From the surface, there’s not much going on in the orchard at Burwell Farms in rural North Carolina: loblolly pines grow in perfect, orderly rows, brown trunks and green needles in a hypnotizing grid as far as the eye can see. But something stinky, delicious, and very valuable is growing below the dirt here. Each of these pine trees is in a committed, long-term relationship with Tuber borchii vittadini, a subterranean fungus better known as the bianchetto truffle. After years of research, hard work, and lots of what might politely be called learning experiences, Burwell Farms is the first farm in the United States to successfully grow bianchetto truffles — and, in fact, the largest truffle farm in the country. In a single day, they can harvest thousands of dollars worth of truffles, shipping them out to eager customers around the country.
But, weirdly, despite customer demand and the potential for huge profits, Burwell Farms doesn’t have a ton of competition: Only a handful of truffle farms operate in the United States. Few people are even trying to grow the bianchetto outside of its native Italy. In the latest episode of Gastropod, co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley investigate: what does it take to start a truffle farm, and why is there seemingly so little competition?
First, some relationship science. Truffles are an ectomycorrhizal fungi, which means they’re in a codependent situation with tree roots and couldn’t make it on their own. In the privacy of the earth, a truffle intertwines whisper-thin white tendrils into and around a tree’s roots. It then stretches far out into the soil, gathering more water and minerals than the tree could reach on its own. In exchange for this foraging assistance, the tree makes dinner for the truffle, feeding it with sugars it produces during photosynthesis.
But, as in most relationships, the tree can’t give the truffle everything it needs: When it comes time to reproduce, a truffle needs to persuade a hungry mammal to dig it up, eat it, and poop out its spores. That’s why truffles produce their unmistakable, tantalizing aromas: to manipulate forest creatures into helping them get it on. Still, as relationships go, the tree-truffle partnership is pretty solid — scientists say it’s both ancient and fairly equal.
For wannabe truffle farmers, the question is: How do you re-create this special relationship? Truffle orchards have been around since the early 1800s, when an observant Frenchman, Joseph Talon, figured out that oak saplings transplanted from beneath trees where truffles were found would grow up with truffles in their roots, too. But to make this process viable on a commercial scale, the folks at Burwell Farms had to figure out how to recreate that magic in the greenhouse in the U.S., far from the truffle’s Mediterranean homeland.
“There’s a long history of failure in the United States related to growing truffles,” says Jeffrey Coker, the president of Burwell Farms and a plant biologist by training. Coker says that many of these enterprises, which have largely attempted to grow black truffles, shared the same thing in common. “The number one thing that people don’t understand is that you’re not growing trees,” he told Gastropod. “I mean, you are, but that’s not the point.”
Those other farms would focus on keeping their baby trees happy — watered and fed with fertilizer — and that, the team at Burwell Farms realized, was a big mistake. A happy tree doesn’t need a truffle, because its needs are being met and it has no need to settle down with a fungus. Instead, the team at Burwell Farm focused on figuring out how to stress their saplings just the right amount. “I would say we’re creating a chemical situation in the soil, such that the tree needs the fungus,” Coker says.
Over many years of experimentation, Burwell Farms figured out how to make baby loblolly pines — native to the southern U.S. and similar to the pine trees that host the bianchetto in Spain and France — just water- and nutrient-deprived enough that they sought out truffle spores in order to grow and thrive. Everything from light levels to temperature makes a difference, Coker told Gastropod — and, later, when the trees and their fungus-wrapped roots are big enough to plant out in the field, pH becomes essential, too.
Burwell Farms planted its first inoculated pines in 2014; it took another three years, and a lot more experimentation, before their first harvest. Today, each of their trees can produce up to a pound of truffles per year. Even though only about half of their trees produce truffles annually, if you multiply that by the 550 trees planted per acre, across five two-acre orchards, you’ve got a whole lot of delicious stink. But it’s nowhere close to fulfilling Americans’ hunger for truffles.
“We literally have to not market for months of the year just to do crowd control on this,” Coker said. That’s part of the reason that Burwell Farms also sells truffle spore-inoculated pine trees, so that others might be able to follow in their footsteps. Strangely enough, this is a market in which they want competition.
“If there were more truffles, it actually helps us, because it builds a more mature market,” Coker explained. “And we’re decades away from that happening.” In his estimation, American truffles are where American wine was back in the 1960s, when California was known for its sweet, cheap jug wines, but a handful of ambitious winemakers were just starting to see the potential for the region to become the viticultural powerhouse it is today.
If you believe Coker, American truffles are on the same trajectory, on their way to becoming the next big thing. “I’ll make a prediction,” he said. “You’re going to see a slow ramp up over the next five to 10 years and then you will see a boom.”
Want to get ahead of the trend? Check out the latest episode of Gastropod to learn everything there is to know about these fantastic fungi, from the science behind that drool-inducing scent to the history of the great truffle crash of the 1900s. Believe it or not, there was a time when truffles were so abundant, they were on every dinner table. Here’s hoping we might see such a time again.