Famous for its potatoes, Paul Beckman hopes Idaho will one day be known for a very different sort of tuber.
The Treasure Valley-based grower has been trying to cultivate truffles — an underground fungus from the genus Tuber — for more than a decade with admittedly mixed results.
“It’s a strange crop,” he said. “Most of the time, you’re trying to guess what will work.”
Coveted by chefs and gourmets worldwide for their earthy, aromatic odor, truffles are the fruiting bodies of fungi that grow symbiotically on the roots of certain trees. Exceedingly rare, they are also notoriously difficult to farm, which is why most sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars per pound.
“If you give the tree all the nutrients it needs,” Beckman explained, “the truffle won’t thrive, so you need to stress the tree a little.”
Truffles won’t grow on just any tree, though. Beckman said the most successful hosts tend to be ones that produce a nut or acorn, such as oaks, pines, and hazelnuts. He joked that he’s even exposed sagebrush to truffle spores out of desperation.
“We don’t know which (solution) is going to win,” he said.
Beckman isn’t alone in his quest. He estimates Idaho now has some 150 acres of truffle orchards, including several neighbors in the Eagle area and a few Sunnyslope farms near the Oregon border. In addition to sharing their successes and mistakes with each other, they’ve also consulted growers and experts across the globe.
“It’s a relatively small community,” Beckman said. “Everything we figure out, we provide to all truffle growers in the United States and even internationally.”
In May, Beckman and his peers established the Idaho Truffle Growers Association in hopes of garnering assistance from government agencies. It didn’t take long for the move to literally pay off — the Idaho State Department of Agriculture announced in June that approximately $111,000 of a $1.86 million federal grant has been earmarked for researching how to improve yields for Idaho truffles.
Nichole Britt, an ISDA analyst who manages grant funding for Idaho’s specialty crops, said the research will comprise soil samples, DNA analyses and other laboratory work.
“It’s not officially approved yet,” she explained, “but the USDA has not turned down any projects that we’ve recommended.”
Britt noted the funds will include consulting from one of the world’s leading truffle scientists, Tom Michaels, whose Tennessee Truffle operation produced some 200 pounds of black truffles each year until the Eastern filbert blight devastated his hazelnut orchard in 2010.
“He’s world renowned in the area of truffles,” she said.
Beckman was even more effusive.
“Doctor Michaels probably knows more about commercial truffle production than anyone in the United States,” he said.
Beckman planted his first truffle orchards — called truffières — in 2007 as part of a real estate development. He said he originally planned to build “some nice homes in a vineyard setting” but changed his mind after reading an article about truffle farming in Oregon.
“I was told it was too cold in Idaho [to grow truffles],” he recalled, “so I instantly ordered a couple hundred trees.”
Beckman said his operation primarily comprises hazelnut and several varieties of oak that were exposed to five different types of truffles. Results were not immediate.
According to Beckman, he didn’t harvest his first truffle—an Italian spring variety known as the bianchetto or whitish — until February 2012. He estimates he’s uncovered some 60 pounds of truffles since, most of which have been served to customers at his sister’s restaurant in Eagle.
So how do Idaho truffles compare to their French and Italian kin?
“We’ve had no complaints,” Beckman said.
Ultimately, Beckman hopes to see truffles marketed alongside “Idaho’s other tuber” — a term he says he uses affectionately.
“There’s a real synergy in promoting Idaho potatoes with Idaho truffles. For one, they’re delicious together,” he quipped.
Should Beckman’s dream of Idaho becoming the center point for U.S. truffle production fail to come true, he insists he’ll draw solace in owning another commodity.
“Here’s how I look at it: if I don’t get any truffles, I’ll have a lot of firewood,” he said.