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Building a market for Ontario truffles

The high-value, difficult-to-harvest European delicacy is now being grown in Ontario

When Kathleen Galias and Patrick Hazen bought their 10 acres outside of Guelph there was a six-acre open field they weren’t sure what to do with.

The choice they made will make them one of the first to try to farm-raise truffles — the high-value and prized fungus that grows on roots of some trees.

Why it matters: New crops take some risk and learning, and aren’t for everyone. Galias and Hazen are taking a fresh approach without any background in agriculture.

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A couple of years of research brought the couple to hazelnuts — the nut that is part of a large push to increase acres in Ontario. They also looked at growing hops, but there was more infrastructure involved and the market is already busy in the hops sector.

Hazen is a landscaper and one of his clients mentioned that he was involved in trying to bring truffles to Canada, and the more Hazen heard, the more interested he became in using the hazelnut trees to growing truffles.

Enter Adam Koziol, owner of EarthGen, a propagation nursery company that uses unique methods to hasten the development of trees. They have also been able to inoculate hazelnut and oak tree roots with Burgundy truffle spore from Spain.

The truffles grow in several places in Europe, but mainly France, Italy and Spain. France and Italy closely guard their truffle spores and won’t allow their export, said Hazen. Spain, however has allowed some export. It’s those spores that dozens of Ontario growers, larger and smaller than Galias and Hazen, are trying to start this year.

“Getting spores out of a country is difficult,” said Hazen.

Tree planting

Galias and Hazen’s trees — a mix of hazelnut and oak — went into the ground in early October. Hazen had an auger he used to dig the holes for the more than 600 trees, and he used his landscaping crew and few more people he hired to get them in the ground. He still has to stake them and then install a drip irrigation system in the spring. They will likely also have to install security fencing at some point as their property is on a major road outside of Guelph.

While the couple has little farming background, Hazen has planted many trees as a landscaper. Galias is a pharmacist who owns her own pharmacy in nearby Guelph.

Hazelnuts are a growing crop in Ontario, as companies look to diversify their global supply away from Turkey where about 80 per cent of the world’s hazelnuts grow, but which has had increasing political insecurity. Ferraro built a plant in Brantford to make its Ferraro Rocher chocolates and Nutella spread, both of which use hazelnuts. Galias and Hazen have talked to Cambridge food company Yoso about buying their hazelnuts when they are ready to harvest in four years.

The couple planted several varieties of hazelnuts including Gala, Jefferson, Slate, Yamhill and Theta as a pollinator. They planted English oak. All had their roots inoculated with the truffle inoculum. The other tree that grows truffles well is the Italian Stone Pine, according to Koziol.

The oak trees can also produce a double crop — if you have a market for the acorns. Truffles grow on the roots, out as far as the canopy spreads, and the oak trees, over years, will be much larger than the hazelnuts.

They are not yet sure how long it will take them to get truffles. They could come after the first hazelnut harvest, or before. As one of the first growers in Ontario, there’s no precedent. There is a truffle grower in British Columbia.

Once the truffles start appearing, the couple will need a trained pig or dog to sniff them out. The Italians use one of the Lagotto Romagnolo breed of dogs, but Koziol said that most dogs can be trained to find truffles. That’s also when they’ll need manual labour to dig and harvest them. The challenge in finding truffles is part of what makes them so valuable, priced at $80 to $100 per ounce.

Market to be developed

What makes truffles so desired in food, especially Italian food?

Galias struggled to describe the taste.

“You can pay $40 for a bowl of soup because it has shaved truffles,” she said.

The nobbly, black fungus that looks a bit like a blackberry the size of a small egg is now imported by high-end restaurants. It’s that market they hope to fill, but they have little idea yet how large it is.

“Guelph is a good test market,” said Hazen, with some high-end restaurants.

Top-quality truffles are used in cooking. Lower grades go into products like salsas.

The couple looked for help in funding their unique venture as well as mentorship and marketing. They found Innovation Guelph happy to help.

The organization, funded by FedDev Ontario funds, helps entrepreneurs with information, mentorship and matching funding.

Galias and Hazen were part of the Fuel Injection Seed Funding Program at Innovation Guelph. The program provides funds for the business that have to be matched and is administered by BioEnterprise — the agri-tech and food accelerator for Innovation Guelph.

“There is a lot of agriculture and agri-technology in this region. We have experts that can help with all kinds of different things, understanding the farming side of things, marketing and communications,” said Mickey Campeau, program manager for startup and the seed funding program at Innovation Guelph. “Farmers are now also creating products. Those products need to go through certain testing.”

Galias said that they are getting help with marketing and business planning from Innovation Guelph.

“It’s exciting to have something new for this region. They will be first supplier of truffles in this area,” said Campeau.

How did truffle inoculum get to Ontario?

Adam Koziol connected with tree scientists in Spain about six years ago, interested in his method of growing trees quickly. They eventually got to talking about truffles and Koziol eventually got the inoculum to Ontario.

He believes that combining rapidly growing trees and the inoculum will mean truffles in two or three years, compared to eight or more years expected in Europe. That means he’s hoping to see the first truffles in the fall of 2019.

Growers in Ontario will be producing Burgundy truffles, a rare variety that matures in the fall, compared to other truffles that mature in the winter or in the summer.

There are some native truffles in Ontario, and when found in the wild, are highly valuable.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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