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Some growers hope fungi save the farm
    #2985951 - 08/10/04 02:51 PM (13 years, 10 months ago)


Some growers hope fungi save the farm


Find a hazelnut tree.
Look for bare earth at its base.

Watch for flies buzzing about, or let your dog take a whiff.

Dig, and maybe you will unearth hope for North Carolina's rural economy: a truffle.


WHAT THEY ARE: Truffles are the fruiting bodies of fungi grown underground. They have a richer, more intense flavor than common mushrooms.

HOW THEY GROW: Truffle-bearing fungus attaches itself to the roots of trees. If soil conditions are right and the roots of several trees with the fungus intertwine, the fungus produces truffles.

HOW THEY'RE HARVESTED: Some truffle hunters root out truffles with pigs. Others train dogs to sniff them out. Franklin Garland says he prefers dogs because, unlike pigs, they don't try to eat the truffles they find. The presence of truffles also is indicated by a patch of bare ground and insects flying near it.

WHERE THEY'RE GROWN: The most prized truffles, Italian white and French black Perigord, are native to Europe. They were once harvested wild in the woods, but black truffles have been cultivated in Europe since the late 1800s. Today, black truffles also are cultivated in New Zealand and the United States. China and the western United States also have native truffles, but they are cheaper and less sought-after.

These aren't the chocolate candies but prized underground mushrooms for which gourmet chefs will pay hundreds of dollars a pound.

A group of this state's rural residents are hoping that truffles, grown in the same sandy soil where tobacco sprouts, will keep a few small farms from going under.

The first harvest is years away, but if the experiment goes well, North Carolina could become to truffles what California is to wine.

"We can be the truffle capital," says Franklin Garland of Hillsborough, who is running the truffle project. "Just like Napa and Sonoma made themselves the wine capital, even though grapes can be grown anywhere."

Garland is a truffle pioneer, the first man to figure out how to produce French black Perigord truffles in the United States. Now, he has a grant to help a few rural landowners break into the lucrative business.

The Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, established by the state and financed with tobacco settlement money, gave $235,000 to enable 50 farmers to try the truffle business. This fall, each farmer will receive 200 hazelnut trees inoculated with the fungus that produces truffles, along with mulch, an irrigation system and a lot of advice -- all at no charge. Then it's up to each farmer to care for the trees and wait for truffles to arrive.

If the project is successful, it will create a new generation of truffle farmers -- most of them a far cry from the truffle hunters of old, who prowled the woods of France and Italy in secret, with trained pigs in tow.

"I thought truffles was some kind of chocolate," said John Gross, who will plant the truffle-bearing trees on his Lee County farm. "I had never heard of them."

He tasted truffle butter a few months ago, courtesy of Garland, and wasn't dazzled.

"It didn't do anything for me," said Gross, 38. "But I know higher-class people eat them."

Money in truffles

Largely because of their cost, truffles are served mostly in swank restaurants in big cities such as New York and Chicago.

The most prized varieties sell for as much as $100 an ounce because they are so difficult to grow. They can take a decade to cultivate, and they rarely have been grown successfully outside of Europe.

The lumpy black truffle, which grows naturally only in the Perigord region of France, is prized for its intense earthy flavor -- like a mushroom but richer and more complex -- and thought of by some gourmands as a natural aphrodisiac.

For Gross, however, truffles are not about romance. They are about saving his farm.

He is one of many small farmers across rural North Carolina who have been stung by a declining demand for American tobacco. Out of necessity, he has looked to other crops in the past few years.

He started growing fruits and vegetables and converted a tobacco barn into a produce stand. He opens up his fields and lets people pick their own strawberries, peas and beans.

Now, he is trying truffles. For small farmers these days, it's adapt or die.

Ray Strawbridge, a Franklin County landowner, hopes truffles will save his farm from becoming a housing development.

He and his wife don't farm the land she inherited from her father, but they have always paid the taxes by renting out their rights to grow tobacco. As the tobacco market shrinks, there is less income to pay the farm's bills.

Truffles struck Strawbridge, 50, a professional photographer and real estate broker, as something he could do.

Garland, who grows and sells truffle-bearing trees, bills truffle-growing as easy. He predicts 90 percent of the grant participants will be successful.

But so far, he has been one of the few people in the United States to build a successful business on truffles. It took him years of experimentation to figure out that truffles won't fruit without extraordinary amounts of lime mixed into the soil. He also learned, when his entire orchard died in 2001, that it's possible to use too much lime.

Patience pays off

Truffles are not for the impatient. They don't grow until the roots of the trees intertwine. Garland waited 12 years for his first truffle, which appeared in 1992.

He has learned since then, and he predicts the new growers will get truffles in five to seven years. Garland points out that farmers wait a decade for Christmas trees to mature and five years or more for fruit and nut trees to produce. Truffles are far more valuable.

"Once you have an established orchard, it's real easy," Garland says. "You go out with your dog twice a week and he does the work for you. One person can harvest 10 acres of truffles."

When he was able to grow them, Garland had no trouble selling truffles from tobacco country. He says he sold to local restaurants and to a New Orleans distributor who supplies chef Emeril Lagasse's restaurants.

Local chefs who have tasted Garland's truffles say they are just as good as European ones.

Celebrity chef Mario Batali, of the Food Network show "Molto Mario," responded to an e-mail query about North Carolina truffles, saying he has no bias against American truffles. "I do not care where it comes from if it is delicious," he wrote.

Garland, walking through his newest orchard, says he is convinced that North Carolina is on the cusp of fulfilling its truffle potential.

The muddy field in rural Orange County, pancake flat and surrounded by scrubby pines, feels a long way from the misty forests of France. But a truffle from this soil tastes just as sweet.

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