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Some Idaho growers starting to find truffles

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

EAGLE – Truffles, the most expensive food in the world on an ounce-for-ounce basis, are starting to be found in the foothills of Eagle in southwestern Idaho.

An underground fungus that grows near tree roots, truffles sell for hundreds to several thousand dollars a pound, depending on the variety.

At those prices, searching for them is kind of like mining for gold, says Paul Beckman, the father of truffles in Idaho.

“It’s like gold mining. It’s just fun,” said Beckman, who has planted several dozen acres of hazelnut and oak trees that have been inoculated with truffle spores.

Unlike in many other places around the world, where people search for truffles in the wild, Idaho producers have planted thousands of acres of trees inoculated with truffle spores in orchard settings.

Beckman planted his first truffle trees near the Eagle foothills in 2006 and planted most of his trees in 2008. Trees typically take 8-12 years to start producing truffles and Beckman found his first truffles in 2012 and has been finding about 12 pounds a year since then.

Trained dogs are used to sniff out truffles, which grow underground, and the first truffle discovered in Idaho by Beckman was eaten by the dog that found it. Now he uses trained truffle dogs and truffles being eaten by the dogs that find them is less of a problem.

The type of truffles Beckman has been finding are known as white Bianchetto truffles, which he has been selling for $40 an ounce or $640 a pound.

Brad Sprenger, a neighbor, planted his trees a few years after Beckman and this year found 18 black Perigord truffles, the first of that type found in Idaho and the second most expensive truffle at about $1,000 to $1,200 a pound.

Truffle farming is a lesson in patience “and a lot of weeding, watering and waiting,” Sprenger said.

He said finding nothing even after his trees were six or seven years old made him wonder, “Is it ever going to work? But the fact that we’ve actually moved from concept to reality is even more exciting.”

According to Beckman, about 20 people in southwestern Idaho have planted a total of about 150 acres of truffles and the region has what is believed to be the largest concentration of truffle orchards in the United States.

In Caldwell, vineyard and winery owner Ron Bitner has planted one acre of trees inoculated with Perigord truffle spores. Though he hasn’t found any yet, he said he’s “excited that the black truffle has been found in Idaho.”

His trees are 8 years old and it takes about 8-12 years for trees to produce the black Perigord truffles, Bitner said. The vegetation around the trees has started to burn off from a chemical reaction that happens when truffles start to produce, he said.

“The dogs get excited and get down and start to dig but we haven’t found anything yet,” Bitner said. “I’m not discouraged at all, especially since Brad has found some.”

Truffles are prized for the rich aromas they emit and have been described by one writer as “sulfuric love bombs … Eating, even sniffing, a truffle is a bit like being drugged.”

Beckman and Sprenger are promoting truffles as “Idaho’s other tuber,” a play on the state’s most famous crop, potatoes. Beckman dreams of a promotion campaign tying the two crops together.

“What I’d really like to see is truffles and tubers married up,” he said. “Potatoes with truffles on them is an incredibly nice meal.”

Sprenger said that when he and Beckman were trying to figure out the potential viability of the crop, they modeled on 30 pounds of truffles per acre each year.

When and if that happens, “We’ll cover the cost of the land, everything, in that first year,” he said. “It would be nice if it did generate some retirement income. If it doesn’t, fine, we had fun.”

Beckman has planted a few trees inoculated with white Alba truffle spores. Alba truffles are the mother of all truffles and a two-pound Alba once sold at auction for $300,000, though they typically fetch about $2,500 to $3,500 a pound.

Truffles have traditionally been found in the wild and trying to raise them in an orchard setting is a relatively new idea so there is no manual on raising truffles, Beckman said.

People who have planted truffles in Idaho are trying a wide variety of methods to try to unlock the secret to making the underground tubers grow, he said.

“We try everything,” Beckman said. “We’re all trying to learn exactly what the secret is.”

When he was first thinking of planting truffle trees, Beckman was told it was too cold here and not an ideal place to grow them. That turned out to not be true.

The Snake River moderates the climate in the area, Beckman said, and 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.

“It’s turning out to be a pretty good climate for truffles,” he said. “We’re excited about it.”