Truffle pioneers hope fungi business can rival wine

Sherri Buri McDonald / The (Eugene) Register-Guard /

When winemakers from northern California first set their sights on Oregon and tried to grow wine grapes here in the 1960s, many people thought they were crazy.

The same could be said of the latest crop of Oregon agricultural dreamers, including Simon and Linnet Cartwright of Cottage Grove.

For the past five years, the Cartwrights have spent more than $40,000 and countless hours on the four acres behind their house growing trees inoculated with European varieties of truffles — the aromatic and flavorful fungi prized by chefs around the world.

The Cartwrights are trying to grow truffles — a line of work successful in Europe and Australia, but still unproven in North America.

The Oregon wine story is well known. The state now has more than 400 wineries contributing $2.7 billion a year to the economy, according to a recent study by Full Glass Research, a market and industry research firm in Berkeley, Calif.

Truffle specialist Charles Lefevre, founder of New World Truffieres, the Eugene company that supplied the Cartwrights’ trees, believes the Oregon truffle industry will be a similar success. “It’s the people who get in now who will be the big stars 30 years from now,” he said.

Oregon’s emerging truffle industry could one day rival the size of the wine industry here, according to Lefevre and several other authors of a 2009 feasibility study on culinary truffles in Oregon.

But for now, Oregon’s truffle industry is still in its infancy.

New World Truffieres sells trees to hundreds of customers — truffles grow alongside tree roots — and five of the customers are producing truffles, said Lefevre, who holds a Ph.D. in mycology from Oregon State University.

“It’s where ... the Oregon wine industry was in maybe the early 1970s,” he said. “So it has a long way to grow.”

Other experts say North American truffle growers face a steep learning curve.

“We still have a lot to learn about our climate and soils and where are the right combinations to make the truffle fungi happy and prolific,” said truffle expert Jim Trappe.

The longtime professor at Oregon State University’s Forest Science Department is now a researcher and consultant.

Trappe also is co-author of “Field Guide to North American Truffles: Hunting, Identifying and Enjoying the World’s Most Prized Fungi,” and a speaker at the upcoming Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene, which Lefevre founded in 2006 with his wife Leslie Scott, former general manager of the Oregon Country Fair.

Truffle cultivation in the Willamette Valley “has been discouraging, so far, for reasons speculated but not really known,” Trappe said. “A successful truffle producer in Australia visited here. He thinks our soils are too fertile and our climate too wet.”

“The Italians have a saying that the poorer the soil is for the tree, the better it is for the truffle,” referring to the Perigord black truffle from southern Europe, Trappe said.

That’s the type of truffle the Cartwrights are trying to grow in their orchard of English oak and hazelnut trees in Cottage Grove.

Demonstration orchard

Although Oregon has its own native truffles, cultivation focuses on European varieties, for which there is proven demand.

Some restaurants pay $900 a pound for European black truffles.

A recent development that aims to advance local growers’ understanding of which truffle varieties grow best in which locations is a three-acre demonstration truffle orchard at the 92-acre Berggren Demonstration Farm along the McKenzie River, near Walterville.

The farm also is being used for growing produce for the farm-to-school program in Eugene.

“We want this to be a place where area farmers can look around and see what’s working and what’s not working,” Jared Pruch, demonstration farm coordinator.

The Eugene Water & Electric Board teamed up with nonprofit McKenzie River Trust and the Bonneville Power Adminstration to buy the land and create the farm to promote sustainable farming and create wildlife habitat along the river as a way to protect the area’s source of drinking water.

Cascade Pacific Resource Conservation & Development, a nonprofit agency, will manage the truffle orchard.

That program recently received a $60,000 speciality-crop federal grant over two years to set up the truffle orchard.

The grant enables the group and its industry partner, Lefevre’s New World Truffieres, “to take some risks that people would not take if they were going to lose their shirts on this investment,” he said. It also is a resource for growers, Pruch said.

Cascade Pacific will grow six varieties of truffles, including European black truffles, on six half-acre plots, he said.

It usually takes five to seven years for European black truffles to appear, but the demonstration farm may start producing earlier because the seedlings being planted are already 2 years old, Lefevre said.

Favorable climate

Pruch, a mushroom collector, said he heard Lefevre speak at a Cascade Mycological Society meeting, which got him thinking that truffles might work at the demonstration farm.

“He tells this really compelling story about how a high percentage of truffles consumed in Europe are grown commercially and Oregon, and the Willamette Valley in particular, has a unique climate well-suited for truffle production,” he said. “We have native truffles that grow here, and there’s this great opportunity for farmers in the Willamette Valley.”

Pruch said he applied for the grant because “the (grant’s) whole focus is helping farmers participate in new emerging markets for certain high-value specialty crops.”

Cascade Pacific will begin planting trees this winter, Pruch said.

Title is ‘ours to lose’

Oregon isn’t the only region of the United States vying to become the preeminent “truffle territory.”

But with its rich supply of native truffles, a high concentration of the world’s truffle experts, most with ties to OSU’s forestry program, and the Oregon Truffle Festival, a highly regarded celebration now in its eighth year, “Oregon already has that title,” Lefevre said. “It’s ours to lose.”

Lefevre is promoting the cultivation of European truffle varieties through his business at the same time as he advocates for native Oregon truffle varieties at the truffle festival, which runs Jan. 25-Jan. 27.

Lefevre said he’s working to redeem Oregon truffles’ “well-deserved bad reputation because of how they’re harvested and handled.”

In years past, foragers indiscriminately raked up foul-tasting immature Oregon truffles, along with sought-after ripe ones.

Now truffle hunters here are following Europe’s lead by using trained dogs to sniff out truffles at their peak ripeness.

Lefevre predicts that “it’s just a matter of time” before more people give truffle farming a try, he said.

“It will start at the moment when several people like Simon start to make real money from truffles,” Lefevre said during a recent visit to the Cartwright’s truffle orchard.