Here comes truffle: Why these Ontario farmers are hoping to make an industry out of the fancy fungi

Commercial truffle production is virtually non-existent in Ontario — but perhaps not for long
By Chantal Braganza - Published on May 10, 2019
truffle
Typically associated with Italian, French, and Spanish cuisine, the burgundy truffle could find a new place to grow, in Ontario. (wikipedia.org/Rippitippi)

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Five years ago, Kathleen Galias and Patrick Hazen bought a 10-acre plot of land just outside Guelph. The two had no farming experience — Hazen runs a landscaping firm, Galias a pharmacy — so they spent a good deal of time thinking about what kind of crop they’d like to cultivate.

They considered beer hops, but the six-acre field was too small for those to turn a profit. One of Hazen’s clients, though, sparked their interest in a crop that was both space-efficient and lucrative: burgundy truffles. Typically associated with Italian, French, and Spanish cuisine, the species of truffle fungus is widely considered a luxury product and goes for up to US$350 a pound.

Commercial truffle production has been virtually non-existent in Ontario: the truffle species that do grow naturally in the province aren’t widely used in cooking, and the prized European species, such as Périgord black and Alba white, are notoriously finicky and difficult to domesticate, which contributes to their price. But, through Hazen’s client, the two heard about Earthgen, a Dunnville-area tree nursery that is working on making it possible here. While working on a tree-fungus propagation system that helps trees grow faster, Earthgen’s team found a way to help truffle-friendly tree species grow burgundies in Ontario’s harsher climate by encouraging truffle-friendly tree saplings to grow thick, fibrous root systems and inoculating them with truffle spores.

“So we connected with Earthgen,” says Galias. “We attended their workshops and did our own research.” They applied for seed funding from Innovation Guelph, a small-business acceleration initiative, and toured farms in Spain. In the spring of 2018, they put their shovels in the ground; by fall, they’d planted 60 hazelnut and oak trees inoculated by Earthgen with burgundy-truffle spores. This month, they’ll begin irrigating the trees. If the crop is successful, they could harvest truffles as early as the fall of next year.

“We don’t know the outcome yet, but it’s all green lights so far,” Galias says. “There’s financial support, and there’s mentorship that [Earthgen] provided for us.”

Truffles (technically, the fruiting body of what’s called the ascomycete fungus) tend to grow underground, on the roots of trees, developing a symbiotic relationship with them: they pull up moisture and nutrients from the soil in exchange for the tree’s sugar.

Early in his career in agricultural research, the University of Guelph’s Charles Shearer focused on the propagation of black truffles, which are typically more highly prized than the burgundy variety. “Trees are promiscuous,” he says, noting that truffle fungi aren’t the only things competing for root space. “They don’t care which fungus they’re partnered with so long as they get the nutrients, and black truffles don’t put up as much of a fight.”

The burgundy, however, is more aggressive and can thrive in colder climates. “They’ve found it as far north as Finland,” says Shearer.

Another factor that makes them well-suited to Ontario: they thrive on oak and hazelnut trees. The latter is a nascent crop here and has seen a boost since Nutella-maker Ferrero opened a manufacturing plant in Brantford in 2015. “To give you an idea, hazelnuts at a mature orchard, you get $5,000 per acre yield,” says Earthgen president Adam Koziol. And acorns from oak trees can be sold for livestock feed or flour. The dual-crop aspect of the tree-truffle combo is largely what appealed to Koziol, who imports the fungi from Spain — the only country, he says, with growers willing to share spores in exchange for a potential foothold in the Ontario market. “I spoke to the French, and I couldn’t get any spores from them. The Italians, the same thing.”

Such guardedness pervades the industry, both in agriculture and research. “Most of the time, it’s wild harvests that make up the market. People would find this special truffle patch and tell their family and no one else,” says Shearer. He’s noticed that many microbiologists researching truffles in private institutions will do a version of the same thing. “Every time someone figures out the secret to the truffles, they stop publishing. It’s unfortunate,” he says, noting that there have been researchers who’ve made big breakthroughs and used their knowledge to get into the industry themselves.

While 2017 trials conducted by Earthgen produced encouraging results — the fungus has successfully taken to the roots of sample hazelnut trees inoculated that year — the true test for Galias and Hazen will come at harvest time. Bill Stewart, a farmer in British Columbia, inoculated his trees with black Périgords, the rarest of the species, in 2004, but intact specimens weren’t found for nearly a decade.

Koziol, for his part, is confident. “Will they grow here? Most definitely,” he says. “We’re going to be in for a nice industry.”

Galias remains cautiously optimistic. “We’re kind of nervous when people ask us about it,” she says. “What if we don’t have the truffles? Right now, we’re trying to be out there and let people know that if it works, local restaurants in Guelph would be the first ones to [have access]. That would be the dream for us.”

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