Growing truffles still experimental, expert says
Fields of overgrown Christmas trees can still yield a valuable commodity: native truffles, according to an expert.
Farmers who have given up on the Christmas tree market can still manage their plantings to produce the underground delicacy, said Charles Lefevre, founder of New World Truffieres.
“They’re getting truffles at the same time they’re growing trees,” Lefevre said.
Truffles are more likely to colonize the roots of Douglas firs that are no longer suitable for Christmas trees, he said.
However, that doesn’t mean aspiring truffle producers can abandon management altogether.
To improve conditions for truffles, farmers should thin the stand — leaving every fourth tree, for example — and kill weeds to suppress competition for water and nutrients, Lefevre said.
It’s not possible to guarantee that tree roots will generate truffles — the fungus can fail to thrive even at adequate sites, he said.
Farmers are more likely to be successful if the young trees are near older stands where the fungus is already present, Lefevre said.
At this point, any type of truffle farming is still experimental, he said. “It’s all very new.”
In 2013, the Oregon legislature passed a bill that required permits for harvesting truffles on forestland.
Lefevre said this could aid in the development of a legitimate market for native Oregon truffles.
“People have this crop on their land and right now it’s all getting poached,” he said.
The prospect of planting Douglas firs colonized with native Oregon is technically possible but currently uneconomical, Lefevre said.
New World Truffieres has found a way to inoculate trees with the beneficial fungus but the process would render them too expensive, he said.
“We can produce the trees. The challenge now is to make it affordable,” Lefevre said.
Cultivating European truffle varieties is also a youthful science but it has already gained some traction, he said.
Truffle orchards have sprung up in the U.S., Australia and elsewhere as fewer rural residents in France have led to lower production of the fungus in that country, he said.
“These are living in our habitat,” Lefevre said. “This is the type of organism we can domesticate.”
Reduced supplies of truffles in France have also been associated with higher prices — a pound of black French truffles can fetch $600 to $1,000, he said.
In Oregon, hazelnut trees inoculated with the fungus begin producing truffles within five to seven years, he said.
Some orchards have begun generating truffles as soon as three years, though.
The young trees must be irrigated during the summer to ensure a superficial root system that will make finding truffles easier.
Once the trees are producing truffles, farms can dial back irrigation to emulate the dry and wet summer cycle in which the fungus thrives.
Farmers must use spray irrigation so the water reaches a broader land area, rather than drip irrigation.
Truffle-bearing orchards are still rare in the U.S. because farmers are reluctant to take on the risks, Lefevre said.
“Everybody doing it now is a pioneer and they are making the mistakes everybody will learn from,” LeFevre said.
Aaron Kennel, a farmer near Corvallis, Ore., found his first truffle this winter in a hazelnut orchard he planted eight years ago.
“This is a commercial enterprise,” Kennel said. “I plan to be producing commercial quantities in the next couple years.”
Unfortunately, Kennel’s six-acre orchard will not double as a hazelnut operation.
To harvest hazelnuts, he would have to maintain a “sweepable” soil surface that would prevent truffle development, Kennel said.
“Commercial nut harvesting and commercial truffle harvesting are not very compatible,” he said.