Society

Here’s how I became the first farmer to harvest truffles in the Okanagan

"One bite was all I needed to understand why some chefs pay thousands of dollars for a box of truffles."
Robert Mohr
MOHR-2023-KBZ-3001c

The first time I tried truffles, I was at dinner with my wife, Andrea, and two of our friends. It was 2006, and we were eating at Il Pastaio in Beverly Hills. Scanning the specials, I saw a $65 plate of pasta with white truffle. I was a surgeon in California at the time—I’m now retired—and I usually wolfed down most of my meals between procedures. That price tag shocked me, but my ignorance about truffles astonished my friend, Michele. She came back to our table with the chef, who carried a container of these small, gnarled nuggets.

“Take a whiff of this,” he said. When I leaned in, I was hit by a unique aroma—earthy and woody, but also a little salty. He explained that the box, which held roughly 15 to 20 pounds of truffles, cost him $30,000, and it was all he could get for the season. He went to the kitchen and came back with a plate of pasta with shaved truffles on top. “Enjoy,” he said.

The flavour was indescribably rich and unlike anything I’d had before. One bite was all I needed to understand why hunters have gone into forests for centuries to forage for these elusive subterranean fruits and why chefs pay $30,000 just to buy one box of them. I would spend the next 17 years of my life trying to grow my own. When our truffle journey began, Andrea and I had 2.5 acres of land in the Okanagan (we’d bought it as a seasonal residence in 1999), the funds for our shared curiosity (we would eventually spend almost $50,000 on our farm), and the understanding that truffles had never been successfully harvested in the Okanagan.

Cultivating truffles is a labour of patience. They are the underground fruit of fungus that grows at the base of certain trees, including hazelnut and oak, and it usually takes at least seven years for them to emerge after planting the trees. There is a variety of species—Tuber magnatum is known as the white Alba truffle, and Tuber melanosporum is the black Périgord truffle—and growing them is an imperfect science.

This is what we know: truffles require soil pH between 7.5 and 8.3, an irrigation system and land protected from wildlife. I would need a whole orchard of host trees that require constant maintenance and weeding, a well-trained dog who can sniff out ripe ones, and thousands of dollars to invest in this venture.

MORE: Canada’s Best Places to Eat

In 2008, we ordered our initial batch of trees inoculated with the black Périgord truffle species from a nearby seller—but then he sold our trees to somebody else. We had already cleared some land for our orchard, which was deer-fenced, irrigated and dug. We had a farm and no trees, so a year later, I found another vendor in Vancouver Island who shipped hazelnut trees inoculated with the same truffle species.

As the seedlings grew, Andrea and I started attending seminars to educate ourselves on truffle cultivation. There I met Shannon Berch, a top mycologist at the University of British Columbia. She was excited by the idea of growing truffles for the first time in the region, and she offered to do some root sampling on our trees. We found out that they had a lot of contaminants and very little of what we were trying to grow. Our entire farm was ineffective for harvest. We sold the trees to a nursery, and in the meantime, rebuilt our house, which was old and small, and laid out a new expanded farm on a quarter-acre of land.

Still hoping to grow black Périgord truffles, we ordered 45 inoculated English oak trees from Charles Lefevre, a pioneer in the North American truffle industry, who I had also met at the seminars. His business is based in Oregon, which is a truffle Mecca. This time, we made sure we did it all right: he shipped our trees to Shannon, who analyzed and approved every sapling before we planted them in March of 2012.

Our third round of truffle farming took two phases to execute: first, while we tended to the trees, I clashed with B.C.’s agriculture assessors. I thought it was important to have developing-farm status for our orchard, which often allows for lower property taxes, but I kept running into brick walls. B.C. assessors had no comprehension of truffle farming and couldn’t conceive of a crop that can sell for $2,000 per pound. That affected our application to be classified as a farm, because small farms need to generate at least $10,000 a year. The assessors didn’t believe that my 45 trees could break that threshold. When they kept denying our application, I appealed to higher levels until I reached the top.

RELATED: This woman built a greenhouse that grows eye-catching exotic fruits—in Nova Scotia

The B.C. assessment team then realized they needed special guidelines for truffles, which Shannon and I helped them develop, basing truffle farm classification on yields per tree. It was a groundbreaking moment for the future of B.C.’s truffle industry, and the assessors finally agreed to classify my land as a farm, provided I bought more trees to meet their new guideline. I ordered them from Charles, bringing our total to 85, and started phase two.

Andrea and I have residences in California and British Columbia, and since we usually stay in the States for winter months, we aren’t on the farm during our truffles’ harvest season between November and March. Our small crew maintains landscaping needs year-round, which include weeding the area around trees where truffles can grow an inch or two below the surface. In the spring, when we return to the Okanagan, I prune the trees to look like inverted ice cream cones so sunlight can hit the ground.

Our trees bloomed over the next eight years, and then we finally reached the point where our farm had harvest potential. We got in touch with Alana McGee, who trains truffle dogs. She coached Gala, a Portuguese water dog owned by our friend, Rita Meyers. Gala learned to recognize the scent of ripe truffles and mark the spots with her paw. During our latest harvest seasons, we also worked with Brooke Fochuk, located in Kamloops, who has a truffle-sniffing dog. In 2022, Brooke’s dog found some small truffle-like tubers, but nothing panned out.

After almost two decades developing our farm, we eased into a rhythm. Everybody always asked, “Anything this year?” And we would say, “No, but it looks good. I think next year is going to be the year.” Andrea and I weren’t discouraged; we didn’t mind the wait. It was always nice to be back at the farm, standing on the green, fertile land of the Okanagan, where the nearby lake supplied water to our trees and the sun shone bright.

In February of 2023, I answered a call at my desk in California. Andrea and I were anxious because we knew Brooke was on the property with her dog, Denver, and Kelly, who is part of our crew. Over the phone, Brooke was jumping out of her shoes. She said that Kelly took a bunch of pictures, which he sent over, and she couldn’t dig out much more because the ground was frozen, but there they were: our first 10 black Périgord truffles.

Since there was little to do if we went back to our farm, Andrea and I stayed in California awaiting more information. We couldn’t stop smiling. After so much trial and error, we didn’t often get our hopes up, but we always wished that it would finally happen. And here they were, the literal fruits of our labour, these dark bumpy truffles that fit in the palm of a hand. One was the size of a baseball, but Brooke couldn’t get it out of the ground since it was so cold. They sent the truffles to UBC Okanagan, where genetic sequencing confirmed our success, and Brooke came back the next week when the weather warmed up to try to harvest more. Unfortunately, her dig revealed that our truffles were frozen, which meant they had rotted in the ground, so they didn’t have any culinary value. But the good news was what we had achieved: the first successful harvest of truffles in the Okanagan.

Now Andrea and I are planning for the year ahead. We’ve finalized a name for our farm—Hidden Harvest—and will use a combination of mulch and insulated tarps to mitigate against the cold weather. We’ve already lined up orders from local chefs, including Rod Butters, owner of acclaimed restaurants like RauDZ Regional Table and the Okanagan Table. We’re looking into getting certified as organic, and we’re in touch with members of the truffle community, who are thrilled about what this means for B.C.’s agricultural industry.

We’ve shown that growing truffles here is possible. That door is open for more interested farmers, and I would love to see truffles become an established industry in B.C. It’s a good use of land, it’s a clean crop that doesn’t require fertilizer to cultivate, and the new provincial guidelines make it easier to get classified as a farm. It’s also an exercise in patience and dedication, but when it comes to next season’s harvest, I’m excited to see what we grow.

As told to Stephanie Bai 

Tags:farming