By SEAN ELLIS
EAGLE, Idaho -- In the foothills north of Eagle, Idaho, a handful of farmers are trying to grow what they call "Idaho's other tuber."
Against conventional wisdom that it was too cold in Idaho for the fungus to grow, Paul Beckman planted 10 acres of truffle-inoculated trees near Boise five years ago.
Neighbor Brad Sprenger also planted 10 acres and several other growers have planted another 20 acres of truffle-inoculated orchards in southwest Idaho since then.
Sprenger's Italian truffle dog, Sophie, found five Italian spring white truffles on Beckman's farm in February, the first time that variety has been found in the western hemisphere.
"That's a huge sign; we're all excited about that," said Beckman.
Truffles sell for prices ranging from hundreds of dollars per pound to over $1,000 per pound.
The trees that produced the truffles were only four years old, and most trees don't produce them until six or eight years, said Charles Lefevre, owner of New World Truffieres and one of the founders and organizers of the Oregon Truffle Festival.
"That's very young for them to be producing truffles," said Lefevre, who inoculated the seedlings planted in Idaho.
The area near Eagle may have the highest concentration of truffle orchards in the United States, since most Oregon truffles grow in the wild, Lefevre said.
Truffles, a fungus, attach to the root tips of trees and provide them micronutrients. Beckman is trying to grow five truffle varieties using primarily hazelnut and oak trees.
Because the commercial truffle orchard industry is in its early stages and no one truly knows what makes the fungus grow, Beckman is trying all types of planting techniques.
"We're trying all different spacings, configurations and planting schemes," he said. "Nobody knows what triggers the fungus to know when it's time to reproduce so we're trying to figure out how to make sense of growing it."
Lefevre has acted as a mentor to Idaho's burgeoning truffle industry. He also told Beckman at one time that it was too cold in Idaho to grow truffles.
Lefevre said he has done more research on Idaho's climate and soil conditions since then and has come to realize the Treasure Valley area around Boise could be an ideal place to grow truffles.
The reason is that the soil pH content in the area is very high, so growers don't have to add tons of lime to the soil like truffle farmers in other areas do. The Snake River also moderates the climate in that area, Lefevre said.
"It's one of the few places in the United States that has a good climate for European truffles that does not require adding lime in the soil," he said.
Bitner Vineyards owner Ron Bitner, who is trying to grow the fungus a little farther south in Caldwell, said he's excited about the upside for the fungus.
"There are no guarantees, but it's a fun crop and there's a lot of potential," he said. "I'm excited about them."