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Why Haven’t American Truffles Taken Root Yet?

Meet the people trying to grow the lucrative industry in the U.S.

Each year, farms around the world successfully cultivate tens of tons of truffles, the famously elusive and expensive fungi known for its intoxicating aromatics. In America, truffle orchards have been largely unsuccessful for seemingly mysterious reasons, but every few months, another article comes out suggesting a new company has unlocked the secret to domestic truffle farming. Is the industry really in its infancy, as it appears, or not? A visit to a certain community in Southern Oregon, where truffle fanatics have been developing their own American truffle culture since at least the 1970s, reveals another option: American truffles are in their toddler stage.

At a private party in Eugene, Oregon earlier this year, the night’s climax arrived in the form of takeout pizzas and dozens of knobby white and black fungi, the main two colors in which truffles are catalogued. “Make it rain,” said the host, and the pizzas disappeared beneath the thick fur of freshly microplaned native Oregon truffles.

“I truly love Oregon’s truffles,” said one chef. “Think gasoline and pine needles.” Truffles contain an astonishing number of aromas, and the diesel-fuel aroma of Oregon white truffles has been identified by scientists; some even describe it as smelling like toluene, the water-insoluble liquid that makes glue a recreational inhalant. The heady aroma of musk, honey, and something beyond language filled the room.

Around 2 a.m., someone lit a joint with Oregon truffles rolled inside, and the conversation moved toward the sketchiness of some truffle deals, whether it’s meeting with a truffle hunter at a bar after hours, or buying truffles out of the trunk of a car, roadside, at a fraction of the real market value. An image of hermit-like foragers began to develop — foragers who only emerge from the forests to peddle wild mushrooms and truffles from restaurant to restaurant.

The sheer quantity of truffles at the party was staggering. Where did they all come from? And why weren’t more American chefs using Oregon truffles, instead of costly, imported Italian white truffles and French black Perigord truffles? The Oregon truffle’s aroma is different but equally magnificent.

“I heard they found a new species of truffle, the purple truffle,” said a local maitre'd. “And have you heard of psychedelic truffles?” The line between reality and fiction started to blur, as is often the case with truffles, one of the earth’s most mysterious and least understood organisms. But the challenge had been posed. The gage thrown. Were other parts of the country also this truffle-rich? Or was America somehow an anomaly: a huge swath of soil unable to bear the bulbous fungi?

A Eugene native and avid forager, the scientist Charles Lefevre offers a window into Oregon’s native truffle economy. Lefevre founded New World Truffieres, an Oregon-based provider of trees inoculated with truffle spores, and he holds a Ph.D. in Forest Mycology from Oregon State University. In 2001, he and a team of researchers published a study on Oregon wild truffles that included an estimate of annual yields reaching anywhere between two and 10 tons — a figure Lefevre estimates is still accurate today. The largest crop of cultivated truffles from a single orchard in American history was 200 pounds, so the quantities (and possibilities) are significant.

Of the hundreds of recorded truffle species, around seven are used for cooking, and of these, four can be found growing wild in Oregon: the Oregon winter white truffle (Tuber oregonense), the Oregon spring white truffle (Tuber gibbosum), the Oregon black truffle (Leucangium carthusianum), and the Oregon brown truffle (Kalapuya brunnea). (As wild truffles continue to be discovered in more and more places on the West Coast, a movement seeks to rename these truffles something like the Western truffle.) Local mushroom foragers and restaurants realized their value starting around the 1970s, and Lefevre foraged for truffles to make his way through grad school, trading his aromatic crop for meals at Eugene’s restaurants.

When truffles are harvested ripe, their aroma typically peaks and declines within a week, and they taste best the moment they’re pulled from the ground, so freshness is a crucial challenge in truffle distribution. That sensitivity is part of the reason why chefs and restaurants across the United States haven’t embraced Oregon’s wild truffles. Unlike in Europe, Oregon truffle foragers did not traditionally use dogs or pigs to unearth truffles. Instead, they used rakes. Unlike dogs, which will only unearth the ripest truffles, raking indiscriminately harvests ripe, unripe, and often immature truffles (think of the difference between an unripe and a ripe tomato times ten). After enough under-ripe truffles were sold and shipped around the country, the Oregon truffle earned a bad name — one that persists to this day.

“[French] Perigords and [Italian] Albas are the most delicious truffles, flat out,” says chef Justin Woodward of Portland’s Castagna restaurant. “They also go through a rigorous selection, cleaning, sorting, grading, pricing, and storage process. This is not always the case with a lot of other areas producing truffles. Some show up dirty, rotten, and wet.” Woodward says experience has taught him to only purchase the “real thing.”

Lefevre is currently taking steps to reverse this poor reputation — mostly through educational initiatives. He founded the Oregon Truffle Festival with his wife Leslie Scott in 2006, and it’s had an almost eerie ability to draw the truffle obsessed. This includes truffle dog trainers, who invite foragers and hobbyists to bring their dogs to the festival for training.

Lefevra hopes that with enough education about the benefits of using truffle dogs, more harvesters will adopt the practice. “It’s not that raking is wrong,” he says. “It’s an outmoded methodology.” With dogs, truffle quality will become more stable, and the Oregon wild truffle economy will continue to grow. It’s also quite possible wild truffles would be discovered in more and more places in the United States if trained truffle dogs were adopted: One hunter, with the help of a dog, discovered truffles in the downtown parks of one the Pacific Northwest’s largest cities.

The use of truffle dogs has already helped raise the quality of Oregon truffles: Raked truffles can go for as low as $40 a pound, while dog-found varieties are currently selling for $600 and $800 a pound. Another contributor to the price jump is the growing truffle culture created by Lefevre and his team, as it connects casual truffle fans with American wild truffles first-hand.

But with few truffle dog trainers and local truffles to use during training, the process is moving at a snail’s pace.

Which brings us to the other hope in American truffles: farmed truffles, a black eye in the history of American farming. Whereas France has harvested hundreds of tons of farmed black Perigord truffles since the 1800s — the peak in the late 19th century, when France recorded 1,000-ton harvests — American scientists and farmers have almost exclusively chronicled failures.

No one knows exactly why truffles have struggled to take root in America, but Lefevre has several guesses. “North America has a wide variety of environments,” he says. “Each region has a unique set of problems... Whereas competing vegetation is a problem for truffles everywhere, the filbert blight, caused by a pathogen that kills particular species of filbert trees, is indigenous to the East Coast and Midwest [although it is beginning to spread to the West]. Gophers are a problem throughout the West, and slugs are a problem in Oregon and Washington.” But farmers have made some headway since the truffle’s introduction in the late 1970s, and this year’s domestic truffle harvest does actually show strong signs of progress.

To understand what this year’s harvest means, it’s important to understand the history of American truffle farming. According to a 1994 Wall Street Journal article, William Griner’s farm in Mendocino County, California grew America's first farmed truffle in 1987. Like most truffle growers, Griner never released exact yield numbers, but Lefevre says an insider once described the orchard as overflowing. This is supported by the fact that a group of European truffle researchers made a trip to the farm in 1996. Griner could likely have been the most successful truffle farmer in American history, says Lefevre, and he produced consistent crops until he died in 2008. The orchard was simply abandoned, possibly due to being surrounded by the area’s famous marijuana farms.

It seems only one other American truffle farm has had the longevity of Griner’s: Garland Truffles, which is owned by Franklin and Betty Garland in Hillsborough, North Carolina. The company says it harvested around 50 pounds of cultivated Perigord truffles a year on its farm between 1993 and 2004. “We have the paperwork and invoices to prove it,” says Franklin Garland, who says the truffles sold for between $300 and $500 a pound. The Eastern filbert blight ultimately destroyed the orchard, and while Garland has replanted, he says the 2016 winter harvest was just three truffles.

Two other truffle success stories gave evidence American farmers may have cracked the code, and they both come from Tennessee. Tom Michaels — who, like Lefevre and many truffle experts, earned a PhD at the Oregon State University — was credited with growing the largest recorded commercial crop in U.S. history in the 2008-2009 season: 200 pounds of Perigord truffles. But Michaels says the filbert blight attacked his orchard near Chuckey the next year, and by 2013, the orchard wasn’t producing much.

Also in East Tennessee, Tom Leonard was successful in obtaining huge yields from a small orchard. With just 50 trees, he had annual harvests of up to 30 pounds of Perigord truffles. But sadly, his orchard was likewise decimated by the filbert blight — along with most of the East Coast’s most promising truffle farms.

These appear to be the four biggest success stories in American truffle farming history, with an estimated two dozen or so more farms reporting to have grown at least one truffle. While articles announcing the dazzling success of these crops and heralding the birth of an industry pepper the internet, the fact is, most success stories were one and done.

Compounding the urgency to create a viable truffle growing industry in the U.S.: In other countries where truffle cultivation has been adopted only recently, such as Spain, Chile, and Australia, crops have been successful. The Truffle & Wine Co. in Western Australia harvested its first truffle in 2003, and today, it has nearly 25 miles of truffle-tree lines and reliably produces several tons of crops annually, valued in the millions of dollars. With Perigords currently going for $600 to $900 a pound on the global market, the novel crop is legit gangbusters.

Considering the price tag, scientists, farmers, and truffle hobbyists are of course continuing to try to cultivate truffles in the United States. The major players supplying truffle trees today are Garland Truffles, American Truffle Company, Virginia Truffles, Mycorrhiza Biotech, and New World Truffieres, Inc., Lefevre’s Oregon-based company. Of these companies, New World Truffieres and Mycorrhiza Biotech are the only ones to report notable crops this year. These crops are remarkable not only because they are some of the only success stories in the past decade, but because they appear to be predictably doubling in size annually. They offer a thread of hope for those in the industry, as well as anyone who wants to eat truffles at their peak.

Perhaps the main success story is Pat Long, Lefevre’s first client. He planted his orchard in the early 2000s, and this winter, he grew the largest Perigord truffle crop in Oregon history: a whopping six to nine pounds (this is an approximation; Long won’t reveal the actual weight). James Beard Award-nominated chef Matt Bennett bought the entire crop and served it over the course of two nights at his restaurant, Sybaris Bistro, in Albany, Oregon.

Long’s orchard appears to have been predictably doubling its crop sizes for the past three years. This is also true of Simon Cartwright, who has consistently produced Perigord crops in Oregon since 2014. Paul Beckman in Idaho, another New World Truffieres client, is having success farming Italy’s bianchetto truffles (Tuber borchii Vittadini), with a crop of around 300 truffles in the 2016-2017 season, according to Lefevre. And while not in the United States, Chris Petres’s farm on Vancouver Island, B.C. reports sizable crops that have doubled annually for the past three years. This year, he harvested around a half pound of truffles a week for several months straight.

Meanwhile, in Gibsonville, NC, the Mycorrhiza Biotech company had its first successful harvest on the family farm of founder Nancy Rosborough. She and her team inoculated loblolly pines using a patent-pending technique, and she estimates the harvest yielded around four pounds of bianchetto truffles.

Given the history of domestic truffle cultivation, avid eaters and chefs can look at these harvests in two ways. Cynics can say with credulity these truffle farms are just the latest in a long series of momentary successes. Optimists can say it shows the slow but consistent advancement of a new industry.

Lefevre offers a more scientific perspective. “Just because truffle science is still young doesn’t mean there’s an element of dumb luck or magic to truffle farming,” he says. “It’s more predictable than that. We need professional farmers to take this seriously. The industry will grow at the rate that more serious farmers get involved, and when 50 acres starts making $5M a year in Australia, that’s when the band wagon will start.”

Mattie John Bamman is the editor of Eater Portland and a culinary travel writer focused on the Pacific Northwest and Europe. Vance Lump is an illustrator and cartoonist that lives on a small farm in Oregon.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
Fact-checker: Dawn Mobley

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