If you have the right kind of land, Truffle growing could pay for your off-grid lifestyle – Paul Thomas of Plantation Systems explains.
The black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) is an underground fungus which grows in association with certain trees, prized by anyone interested in food for its unique and exquisite flavour/ Prices for the best quality black winter truffle reach $1500 (£1000) per kilo.
Until the 1970s truffles had to be found in the wild, sniffed out by specially trained pigs and dogs, the few plantations that existed worked largely on pot luck, hoping to encourage truffle growth by planting the most suitable trees (oak and hazel) under the right conditions. Since the ‘70’s however, new cultivation techniques have allowed truffle production to move from the ‘lucky find’ to a promising new business opportunity for anyone living off the grid and a suitable addition to any permaculture project.
Growing trees inoculated with truffles is an excellent way to make use of land. For example 1,600 hazel trees (enough to fill 1 hectare) inoculated with summer truffle would start to produce truffles , within 4-7 years of planting and will eventually give between 64-288kg of truffles per tree at an average wholesale price of $420 (£280) per kilo. Summer truffles are cheaper than black winter truffles, but far more productive and suitable for a broader range of climates.
The trees that are used to grow truffles are raised in a lab until they have formed the association with the truffle fungus- which is a completely symbiotic partnership, they help each other to grow and are completely at home in organic systems.
Start-up costs vary depending on your geographic location, but in England for example- 1Ha of truffle trees can be established for as little as £8,200 (depending on site conditions and planting density) with grants available to offset the costs by at least £2,000 and in some cases, up to 50%. Today, over 90% of all the truffles in France come from commercial orchards making full use of cultivation technology.
As a truffle host, hazels are ideal trees for coppicing and pollarding, sustainable methods of harvesting timber from the same tree or collection of trees by selectively removing branches and encouraging new lateral growth which can then be harvested again and again. Hazel wood, especially when freshly cut, is incredibly strong yet flexible and so makes an excellent building material as well as a renewable source of biofuel.
The land underneath the truffle trees can be used for keeping chickens or other poultry, as the droppings help maintain an ideal truffle growing pH as well as providing a source of meat and eggs – by growing truffles, a 1 hectare piece of land can produce 4 substantial and different crops. Truffles can also provide a more long term harvest when grown in association with oak trees; the nature of wood production in oak trees means that an 80 year rotation of trees provides a significant yield of strong and sustainable timber which can either be harvested in small amounts through coppicing or in large quantities through felling.
The black and summer truffles have provided the basis for our research at Mycorrhizal Systems Ltd. however investigating technological advances into the production and cultivation of this exciting new crop is not our only area of expertise. Working with all species of truffle has been a passion for us and we provide the necessary expertise and equipment for anyone wishing to try their hand at truffle growing. You can expect your first crop within 7 years of planting and we provide a full range of analysis to help you get the best out of your trees. Whether starting a plantation or simply adding a few trees to an existing piece of cultivated land, Mycorrhizal Systems Ltd. can provide the necessary expertise in producing this exciting addition to permaculture. We sell fully inoculated trees designed to grow truffles, facilities for testing and advising on ideal soil conditions, we also offer partnerships to people wanting to start plantations and grants to help you on your way to getting the plantation established.
Go to www.plantationsystems.com for more information on truffle growing and partnerships.
Permaculture is about working with the land to get the best out of it, using natural ecological interactions between different cultivatable species to keep the same piece of land productive for many years.
Monoculture uses the same piece of land for the same crop over and over again until the land can no longer sustain it, a process which takes a relatively small amount of time as the nutritional requirements of just one plant can quickly remove one particular nutrient. The move away from using manure to fertilise the land and giving it time to build up organic matter (humus) before cultivating it again to using the same piece of land over and over again, simply topping it up with liquid chemical fertilisers has lead to a decline in soil condition and over time leads to soil erosion and leaching of the few remaining mineral nutrients.
Permaculture takes a different approach, growing several different crops with different nutritional requirements together on the same piece of land, taking advantage of many species’ ability to re-enrich soil with nutrients (for example, legumes such as clover fix nitrogen into the soil), keeping animals on the land for a constant supply of manure, producing timber sustainably through the ancient practices of coppicing and pollarding and recognising when an area of soil needs to be left fallow to allow the nutrients and organic matter to build up again. All of these practices allow land to stay productive and fertile for decades rather than years and the key to this is working with nature and not against it.