels’ Lagotto Romagnolo dog hits on a truffle beneath a hazelnut tree.
Cash in hand, he walked across the street to Le Perigo, another gourmet restaurant and entered cold—no phone call. Repeat performance. Michaels walked out the door with his bankroll bulging. His third stop: the famed Blackberry Farm resort at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Michaels opened his magic box for renowned chef John Fleer and loosed a world-class, earthy perfume. The line chefs froze. Kitchen activity ceased. The exquisite properties of truffles are all in the nose and Michaels’ Perigords exploded with aroma.
Serendipity also smiled. Molly O’Neill, the New York Times food writer, was visiting Blackberry the same day. With no promotion or horn-blowing, Michaels found himself on the cover of the Times’ food section, opposite Paula Dean. His truffle operation was on.
Michaels takes his crop straight from the farm to the kitchen. “I deliver truffles tailor-made for a chef’s individual tastes. It’s where farm-to-table pays off in spades,” he says. “It’s only 36 hours from the ground to the kitchen with my truffles, but weeks and weeks for European imports.”
Michaels sets his price at about $800 per pound for the best Perigords, and the chefs don’t quibble.
The cuisine is high-end, but the science of truffle farming is primitive. Per acre, a grower might expect 40 tons of sugar beets or 20 tons of potatoes. Yet, Michaels might pull in 35 lb. of truffles per acre. Truffle growth is theory and it ranks as the toughest crop in agriculture. Farmers don’t know the amount of macroelements needed to make given crops grow—and if they do, they aren’t telling.
Michaels uses a Lagotto Romagnolo dog during harvest, a water dog from northern Italy specifically bred for truffle hunting. When his dog hits (typically anywhere from 1" to 6" below the surface), Michaels uses a trowel to dig out golf ball- to baseball-sized truffles, averaging 1 oz. in weight.
“I’m delighted if my orchards produce 200 lb. in a year. Sometimes the hardest part of my situation is telling buyers no when I don’t have enough,” Michaels says. “I wish there were more truffle growers because the market is waiting.”