Black gold: truffle farming in SA

Money, so they say, doesn’t grow on trees. But it might just grow on their roots, if a new breed of optimistic truffle farmer is right. Who would have guessed that truffle farming is now a thing in SA!

Traditionally foraged from the forests of France and Italy by well-trained dogs and pigs, these pungent delicacies are highly prized by gourmands.

The most valuable are the white winter truffles (Tuber magnatum), also known as Piedmont or Alba truffles, which sell for upwards of R35,000/kg. One notch below is the black winter truffle, or Périgord (Tuber melanosporum), which will set you back up to R21,000/kg.

SA entrepreneurs, landowners and farmers are fast waking up to the profit potential of the Périgord, the truffle most widely cultivated worldwide.

To get started in the truffle business you’ll need deep pockets. Presuming you already have a few hectares lying fallow on a farm, truffle orchards cost between R250,000 and R350,000 a hectare, with up to R20,000 per year in maintenance costs. Next you’ll need the patience to watch your trees grow for up to a decade before seeing a cent in return. This is no business for a quick buck.

“From germination to first truffle could be anywhere from five to seven years, but we’ve had them as early as three years in the orchard,” says Neil van Rij of KZN’s Mushrush, which sells truffle-bearing oak trees and offers consulting services to farmers.

Unlike mushrooms, truffles are hypogeous fungi, meaning they grow entirely underground, in a symbiotic relationship with a variety of tree species. Yet while the relationship is a simple one, cultivating them is far from it.

Commercial truffle orchards begin in hi-tech nurseries, where DNA-certified black truffle material, typically imported from Italy, is used to inoculate the roots of oak trees with truffle spores. English oak, cork oak and pin oak have been used locally, but the holm oak — Quercus ilex — from the Mediterranean is preferred for its disease resistance.

The trees, thousands at a time, are then tended in nurseries for 12 to 18 months, often inoculated further to ensure a high rate of mycorrhizal colonisation. That is, lots and lots of tiny spores that will grow into big, fat, expensive truffles.

Once colonisation is established the oaks are planted in orchards. Once the inoculated tree has been planted, it’s typically four or five years before the first tiny truffles are harvested, and a decade before the tree reaches full production.

But if you can sit on your hands, and your investment, that long, the rewards are tempting.

“A 10-year-old orchard should produce around 50kg of truffles per hectare in a season. In Australia some orchards are producing up to 200kg per hectare,” says Leon Potgieter, technical director of Truffle Growers SA.

Tuber melanosporum can be a finicky fungus, though, and to flourish it demands specific climatic and soil conditions. Using sophisticated geographical information systems, local companies have identified suitable landscapes across SA, from the Cederberg to the Garden Route and from Dullstroom to the Drakensberg.

In crunching the numbers, truffle farmers start by looking for one simple factor: cold.

“In order to fruit, Périgord truffles need a certain number of cold ‘units’, and without that cold on the site that has been planted you won’t get truffles,” says Paul Miros, marketing director of Cape-based Woodford Truffles.

“In order to fruit, Périgord truffles need a certain number of cold ‘units’, and without that cold on the site that has been planted you won’t get truffles,” says Paul Miros, marketing director of Cape-based Woodford Truffles.

Woodford Truffles has been in business since 2007, and was one of the early pioneers of the local industry. It started out importing truffles from Europe, but soon expanded to truffle orchards, forming joint ventures with landowners “to spread the risk, learn about the industry, and put the truffles into different weather conditions across SA to improve truffle technology”, explains Miros. “The grower does the farming, and we do the truffle technology, marketing and distribution of the produce.”

Income is split 30/70 in favour of the farmer, and today Woodford Truffles is the largest player in the local industry, with more than 100ha under orchard….. Read the full article here