Magical mystery crop

A trufferie can be lucrative but there are no guarantees, writes Kirsten Lawson

Truffle-growing is a most starry of farming pursuits, with the hope after many years of digging up those black fungus whose unmistakable smell has made them sought after the world over.

Among growers, you find city folk seeking life on the land, retirees, investors spying gold. And then there's Damian Robinson. Robinson is a Paddington-raised sound engineer known for his electronica band, Wicked Beat Sound System (which had a gig, even, at the closing of the Sydney Olympics). And now he farms truffles near Bungendore, alongside the cattle on his wife's family farm.

Damian Robinson of Turalla Truffles near Bungendore.
Damian Robinson of Turalla Truffles near Bungendore. Photo: Stuart Walmsley

Why truffles? The romance, he suggests. Perhaps his French blood. That taste of truffles and foie gras he had in a cigar-filled restaurant at the Bastille. Or a cattle farmer's survival plan.

''It wasn't cattle orientated, so it was worth a try,'' he says. ''When you're farming in this day and age you've really got to have a few cards in your pocket or you're going to go broke.''

Canberra truffle grower  Sherry McArdle-English with truffle-hunting dog Snuffle and a 444g truffle they found on May 10 ...
Canberra truffle grower Sherry McArdle-English with truffle-hunting dog Snuffle and a 444g truffle they found on May 10 - a good start. 

Robinson and wife Lindsay Davy (with three teenage daughters) have 800 truffle trees on two hectares, the first trees planted seven years ago. Last year he harvested 5-6kg, a modest haul, but still double the year before.

It doesn't always work that way. Plenty of growers have been waiting half a dozen years or more - 12 years in the case of Australian Truffle Association president Graham Duell - without a truffle to their name. In fact, of the 150 nationwide, only about 50 are finding truffles.


As Robinson says, there are no guarantees.

''It's just a punt really,'' he says. ''It's not making a lot of money at the moment, it makes a bit of money at a certain time of year when the season comes, but I wouldn't stake the farm on it.''

Spot, aka dog 3, truffle hunting with Damian Robinson.
Spot, aka dog 3, truffle hunting with Damian Robinson. Photo: Stuart Walmsley

Robinson grew up in inner-city Sydney with two brothers, where he says, according to the ABC, it was ''pretty much Lord of the Flies at home''.

''My mum used to put the hose on us in the backyard to try to stop us fighting.'' Truffle farming, as you might imagine, was not on his radar.

Damian Robinson of Turalla Truffles on his farm near Bungendore.
Damian Robinson of Turalla Truffles on his farm near Bungendore. Photo: Stuart Walmsley

It might not be making him rich, but Robinson's trufferie at least keeps him in some good food during the season - including truffle ice cream that he makes by infusing truffle in the custard. He served it to members of the public at a truffle hunt last year, and plans another food event at his farm this year. Another way Robinson likes truffles is infused in vodka. Get a quality vodka, drop in a couple of pieces of truffle and leave it a few days, he suggests. ''It will just blow you away.''

Sherry McArdle-English harvested 30kg from her Majura Road farm last year, also doubling her crop from the year before, and is optimistic about this season.

''This is probably the most confident and excited I've been,'' she says. I'm finding truffles all over the place. I think we're going to have a bumper year for truffles because the weather has been amazingly suitable for truffles. We've had rain at the right time in February, March and going into April, because that's when the truffle takes on its weight in water. And fortunately now it's dry.''

Of her trees, 1500 are eight years old, with another 1000 four-year-old trees expected to come on line this year.

Truffle trees increase production year on year until about year 12 or 13. At least that’s the theory. But in this world, nothing is certain. The truffle industry is barely 15 years old in Australia. After the first truffles were found in 1999 growers flocked to plant, but for many the glamour crop has brought little but tears and confusion.

Growers had expected annual harvests of 40kg a hectare (typically containing 400 or so trees) – but the average is nothing like it. Last year, about 3000kg were harvested. In a blunt report to the annual meeting of the Truffle Growers’ Association last year, president Graham Duell said the industry was based on two assumptions – that an inoculated tree would produce truffle and that there was a ready market.

‘‘Experience shows that both assumptions are wrong. Many, perhaps most, of the trees planted are not, and may never, produce truffle.’’

Alf Salter, from Western Australia, had a message that was gloomier still, suggesting truffles would go the same way as other glamour farming pursuits such as tea tree, aloe vera and ginseng.

Salter is chairman and largest shareholder of the Wine and Truffle Company, one of the biggest producers in the country, producing 1600kg of saleable truffles off 21 hectares last year (about 76kg a hectare). But he points to major challenges trying to sell them, with a limited market in Australia and fierce competition – ‘‘forget about $2000 a kilogram and think less than $1000 per kilogram as an average crop price’’, he told growers at the annual meeting.

‘‘The northern hemisphere truffle users are not lining up to buy our truffles. The industry in Europe is fighting back, afraid that we will destroy the established markets for summer truffle and preserved truffles. We cannot sell a truffle into France, UK, Italy or Spain and we have offered our distributor a price of ... $A651 a kilogram.’’

In an interview for this story, Salter says the issue of sales is only going to grow, with more truffles on the market each year. Last year, his company exported about 900kg; this year the figure will double.

‘‘We’ve done more international marketing than anybody and that’s because we’ve had more truffles, but it’s an absolute necessity for us to develop these markets, because the only alternative is to stick them in the freezer ... I’m trying to get people to get a bit realistic about this business.

‘‘There’s a gap between expectation and reality and ‘‘A lot of people think they’re going to get rich quick with truffles but there’s no way. No one’s really made much money out of truffles.

If somebody grows 100kg of truffles and gets 1000 bucks a kilo, that’s not a get-rich-quick scheme, and there’s only a few growers in Australia who are growing that much.’’

Salter’s own experience is all good. ‘‘We’re going to make a buck out of this,’’ he says of his own company.

‘‘But we seem to be in a place in Australia where you can grow truffle and I’m quite happy to admit that was more fluke than anything – good luck. But there are people in Tasmania who have been growing trees for a long time that have never produced a truffle.’’

Why the success? ‘‘Seriously I don’t know,’’ he says. Good management, a good area, and ‘‘an X factor in all of this, and none of us know what it is’’.

Peter and Kate Marshall, near Braidwood, are another success story. They took 100kg from the ground last year, from just one hectare, with another two or three hectares coming into production this year, and 15 hectares planted in all: ‘‘We’re going to have a lovely season,’’ Peter Marshall says. ‘‘They’re all over the joint, they’re popping up like little dirt volcanoes everywhere.’’

Marshall shares none of the pessimism about overseas markets. He says he sells to France, Hanoi and Saigon, Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore, and says he has buyers who will take as much as he can grow.
But he does share Salter’s feelings about the local industry.

‘‘I don’t see an industry,’’ he says. ‘‘There’s no industry. There’s a bunch of dedicated family farmers that are doing fine, there’s a couple of larger corporate outfits that are doing okay and there’s a very large number of people who will probably never get an economic yield, and I feel sorry for them.’’ He points to lack of research in the field, and lack of skills among many growers.

‘‘It’s so fledging that you can’t replicate the success of any particular truffle patch somewhere else at the moment because no one really knows what they’re doing right or wrong, so we need some serious science.’’

Marshall, who does his own inoculation with a collaborator in Melbourne, is producing truffles from hazelnut  trees, but also planting species of oak, among them a North African oak, which grows in more arid conditions and could be suitable for a warmer climate. It also grows more upright than the English oak, giving plenty of room for sunlight to hit the ground –  believed to be important.

‘‘I haven’t stopped yet, I have no particular plans to cease planting trees,’’ he says, his enthusiasm for truffles clear. ‘‘I adore them, they’re wonderful, and we can sell as many as we produce.’’

Wayne Haslam says the initial flush of new growers in the early 2000s has tapered off, possibly partly because of the scare over whether trees were even inoculated with the right kind of truffle. Last year, it was revealed that some trees are inoculated with vastly inferior brumale truffle, instead of the prized Tuber melanosporum, or Perigord black truffle.

The extent of this problem remains unknown, since it is up to growers themselves to have trees tested, at a cost, Haslam says, of about $100 a tree, and few have taken up the option, preferring perhaps to sit tight and hope. Another problem is that trees have apparently been sold with insufficient truffle spores to produce. Shaken by these discoveries, growers are set to adopt a system of certification for trees this year, so they can be more confident about what they’re getting from nurseries.

Despite the problems, Haslam is optimistic, and expects well over 300kg from the Canberra region – from the Southern Highlands in the north to Jindabyne in the south – significantly up on last year’s 200kg. Last year, more than 100kg were eaten by Canberrans, making the population possibly the biggest consumers of truffles per head in the country. Haslam’s own 900-tree trufferie near Sutton has tracked upwards from 3kg in 2007 to 9kg last year. This year, he hopes for 20kg.

The truffle industry might be new, but already it has casualties. In April, a Tasmanian investment scheme was closed down by disillusioned growers, now out of pocket by thousands of dollars. About 50 people invested in the 24 hectare plot, Tasmanian Truffle Project No 2. They paid annual fees and were to recoup their investment from the sale of truffles, but after only small amounts were found in the first stage of the project in 2010, investors began to doubt they would ever see truffles at those rates. In April, they voted to close down the scheme.

But plenty of investors weren’t ready to pull the pin, among them  Nigel Wood, who is set to lose his $60,000 investment (he says the loss for each 0.1 hectare unit is about $12,000; he holds five units), and who, with others, is taking the matter further. Wood says he was among investors who argued to keep the investment open, since with closure, whatever truffles do eventuate from the land will be in the hands of the landowners.

The Tasmanian scheme isn’t Wood’s only venture. He also has a three-year-old plantation in Victoria, and hopes for the first sign of truffles this year. His optimism is such that he was planting another 200 trees the week we speak,  some with a species of Italian white truffle.

And why? ‘‘It’s a bit exotic and a bit different to just getting some BHP shares on the market,’’ he says, summing up with this piece of understatement perhaps the motivation for many.

Kirsten Lawson is Canberra Times food and wine editor.