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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Trifling with Truffles or There’s Fungus Among Us in the Valley…

Lord of the Valley Two or three months ago I noticed a flutter of pink along the lower Loop Road and sent the Ripple to investigate this new Valley pretty. In a stretch of field behind Kelly Bolles’ Organic Farms the ground was plowed and staked. (Kelly’s house? You can’t miss this edifice—the old Baylor place: it’s the elevated house that’s in the stage of becoming…and becoming…and becoming… but that’s a whole other post.) The House that Would be Built Every five or six feet there was a stake flagged with hot pink surveyor’s tape, row after row of them. Some sort of woody twig sprouted alongside each. Whatever the new planting was, I’m familiar enough with the Valley berry industry to know the leafless stalks were not berry plants. “Now what’s all this about?” I wondered and made a mental note to interrogate Kelly when next our paths crossed.  Stakes in the future

But before Kelly, I encountered Paul Bischoff. He was transplanting garlic on the lower Loop Road the other day. I was sure he would know the story behind the fluttering pink flags. “Looks like more posting material for the Ripple,” I say. When Paul heard I was there on behalf of the press, he hemmed and hawed, turned rather evasive, as if a team from “60 Minutes” had suddenly shown up with their camera crew and were about to shove a microphone into his face. All Paul would disclose was the staked field was Kelly’s leap of faith into exotic agriculture and that the newly set twigs were hazelnut trees. Paul would rather I talk to Kelly about the particulars. So that evening I dial up Bolles’ Organic Farm and after listening to a pitch for “raw honey and assorted jams,” I was told to leave a message. “This is the Ripple calling,” I tell the voice. “What’s up with your flagged field? Might make an interesting post. Give me a call,” and left it at that.

Nearly a month passed. No call from Kelly. The Ripple is nothing if not persistent. A secret in the Valley? I’ll have it out or bust. And the other day as Gladys and I glide by the lofty old renovation, there’s Kelly Bolles himself puttering about. We cruise into his driveway and rattle to a stop. “So you don’t want to talk about your latest agricultural venture, what you have at stake?” I ask, trying to sound more diplomatic than accusatory. I mention the unanswered phone message. Kelly informs me I most likely had dialed a number and left a message on a machine he doesn’t check for sometimes two weeks at a time when it’s not marketing season. He had not heard my message.

Kelly at first appeared reluctant to talk about his innovative enterprise—a fear about crop plundering, I gather—but I reassure him, “Hey, it’s not like you’re planting the field in watermelons, now is it?”He shakes his head and laughs. Once he starts talking, Kelly rides the wave of his enthusiasm and the information pours forth. Some time ago he learned the Pacific Northwest has its own truffle industry. Truffles? Yes, truffles, exotic fungi, the mushroom equivalent of caviar. Fancy French fare. “Truffles?” Kelly’s dad remarked when he heard of his son’s latest brainchild. “I thought those things grew only in France!”Kelly B., future truffle kingYes, the gold standard of mycology has come to the Valley. Kelly did some research on truffle production in Oregon, our southern neighbor that apparently is in the vanguard of the industry on the west coast. “Truffle growers even have their own annual conventions,” Kelly exclaims. I asked him if he had attended any or had plans to. “No,” he says. “I think they’d be pretty pricey to attend.” His research has included videos on truffle production and harvesting, and he has been in contact with one of the Oregon growers, from whom he’s gleaned not only advice, but also the capital outlay for a truffle crop right here along the Lower Loop Road.

So this is what I learn. Truffles are a fungus symbiotic with oak and hazelnut trees. (I knew our northwest morels had an affinity for cottonwoods.) Kelly purchased 400 seedling trees from his Oregon contact at $12.50 per tree. Although most are hazelnut trees—preferable because the hazelnut grows faster than oak—there were not enough for a 400 count, so the balance was filled by the slower growing oak trees. Because truffles thrive in alkaline soil, Kelly had to add thirty tons of lime to the two acres to adjust the soil’s PH.  (Because of our considerable rainfall, Valley soil tends to be acidic; good for berries, bad for truffles.) hazenut hope And the yearling trees? They have all been truffled with, inoculated with Black Perigord truffle mycelium.

Twelve thousand dollars later Kelly has himself a potential nut and truffle farm, although he’s not quite sure how he’s going to market all the nutty by-product. He has high hopes for the results. In gourmet food circles truffles can command a price of $2,200 a pound. Truffle oil yields an even greater premium. Truffles grow in the soil surrounding the tree’s root system and a soil temperature of at least 85 degrees is necessary for the spores to fruit. Kelly hopes our unpredictable summers will produce enough heat to set his truffle crop. From berries to truffles—quite a leap of faith, it seems to me.

Anyone who knows a thing about French truffle production is familiar with the time honored method of harvest: truffle gatherers tag along through the countryside in the company of pigs. When Porky starts rooting around the base of an oak tree, harvesters quickly intervene to keep their porcine pals from pigging out on the valuable black nuggets. I ask Kelly which harvesting technique he plans to use and am surprised he hasn’t really thought this through yet. I tell him Jason Dean down on Ben Howard has a half dozen pigs. Maybe Kelly the truffle farmer could team with JD the pig farmer, a little symbiosis of their own. Kelly laughs and shares that in a video he watched, the truffle hunter used a dog, a small one, Jack Russell terrier size, to locate the underground prizes. Hogs have an innate sense of smell that allows them to home in on the mushroom morsels. Dogs have to be be trained to seek them out. I share a story about a dog’s keen sense of smell with Kelly, tell him about the time a drug sniffing dog was paraded down the halls of Snohomish High School. Suddenly the dog became frantic in front of a certain locker door. The principal was summoned, a key obtained, and the locker opened where a potted hyacinth in full bloom was discovered. A horticulture student had cultivated it and brought the plant to her locker before carrying it home with her that day after school.

And it’s the training that makes the canine hunter more suitable for the task; you might train a pig to dance, but where a lusty meal is concerned…well, a pig is inclined to be a pig after all.  Nuts to the ValleyIt takes some creative thought to make a small farm profitable in these modern times. Innovation and diversity are keys to success. I admire Kelly’s courage to try something new in the Valley. I hope his two acre experiment yields him a mycelium miracle and that the whole venture doesn’t end up being just plain nutty.

As far as anyone moonlighting for mushrooms—Kelly has nothing to fear from me. A $2,200 mushroom would be utterly wasted on my stultified epicurean taste buds. My hedonistic tendencies might extend to the rare portobello or a shitake, but a tin of button mushrooms suits this gourmand just fine. Besides I don’t think the cat would be much help rooting out truffle beds. On the other hand, a two acre field of watermelons? A cold slice of melon, juicy and dripping red on a hot summer’s day? Yeah, a watermelon patch…that could pose some real problems for Farmer Bolles.

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  1. How fascinating is that?! Perhaps, I should start Oscar on training now. This could be a lucrative job for Little O.

  2. I would like to give truffle spores or an inoculated tree as a birthday gift for my dad. Do you know anywhere (preferably the northwest US) that I could purchase these items?

  3. Thanks for the query, anon. I know Bolles acquired his inoculated root stock in Oregon. Not sure where. I do know that Oregon is perhaps in the vanguard of truffle cultivation in the PNW. Although you requested information on truffle mycelia, you might consider wooden plugs inoculated with other edible fungi. These are inserted into freshly cut logs of maple or oak. Territorial Seed Co. out of Oregon has two or three different types of mushroom inoculants available. Best of luck. TMJ