SUCCESS STORY Nelson
Peter and Rebecca had success fast with their truffles, harvesting the first one just three years after they planted their trees, but they’re not rushing to give up their day jobs. Their truffière covers 3ha (7.5 acres) of their block, a former deer stud.
“It’s one thing to produce truffle, it’s another thing to be able to do something with them,” says Rebecca. “We were sort-of sold it initially as a bit of a getrich-quick, growing gold on roots of trees idea – I don’t think it’s going to be that, there’s a huge capital outlay and a lot of hard work.”
It helps that the couple both love trees – they are members of the International Dendrology Society and their block is home to many rare species of trees – and that Rebecca is an excellent gardener says Peter.
“There’s a lot of intuition in it, and I guess we’ve been careful enough to track what’s going on and to observe as closely as we can and learn from experience, so into our seventh year we realise when you start talking with others, we’ve got experience now that we’re clearly building on.”
When they were starting out, inspired by watching an episode of Country Calendar that featured truffle pioneers Alan and Lynley Hall of Oakland Truffles in Gisborne, it was hard to know the right way to go. Their block’s best feature is its rich alluvial soil, not something found in a traditional European truffière, but excellent for growing trees. Their first consultant was another key NZ expert, Dr Ian Hall of Truffles and Mushrooms (Alan’s brother), and the first person to inoculate Périgord black truffle mycorrhizae onto trees in NZ in the 1980s.
“That original advice was based around replicating arid, high ph soil in Europe and so, if anything, Ian was concerned the soil was too healthy,” says Peter. “It was very low in ph so we also added a lot of lime to get the ph level up. He was following the line to replicate the European model.”
But Peter and Rebecca have since also taken on board what they heard at a truffle conference three years ago.
“Some advice from Australian growers who came over was the opposite,” says Rebecca. “That good quality soil with a high quality soil health and soil biology, 17 worms to the spade-full – if you dug a spade into the soil and found 17-18 worms then that was good soil – is good for growing truffles, almost the opposite advice, so that was interesting encouragement to us.”
They only had to wait three years to find out that they could grow truffle, a quick return when the expectation was
they might have to wait 10 years or longer, but they haven’t let their amazing success go to their heads says Peter.
“In terms of a commercial success, I think the jury is still out in New Zealand as to whether we will be successful in the long run. We’re suitably encouraged – in the first planting there are about 650 trees and in the last winter I think the total was 83 of the trees were, as we call it, ‘turned on’ truffle trees, they were actually producing... about 15% of the trees we know are producing truffle so that is encouraging.”
“If we were having to live off our truffles, we’d have starved to death by now!” jokes Rebecca. “It would be nice to think that in five or so years we could get an income that we could live off but it’s too early to see if that’s going to happen. It would be great, if we could, but you’ve not only got to get the truffles, you’ve got to be working up the markets for them. We are hoping we have a good income and get a return on the investment because it’s some cost to put in 7.5 acres of truffle trees.”
Peter estimates he and Rebecca spend about 70 days a year working in their truffière, weeding, pruning, feeding and watering, and then hours during winter hunting for the fruit, and that will only increase over time.
“This was a very explicit move on our place to find a lifestyle block where we had room to play with trees,” says Peter. “I don’t feel any resentment or anything towards the time I spend on the truffles, it’s good fun and you’ve got to be prepared to do that if you’re going to make a success of it. Some people have yachts and some people have baches and some people have lifestyle properties with lots of trees on them, and if you’re into that – which we are – there’s an enormous pleasure in it.”