Why We Chose to Start a Truffle Farm
By Jonah Ward
In early 2015, my family and our land partners sat down to discuss the future of our historic homestead on Foster Mountain in rural Willits, California. There had not been a permanent resident living up there for a few years, and between the upkeep and second mortgage, money had begun to slowly drain from everyone’s pockets. Frankly, in order to keep the land, it had to somehow start generating its own source of revenue. I knew first-hand how much potential it had, and the thought of selling the land where I was born and raised, and where I had enjoyed so many good childhood memories, had my stomach in knots. There had to be a way to keep it in the family so it could be cherished for many more years to come. Hence, the conversations and research began.
Like so many others, my bohemian parents were intrinsically drawn to California in the 1970s during the whole "back-to-the-land" movement and purchased, with a land partner, 160 acres of sprawling, hilly wilderness far away from civilization. In the beginning, they roughed it by living in a teepee and slowly pieced together a cabin-like home suitable for raising a family with three children. My mother worked in town as a schoolteacher, and my father hopped up and down California from job to job as a welder for a pile drivers’ union.
Fast forward to 2006. With all of us children grown and out exploring the world, they no longer had ties to the land. My mom missed her family, so they both decided to move back to Massachusetts. Also around that time, our original land partner had passed away, so his daughter, Jenny, inherited his 50% stake in the land. She and her family lived in Spokane, Washington at the time, but they rarely visited. Jenny had a deep connection with the land, as well, as she had spent many summers on the mountain as a child. She, too, was struggling with the thought of selling the property and was now faced with an important decision to make.
Over the next nine years, things had quieted down on Foster Mountain. My mother's flowerbeds had become overgrown, the vegetable gardens had gone to seed, the fruit trees were bulging with unpicked fruit, and the dust had settled on the red dirt roads. I was the only one who still frequented the property, other than our wild mountain cat, Vinsky. I worked on projects here and there on the mountain, while going back and forth between the mountain and the Bay Area for my art career. It was tough taking care of the homestead all by myself, and I knew things couldn't remain this way forever.
Originally inhabited by the native Pomo Indians, the land was purchased in the late 1800s and settled by a man named Robert Scott. He sought out the property during his quest for California gold, but as luck would have it, he never found any. Instead, he planted an orchard of heirloom apples supposedly originating from England, aptly named the Seek-No-Further. They were very large apples, pale green in color, and dappled with red blotches. He sold the apples from his cart in nearby towns and ultimately gained notoriety and a devout following of customers. It's remarkable to believe that a number of these original apple trees still remain on the mountain today and bear fruit each summer.
The apples were a great source of seasonal income for Mr. Scott, but in present times, with an abundance of apple varieties available at the supermarket, apples are not the answer for sustaining life on this land. We needed something unique, something that people wanted to buy, that could fetch a decent price and required only minimal upkeep.
Cannabis was out of the question, even though it is what made the region famous. It was a ton of work and more trouble than it was worth. My cousin, a wine importer, suggested a vineyard, but the region was so saturated with grape growers in nearby Lake and Sonoma counties that we figured this was yet another crop that would require intensive work without much reward. At one point I was taking orders from farm-to-table restaurants to grow small batches of specialized organic vegetables, but I soon realized how much maintenance these crops required. Since my time was precious, this idea was short lived. I soon became a bit frustrated and concerned that we wouldn’t find a solution. All of these business ideas were run of the mill, had been done a million times, and honestly—not that exciting to me. There had to be something out there fitting our criteria that we could all become passionate about; something that carried on in the spirit that Robert Scott had unequivocally evoked upon the land so many years ago.
One hobby I’d had over the years that could potentially lead to something, and that I personally was very passionate about—being a foodie and all—was foraging for wild mushrooms on and around the property. Although I had had a few successful seasons foraging, the climate needed to be just right in order for the matsutake and chanterelles I was seeking to pop out of the ground. When the seasons proved bountiful, I would sell my foraged goods to restaurants down in the Bay Area. In one record year I pulled in over 250 pounds of matsutake, and because of connections I had made with my art career, I had even sold these mushrooms to chefs at famed restaurants, such as Gary Danko and Saison, in San Francisco, and the Restaurant at Meadowood, in St. Helena.
So, could selling foraged mushrooms be the answer? With the price-per-pound being between $8 - $12 for chanterelles and $12 - $20 for matsutake, it’s a good secondary seasonal source of income, but not the complete solution to our situation. However, it was this hobby that had allowed me to build a small network of other foragers and chefs, ultimately leading to conversations about truffles, the warty mushroom prized by gourmet chefs. I had always been intrigued with these strange underground fungi and loved the flavor profile. It was no secret how much money they could fetch: up to $500 - $1000 a pound, depending on the variety and quality. So then could these gastronomical delights be the answer to our worries?
To learn more and to satisfy my curiosity about truffles and the industry in general, I decided to attend the Napa Truffle Festival in January 2015. I was quickly seduced by this niche society of growers and buyers. If you’re not familiar with truffles, based on what I learned at the festival and from my own personal research, here’s a quick (somewhat technical) rundown: truffles are a subterranean fungi tuber that have a mycorrhizal (or symbiotic) relationship with the roots of certain trees. The trees give the truffles nutrients from above ground through photosynthesis. To reciprocate, the truffles break down finer nutrients in the soil and give it to the tree. As the trees grow, the mycelium (fungus “roots”) attach and grow with the roots of the tree. When two different “mating” types of the same species of truffle mycelium meet, a truffle is usually formed. Hopefully, I didn't lose you there.
In addition to this helpful knowledge, I also discovered a company that would "partner" with you, if you had enough land. They would provide the science and know-how of truffle cultivation, which, at first, sounded like half the battle. However, you'd then be left to do everything from planting to harvesting yourself, all on your own dime and time. The contract required you to pay them 30% of your profits for the next 30 years. Not knowing the first thing about farming truffles, I brought the idea back to discuss this option with the core group.
We didn't need to deliberate for long. It was unanimous that we'd consider a truffle orchard as one viable option for generating income for the property. Yes, we understood that we probably wouldn't see our first truffle for three to five years, since that’s how long it takes for all the pieces to come together and for the truffles to begin to form beneath, but as the saying goes, “the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the next best time is now.”
So, without looking back, we forged ahead and started a business plan. Josh, Jenny’s husband, was in the process of getting his MBA, so the timing couldn’t have been better. The first decision we made—and probably the most important—was to forego a corporation to come in and oversee our operation for the next thirty years. Our core group consisted of six people, including me, who we felt were all educated enough, resourceful, in good physical condition, and possessed a wide range of skill sets. We were reasonably confident we'd be able to figure out how to plant some trees and grow some fungus. After all, even if we did build this entire orchard and never saw a truffle, we'd at least be adding value to the land by adding an irrigated orchard that we could swap out for another crop if need be.
We also realized this would be a very physically demanding project initially and would require us to take time out of our already busy lives. Duly noted—but how cool would it be to say we were starting a truffle orchard?! So, with our do-it-yourself attitudes, and acceptance of the potential risks involved, both physically and financially, we set the plan in stone, and kicked off our truffle farm journey—all by ourselves.
Over the next year, we jumped through numerous hoops in order to plant our orchard by our target date of Spring 2016. Going in, we knew our land had the general essentials for cultivating truffles, including soil type and climate, but there were several minerals scattered throughout the property that could possibly hinder truffle growth. After completing our soil tests, of the eight usable acres, we narrowed it down to two fields: one was an acre and the other a half-acre. It was not as much as we had originally hoped, but realistically, this size of land was plenty for our small group to handle with the amount of money we planned to bootstrap.
Throughout our research, we met some important people in this still somewhat new industry in the U.S., one of whom was Charles Lefevre, the man behind the Oregon Truffle Festival, the largest gathering in the country dedicated to the field. Charles was instrumental in helping us plan our orchard. We placed an order with him for 500 baby trees that he and his team prepared in a laboratory grown from nut and acorn; their roots were then inoculated with truffle spores.
We chose two varieties of truffles, black (tuber melanosporum) and burgundy (tuber aestivum), both of which were recommended for our soil and climate. These truffle varieties also preferred a particular type of tree under which to grow. In our case, we purchased hazelnut trees and two types of oak. We would eventually interplant these trees within the fields, based on a formula Charles had worked out for us. They'd remain in the laboratory for a year before being ready for shipment, which was fine by us, since we needed that amount of time to prepare the land.
One big hurdle to add to this story, and that I want to emphasize, is that our property is entirely off the grid, which adds its own set of challenges. It’s 45 minutes away from any major highway or town, 15 minutes of which is up a steep dirt road. It’s different from your typical, flat piece of farmland. We generate our own electricity using small hydroelectric turbines and solar panels. We are fortunate to have plenty of water from year-round springs, because we were told that we’d need a lot of water. This is especially true in the first couple of years in order to keep the roots close to the surface so that we could promote more truffles to grow within the first 12 inches of soil. The water was there, but it was apparent that we needed to upgrade the irrigation infrastructure on our land in order to support these 500 thirsty trees.
Our long list of preparations began with the clearing of a 50 - 100 ft. perimeter buffer area between the native forest and both of our planting areas. This entailed ramping up our lumberjack skills in the middle of a typically hot California summer. In the end we felled and moved over 100 trees, the largest having a diameter of 23 inches, while the tallest stretched over 100 feet. Our plan was to repurpose every scrap of wood; some would be milled to make lumber for construction projects, some I would use for my artwork, and the rest would be used for firewood.
Once the perimeters were cleared we had to figure out how to evenly add 50 tons of ground-up limestone (lime) to the fields. Our soil test results determined that both fields had a slightly low pH level, which meant that the tree roots and truffle mycelium would, in fact, grow, but truffles would not form unless this level was increased to the preferred 7.3 - 7.9 range. This process wasn't easy and involved scraping, spreading, and ripping the soil using a neighbor's tractor. We spread the lime into both fields, one shovel scoop at a time, until the dusty task was complete. We'd need to test the pH of the fields annually to make sure the levels were staying consistent, but for the time being—they were ready.
Next on our list of field preparation was designing and building our massive underground watering system. We hired an irrigation design company to help us put together a plan. Once we settled on a design, instead of having them build and install it, we decided we'd take their plans and piece together the hundreds of parts ourselves, mainly to save money, but also because we clearly enjoyed a challenge and torturing ourselves.
As we started this part of the project, we had no idea that the tropical weather system, nicknamed El Niño, would be rearing its ugly head at the same exact time. At one point, we were forced to bring the operation inside our workshop where we sat for hours on end monotonously gluing the endless piles of pipes, sprayers, vents, and manifolds. In between rainstorms we'd go out into the fields and dig the trenches where we'd place the assembled pieces. In total, we calculated that we had dug about a mile’s worth of trench. We hooked up power to our new pump in the lower acre that moved spring water up to our two 2,500 gallon storage tanks, which we also managed to move 40 feet up the side of the hill in order to increase water pressure to the new irrigation below.
This portion of the project would not have been as difficult had the fields not been so saturated with rainwater, creating such a muddy, slippery mess on our sloped fields. Eventually, after scrambling to meet our spring deadline, all irrigation was in the ground, connected, primed and ready to bring water to the baby trees.
The trees had arrived in late February, and it was imperative to get them into the ground. They had been sitting in bundles for a couple weeks, and some had begun showing signs of mold due to moisture in the air. During Easter break, I invited up a group of friends and made an event out of the planting. Together, we dug holes, assembled tree guards and carefully planted each tree. After planting the last one, we celebrated with a champagne toast in the half-acre field. The trees inoculated with truffle mycelium were finally in the ground, and by the looks of it, we had pulled it off. We named our farmSeek No Further Farms as a tribute to Robert Scott and hoped we'd have the same success he had had with his apples way back when.
After a few months in the ground, we ended up losing only a couple dozen trees, and, as per the purchase guarantee with Charles, these could be replaced at no extra charge and planted during the next season. A few pipes within the water system had come apart, which were quickly repaired and reinforced, and we also had to fine-tune the watering times. In addition, the weeds had quickly taken over the freshly tilled fields. We'd need to learn how to maintain this manually on a regular basis and forgo the use of chemicals, as we had planned to obtain organic certification.
So, what's next? We wait. We keep an eye on everything. We make sure there's power going to the pump, we monitor the water levels in the tanks, and we keep the weeds down. We watch for gophers, we test the pH levels of the soil, we buy and train a truffle dog, but mainly we cross our fingers that we did everything correctly and hope and pray that one day we'll have truffles fruiting in our orchards.
Will our truffles make us rich someday? Well, if the average acre yields 30 lbs. per year, and if the market value of truffles remains at $500 - $1000 per pound, then maybe not rich, but we will be able to keep the land and help secure its self-sustaining future. This project also potentially opens doors that could lead to other exciting and successful business opportunities. Imagine coming up for a weekend to enjoy a five-course feast prepared by a talented guest chef that includes freshly farmed truffles, as you take in the rustic mountain surroundings. How awesome does that sound? But I digress.
Like every startup, we're taking a pretty big risk. There are many things that could go wrong, and we mostly fear the unexpected. However, we're at the forefront of an emerging, fairly untapped niche of the food industry in the United States. We are amongst a small handful of truffle farmers in California taking our chances with this industry, but if it all goes well, we could be pioneering the next big cash crop for the state. We are beyond driven to see this through and be successful. This farm was built on passion and a dream to create something that's not only self-sustaining, but something that brings together like-minded people who share the love of food and the bohemian spirit. After all, to share food is to share love, life and happiness. Wish us luck!