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Pining for Truffles, Mycorrhiza Biotech Achieves First Harvest

By Barry Teater, NCBiotech Writer       

-- Mycorrhiza Biotech photos

Nancy Rosborough’s farm in Gibsonville, N.C., has been in her family for more than 100 years. As subdivisions began encroaching on it in recent years, she wondered how she could preserve it while keeping it productive.

Growing tobacco, raising livestock or milking cows didn’t interest Rosborough, who had a corporate background in information technology. But when she read an article in the Washington Post about growing truffles, a gourmet delicacy that’s normally harvested from the wild, the novel idea took root.

“Truffles grow on trees,” she remembers thinking. “How hard could it be?”

To find out, she started a small company in Burlington in 2006 called Mycorrhiza Biotech, named for the scientific term that describes the symbiotic relationship between truffles – the fruiting body of a fungus – and the roots of a host plant.

Worked with NCA&T

Rosborough read everything she could find about cultivating truffles, consulted with mushroom experts at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and began working through trial and error.

“I figured trees would be pretty easy to manage,” she says. “Long story short, it is not easy.”

Because truffles are finicky and slow to grow and spread, it typically takes five to nine years to establish a viable orchard. Rosborough knows only a few growers nationally who have reliable harvests from one year to the next, and she believes fewer than two dozen farmers in North Carolina are producing any.

“You can spend a lot of money and have no truffles,” she says. “Sometimes you have a harvest, sometimes you don’t.”

Despite the challenges, Mycorrhiza recently completed its first successful harvest of truffles grown on the roots of inoculated loblolly pine trees.

Although the milestone was a decade in the making, “we never doubted it would come,” Rosborough says.

A high-value security issue

The truffles, a species called Tuber borchii, were grown in partnership with a client Rosborough can’t name, due to a non-disclosure agreement prompted by security concerns. Truffles can sell for more than $1,000 per pound, tempting thieves to dig them up.

“You really have to protect that crop,” she says.

The recently harvested truffles, a variety called Bianchetto, are “a wonderfully fragrant white truffle, perfect for finishing sauces or enhancing the flavor of any entrée,” Rosborough says. They will fetch about $35 per ounce ($560 a pound).

Mycorrhiza Biotech becomes the first grower in North America to produce white truffles on loblolly pine trees. For now Rosborough prefers white truffles because they are easier to grow than the black truffles farmed by most growers.

The harvest came two years and three months after planting, about half the time normally required for trees to produce Tuber borchii.

“We are sure the quick harvest is driven by our proprietary system and the client’s diligent adherence to our recommended management protocols,” Rosborough says.

There's science involved

Mycorrhiza Biotech uses patent-pending micro-propagation and biotechnology protocols to produce pine seedlings inoculated with Tuber borchii. DNA-based techniques confirm the presence and degree of truffle formation on the trees’ roots, and then the seedlings are planted in a prepared site that ideally has no pathogens or competing fungi.

The company has developed comprehensive services intended to reduce the risks and expense of truffle farming. They include site selection, analysis and preparation; seed germination; seedling propagation, inoculation and certification; and ongoing site monitoring.

Rosborough says she wants the company’s protocols to become “the gold standard for truffle cultivation in the United States.”

The truffle business, like most industries, has its share of fraud and honest mistakes. Some unscrupulous growers or sellers inject white truffles with dye to pass them off as more expensive black truffles, Rosborough says, while inoculators sometimes provide tree seedlings bearing the wrong variety of truffle. 

“You need to certify your seedling and make sure your truffle is the right truffle,” she says.

For growers fortunate enough to have a successful crop, Mycorrhiza Biotech provides a trained dog at $500 per day to sniff out the exact locations of truffles for harvesting. Rosborough acquired the dog, a German shepherd/ golden retriever mix named Ava, from an animal shelter and took it through obedience and scent training.

NCBiotech funding helped make it happen

The company, in partnership with fungus researcher Omon Isikhuemhen, Ph.D., of NCA&T, received research grants from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in 2008 and 2010 to advance truffle-farming techniques: one for mass propagation, inoculation and screening of truffles, and one for enhanced propagation of truffles on pine and pecan trees.

The awards “laid the foundation for this recent harvest, so they’ve been instrumental,” Rosborough says. “The Biotechnology Center has been indispensable.”

Nancy Johnston, executive director of the Biotechnology Center’s Piedmont Triad office, which has worked with Mycorrhiza Biotech, says the company is a “remarkable example of the passion, patience and persistence required to achieve the promise of biotechnology.”

Adds Johnston: “Mycorrhiza Biotech’s success is a measurable outcome from over a decade of building long-term trusted relationships. This collaborative effort demonstrates how sector-focused regional partnerships and academic R&D investment can yield statewide economic impact with global implications.”

Going forward, Rosborough wants to expand her client base to 25 growers with 20,000 acres in production while having 20 acres on her own farm. Within the next year she plans to expand to five acres the demonstration plot on her farm that is about to yield Bianchetto truffles.   

Global demand for truffles is growing as gourmands and chefs seek out their pungent aromas and strong flavors for use in sauces and as shaved toppings over various dishes. But cultivation and wild harvesting aren’t keeping pace with rising consumption.

To seize the market opportunity, Rosborough and her staff of three will keep applying the same formula that has brought their company this far.

“Science is the secret,” she says. “And patience.”

Comments

Hello I found this article fascinating as I too have just gone on the Truffle Adventure wild and crazy as it is. I have started talking to Wildlife and Forest organizations in the area. Also along with conservation and Park areas as well. I live in Florida but there are still many plant in this area IE trees that I know can grow truffles. Much research has been done on my part and there have been some amazing discoveries. I would like to talk to you more about your research as it seemed you were able to get a lot of people to open up to you and talk truffles. Would this be something you would be willing to do with me. I need dialogue with someone that has an understanding of this wild and crazy world up truffles. To say I'm addicted is a understatement. My family already thinks I'm crazy. Do you? LOL

Hi Diane, We got your voicemail. Are you available to talk on Friday, 2/24? I will give you a call in the morning. Thanks Nancy

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