Truffle Farming Has Arrived in Oregon. How Does It Work?

French truffles are now farmed in Oregon, and command the same price as imports. What does that mean for wild varieties? Could your dog learn to hunt them?

By Matthew Trueherz February 7, 2023

Zandra Walton and her truffle dog, Arlo

In 2007, two modest-sized UPS boxes landed on Zandra and James Walton’s doorstep. Inside were the starts of 400 trees. “They were like sticks with roots that were about as long as the trees,” says James. But the miniature seedlings held the potential to sprout one of the most expensive foods on earth.  

Truffle season runs from December through March, and as of February, the Waltons have pulled 20 pounds of winter black truffles out of the ground. They sell their crop, at roughly $800 per pound, exclusively to Gabriel Rucker’s restaurants: Le Pigeon, Canard, and Canard Oregon City, just down the road from their farm.  

But for years, they worried their trees might never produce truffles. This season is by far their most successful, and it’s only the third year they’ve been able to grow any truffles at all.  

The Waltons had purchased their yellow Victorian home sitting on a 20-acre Oregon City plot a few years earlier. The land was allocated for “exclusive farm use,” requiring some attempt at growing … something. James’s mother read an article around that time about European truffles being grown in the US. “That’s what you should do!” Zandra remembers her mother-in-law saying.  

Presumably, their truffière would be a low-maintenance hobby, a way to fulfill their farming requirements, and perhaps a means to earn a bit off the land. Though there are species native to Oregon, the truffle they planned to grow traces back to Périgord, in southwestern France.  

When people think of “black truffle,” they usually think of a particular type of black truffle: the Périgord truffles the Waltons now grow, Tuber melanosporum. (Latin names are used for specificity, but, as is the case with many things, most people aren’t ready to read Tuber melanosporum on a menu.). However, today, this variety is cultivated around the world, and the term “winter black truffle” is gaining traction in replacing the former, region-specific name. The aroma is often related to kalamata olives, with notes of alcohol and a pleasant muskiness. (In referencing white truffles, most people have the Albanian or Piedmontese Tuber magnatum in mind. This Italian variety has only recently been successfully propagated, though it’s not currently produced on a commercial scale.) 

To call truffle cultivating “farming” doesn't quite sit right. It’s not as direct as planting a seed and growing, say, carrots or beets. It’s also not as simple as planting a tree, making a wish, and digging around a few years later—panning for gold. But growing truffles does sometimes feel that abstract.  

The idea is to set up the circumstances that would produce truffles in the wildthen wait. Truffles are the “fruiting body” of a fungus, similar to mushrooms, and they sprout underground from young tree roots. The method is to plant the right kind of trees in the right kind of soil with the right kind of fungus growing on their roots—then, essentially, hope for the best.   

Neither James, who works in commercial video production, nor Zandra, a recently retired insurance safeties professional, had any prior agricultural experience when they started the project.  

They do now. 

Getting their truffle patch running involved planting those 400 English white oak and hazelnut trees, laying 20 tons of lime (to help manage the soil’s pH levels), weeding, watering, and pruning their trees, all the while fending off pests that would eat the truffles.  

But after getting everything in the ground, more than a decade passed without sight of a single truffle.  

This quasi-controlled method is understandably frustrating, and involves more than a few superstitions. The flip side is, when the process does bear fruit, the truffles are virtually indistinguishable from wild ones. In fact, Charles Lefevre, a doctor of forest mycology and the founder of the Oregon Truffle Festival, who also happens to have sold the Waltons their seedlings back in 2007, says wild winter black truffles are not really a thing anymore.  

“There is no distinction in the market,” says Lefevre. “You don’t hear any discussion of whether the truffles are wild or cultivated.” The reason, he says, is that they’re “essentially a domesticated crop at this point.” Across Italy, France, Spain, Australia, and now Oregon, Lefevre says, cultivated truffles have surpassed any market for wild ones. In Oregon, he knows of eight orchards producing winter black truffles with inoculated trees today. 

Contrary to the historic exoticism of imports traditionally inflating prices, Lefevre finds that local producers are actually able to charge a premium because their truffles are grown locally. Truffles depreciate faster than cars. Every second they spend out of the ground, flying, driving, or sailing to wherever it is they’re headed, they lose water weight and aroma. 

“The fact is, we’re paying $2,500 a pound for truffles that are a week old from Europe,” says Lefevre, referencing the more expensive white varieties; winter black truffles of the best quality, regardless of where they’re grown, currently go for $800–900 per pound. 

An Oregon-grown Périgord or winter black truffle

What about native Oregon species?  

Oregon has four varieties of native truffles, ranging from black to brown to white, that are used in cooking. Lefevre highlights western Polk and eastern Marion Counties, which saddle Salem, and Douglas County down south, outside of Eugene, as hotbeds for wild Oregon truffles. 

A common misconception is that these native varieties are an ersatz version of the lauded European truffles. The truth is, Lefevre says, “The term truffle is as diverse as the term ‘fruit.’” Literally apples and oranges. Oregon wild black truffles, contrasted with the European variety’s savory notes, have fruity aromas: everything from pineapple to apple to strawberry. 

Lefevre makes his living grooming trees to yield European truffle varieties here in Oregon. He also imports and distributes truffles grown in other countries. But his ultimate goal is to raise the value of our native species to match the legacy European varieties, “before the cultivated European truffles make our native species irrelevant.”   

Currently, the highest-priced species native to Oregon are approaching prices near the European winter black truffle, but Lefevre says the audience for them is completely different. When a recipe calls for black truffle, it’s referencing the flavors and aromas of the winter black truffle. Because Oregon’s native species offer a completely different palate of flavors, Lefevre says it’s mostly a new generation of chefs, and usually those working in less traditional outlets (food carts, small town coastal restaurants), who are interested in working with Oregon truffles. They don’t have a preconceived idea of what the truffle is “supposed to do,” he says: they’re not swapping them for the European variety in a recipe, but approaching them as something new.   

The Oregon Truffle Festival, a slew of culinary and educational events—dinners, truffle hunts, dog competitions and training sessions—around the Willamette Valley strung together through February, works to spread the word of how distinct our native truffles are from their celebrated European relatives.  

An easy metaphor to explain the dynamic is luxury leather goods. If a bag, wallet, or pair of shoes is stamped with an LV or GC pattern, or perhaps a pair of shoes has red soles, we take these identifiers as signs of unparalleled quality. Many of us will never carry a Louis Vuitton or Gucci bag, or wear a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes, but we blindly trust they’re of higher quality than, say, American-born Coach. Perhaps it’s this same contextualization that has writ the indelible hierarchy of truffles from different parts of the world.   

The other aspect is experience: like the fashion houses of Paris and Florence, Europeans have been hunting, propagating, cooking, and eating truffles far longer than anyone in America. Truffles date as far back as ancient Rome and Greece; Oregonians only started digging them up in the ’70s. We might now have access to similar raw materials, but it’s the generations of knowing what to do with those raw materials, at every step of the very expensive, fleeting process that dictates their value. If he can raise the price of the native truffles, which he nearly has, Lefevre says he could then fund the necessary research to cultivate them.  

Arlo, the Walton's lagotto romagnolo, with a fresh winter black truffle

How are truffles harvested?  

When first seeking out wild truffles in Oregon, researchers used rakes, essentially turning over large amounts of soil to pan for truffles. It was successful, and ostensibly more efficient than using an animal to hunt them down individually. Fifty years later, foragers still rake Oregon’s forests to pull up truffles. Lefevre argues rather convincingly, however, that raking is an “outmoded method.” Today, dogs are the preferred method for truffle hunting, both for wild and cultivated varieties, for several reasons. 

He prefers dogs, 1, because they’re a cute mascot for the industry, and 2, because they’re a lot better at hunting truffles than people, and 3, contrary to what Nic Cage might have you think, pigs are too much trouble—and often eat the truffles they find—so they’re not used in the industry anymore. A dog’s goal isn’t just to find the truffles, Lefevre says. “It's easy to find truffles without a dog. The function of a dog is to perform the initial quality screening, because they find only ripe truffles.” Raking, by contrast, pulls up every truffle at once. A patch of truffles all hit their sweet spots at different times, the same way peaches on a tree can all ripen at different moments. But unlike tree fruit, truffles grow at least six inches underground, making it virtually impossible to assess their ripeness. Unless, of course, you’re a dog.  

Adopting Arlo, the Waltons’ Lagotto Romagnolo (the truffle-hunting breed), was a key part of their getting into the industry. He’s about knee-height with chocolate brown, short, curly fur, a few tiny white spots here and there. He has soft eyes and a casual disposition—he’ll gently tap on your leg if he wants to show you something, like a truffle. 

Zandra trained him to hunt for truffles herself. Training dogs is no easy feat, as anyone who's attempted to do so can tell you, but training them to hunt for truffles really isn’t that complicated. Zandra says it took a few afternoons to get him hooked on the scent. At the Oregon Truffle Festival’s annual truffle dog training workshop, Lefevre says almost all dogs, of any breed, find truffles in the field on the second day of the two-day workshop.  

When he’s on the job, Arlo moves gingerly through the two-acre orchard. Spots that have borne truffles this season are marked with multicolored landscaping flags. When he catches a scent, he gives it a good sniff to confirm, and scratches at the spot—not to dig, but as if to say, “There,” as he trots on to the next spot. He’s really at work more than excitable: it’s not like playing fetch or hunting a squirrel, though there are treats as a reward. 

James, holding up a picture on his phone, remembers finding their first truffle. “November 26, 2020. Sixty-seven grams,” he says, proudly, displaying the photo of doe-eyed Arlo and the mud-covered black nugget. (A dog’s nose is often compared to the pebbled texture of black truffles.) Zandra was out raking leaves to keep the mice away. She had seen a bit of a what looked like a half-eaten truffle in the field a week or so before—likely dug up by a mouse. The Waltons weren’t actively hunting for truffles at the time. Thirteen fruitless years in, they had all but given up.  

“We’re gonna have a lot of firewood,” Zandra thought at the time. James would dig up roots and examine them under a lab-quality microscope, matching the live fungus spotted on the roots to images in books. The process was maddening. “If there's fungus on the roots, and you go through all these processes, why the hell aren’t they fruiting?”  

They had tried everything, including drilling hundreds of holes, sometimes called Spanish wells, around the trees to introduce more truffle spores to the soil. They were starting to doubt Arlo’s abilities, but a professional truffle dog brought in couldn’t find anything in their field, either. 

Then, just after Thanksgiving, during the height of COVID, Arlo hooked to a scent and started scratching at the ground.