The field doesn’t look like much yet. At the flat top of a hill there is a three-fourths acre patch of grass clumps that have been slathered with limestone powder to alter the soil. Deer have left tracks in the soft dirt.
Ozark Forest Mushrooms co-owner Nicola Macpherson gets excited imagining what will come.
MU plant pathologist and truffle expert Johann Bruhn will teach a course on truffle cultivation for farmers and landowners to learn the details of growing the mushrooms to improve their land and earn a profit.
When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 4 and 5
Where: Columbia Area Career Center, 4203 S. Providence Road
“I just dream of having a table here,” she says. “Wouldn’t that be fun? Just to have a glass of wine and a (piece of) truffle toast?”
If everything goes right, in five to six years this square of dirt will be an orchard of oak and hazelnut trees with lumpy black mushrooms growing underneath the soil at their roots. Ozark Forest Mushrooms, located near the Current River in southern Missouri, is preparing to be the first commercial truffle farm in Missouri.
The farm is one of three businesses that are looking to start growing the prized fungus for the first time in the state. The cultivation efforts are a collaboration with MU plant pathologist and agroforester, Johann Bruhn, who has been researching truffles since 1999.
Bruhn is convinced he finally knows enough to help start “truffières,” or truffle orchards. Bruhn and his colleagues have planted a research orchard at the MU Center for Agroforestry at New Franklin to see how the European mushrooms fare under Missouri conditions. He said he hopes the first truffles will develop as early as next year and hopes to use them to propagate more truffles.
There are at least 200 different species of truffle, Bruhn said. But of the three priciest gourmet varieties, the black Burgundy truffle — named after the Burgundy region of France – is best suited for Missouri weather. Burgundy truffles (or Tuber aestivum) mature in autumn, unlike another type of gourmet black truffle, which fruits in the winter and might be damaged by frozen ground or cold weather.
The truffles could fetch a nice price if the commercial operations are successful, Bruhn said. The Burgundy truffle sells for about $400 a pound, he said, or about $40 to $50 for one the size of a golf ball.
With a little luck, each acre could yield 10 to 20 pounds of truffles a year, he said.
In 2010, the U.S. imported more than 132,000 pounds of prepared truffles worth almost $3 million, mostly from France and Italy, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
Andy Ayers, former chef of Riddle’s Penultimate Cafe & Wine Bar in St. Louis, said truffles give food a powerful, unique flavor. “There’s nothing that tastes like truffles but truffles,” he said.
Ayers said he used to cook with black truffles from Oregon. He described the flavor as “earthy” or “cave-like” yet delicate. “It’s amazing to me how pervasive and domineering the flavor can be and at the same time be so ephemeral,” he said.
Pasta with cream sauce is his favorite way to cook the mushrooms, he said.
If you use them properly, the taste of truffles is “not so much resting on your tongue as radiating flavor gently throughout your mouth,” Ayers said.
The smell is what sets the truffle apart from other culinary delights. The fragrance, which resembles the sex hormones of male pigs, is actually a survival mechanism, Bruhn said. The fungus spores are spread by animals, so truffles have to emit an odor mighty enough to convince wild critters to unearth them, he said.
Missouri’s first commercial truffières
Nicola Macpherson jets among the rows of oak logs in the greenhouse at Ozark Forest Mushrooms. The stems of fuzzy brown shiitake mushrooms snap between her fingers.
“They look like velvet when you pick them,” Macpherson said.
The 450-acre, 20-year-old Ozark Forest Mushrooms produces an average of 100 pounds of shiitake and 150 pounds of light yellow and gray oyster mushrooms a week in the winter.
Ten years ago, a chef friend of Macpherson’s brought her an Italian company’s brochure for truffle products and suggested she get into the business. Since then, her business has, well, mushroomed.
Macpherson buys truffles and truffle products, such as truffle shavings, oil and juice, from Italy and sells them to upscale restaurants and country clubs in St. Louis, she said. She makes her own truffle butter from canned truffles; a small tin goes for $5.
Now, Bruhn is working with Macpherson and her business partner and husband, Dan Hellmuth, to raise an orchard of oak and hazelnut trees that will foster their own black truffles.
Growing truffles is a tricky process. Truffles need trees to grow — they form a symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationship. The fungus' structure attaches to the tips of shallow tree roots in the first foot of soil below the surface. The fungus provides the tree with nutrients from the soil, such as phosphorous and iron, and the tree feeds the fungus carbohydrates.
Truffles are detail oriented. For example, the Burgundy truffle will hook up with some tree species more easily than with others; the soil has to be just so sweet with a pH of between 7.5 and 8. The baby truffles need moisture to survive the summer but not too much, Bruhn said.
If everything goes right, Burgundy truffles can fruit as early as four to five years after the orchard is planted — otherwise it could take up to a decade to know if something went wrong, Bruhn said. After the first crop, orchards can produce the truffles every year for a century between September and December, he said.
Missouri has an active community of mushroom-enthusiasts, but truffle cultivation is "a bit beyond our means for most members," Missouri Mycological Society Executive Secretary Patrick Harvey said.
"We're mostly amateurs," Harvey said.
Besides that, many amateur mycologists in the state prefer to hunt wild mushrooms for the experience, rather than grow their own, said Stan Hudson, foray coordinator for the Mid-Missouri Chapter of the Missouri Mycological Society.
“It’s kind of my stress relief, getting out and looking for mushrooms," Hudson said.
Down in the Ozarks, Macpherson said she might sell whatever truffles her farm produces to her clients in St. Louis or use them in her truffle butter. But she said she will wait and see how things grow.
As the owner of Eat Here St. Louis, chef Ayers works with gourmets across St. Louis to deliver locally grown food. He said he is interested in Missouri-grown black truffles.
“I would certainly try them, and I would sell them, and if I had a restaurant, I would serve them,” he said.
Chef Gerard Craft of the St. Louis gourmet restaurant Niche said his business doesn't normally use truffles "a ton" in part because they are so expensive and hard to get. Also, using foreign fungi doesn't fit in with the restaurant's image of "taking humble Midwest ingredients and elevating them," Craft said.
Missouri-grown truffles, however, are something he would use.
“To be able to get that locally and cultivated, most likely more affordably, would be fantastic,” he said.
At least two farms other than Ozark Forest Mushrooms trying to grow truffles also want to offer customers the experience of truffle hunting and tasting. Bruhn sees the potential for an agrotourism renaissance.
At Ozark Forest Mushrooms, visitors rent out a lakeside farmhouse near a pine grove of shiitake-sprouting logs. In the future, Macpherson hopes to host gourmet dinners with local chefs who will prepare a banquet for paying guests using the farm’s ingredients.
Persimmon Hill Farm near Branson also plans to break ground on a truffle orchard next year. The owner, Earnie Bohner, said 90 percent of his business comes from visitors who come to pick berries, tour the shiitake farm and eat homemade blueberry pancakes and muffins on the farmhouse porch. A truffle orchard would extend the farm's profitable season into the fall, he said.
"The interest factor is high,” Bohner said. "It’s going to be really fun for people, "What are truffles? How do you grow them?'"
They hope to train their two Labrador retrievers, Jake and Carolina, to sniff out truffles so they can help visitors with their hunts.
Tourism is not a primary concern for The Farm at Sugar Creek, which will break ground on a truffières in the spring or summer this year, owner David English said. He is a marketing consultant in St. Louis but wanted to turn his family's 200 acre farm southwest of Hermann into a profitable enterprise.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of doing something, especially here in Missouri for Missouri, that maybe would set a precedent," he said. "I can’t imagine any more precedent setting than a truffières in Missouri.”
English said he is "really excited about the prospect" of a homegrown truffle industry in Missouri and thinks it will be positive for the state.
At Ozark Forest Mushrooms, the soil pH of the future truffle orchard is being adjusted with lime, and depending on the result, could be ready to host trees by fall.
The couple has already invested a lot of time, energy and at least $7,500, along with support from a grant, they said.
"It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme by any means," Hellmuth said.
Hellmuth said if the truffières works, cultivation could help boost the economy in the Ozark region. He said it’s a new agricultural product that would bring income, as well as “another reason to come down and spend money” in the Ozarks.
“I’m confident it has the potential," he said.
In this video, agroforester and MU plant pathologist Johann Bruhn removes bag worms in an orchard of oak and hazelnut trees at the MU Center for Agroforestry in New Franklin. The trees were planted to cultivate truffles, which develop below ground by attaching to the tips of the tree roots. The truffle Bruhn displays is similar to those he hopes to harvest at the research plot as soon as next year.