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Growing Truffles...in Kentucky

A white Labrador Retriever named Pinky is on a mission. Nose to the ground, she sniffs at the base of trees in an orchard on a Fayette County farm.

Her owner, May May Barton, has placed treats on the ground at the base of some of the trees. It’s part of Pinky’s training to learn how to hunt for truffles. 

Truffles have a unique smell that’s described as earthy. The delicacy is a spore-bearing fruit of a fungus that grows underground near host trees.

May May and her husband Chris Barton planted 250 trees, mostly English Oak and Hazelnut. Before they were planted, each seedling was inoculated or covered in truffle spores.

The Barton’s harvested their first truffles last Fall.

Chris, a professor at the University of Kentucky in the Forestry Department, says for years he tried to discourage people who were interested in growing truffles in Kentucky. 

“I had people call me in my, you know, roll with the forestry department saying we want to grow truffles in Kentucky. And I was like, nah, don't do it. The winters are too cold. And then I had this friend who was insistent on buying land and doing this. I was like, that's a waste of money. And so finally I was like, well, let's give it a try. Let's just do a trial.”

A change in the weather patterns in the last decade in Kentucky prompted Chris to reconsider his objection to growing truffles. He says warmer winters and wetter weather have made Kentucky a more conducive environment for truffle growing. 

“The trees have done very well. And, you know, the fact that we've had a truffle or two is promising. So, if we can get like a decent crop this year, I'll probably add another acre of trees next year.”

Growing truffles is expensive and you need a lot of patience. The Barton’s say they spent up to $12,000 on 250 trees for the truffle orchard.

It typically takes six to seven years before you have your first truffles. Also factor in that growers spend thousands of dollars on laboratory work and maintenance of the trees. The truffles are about the size of a walnut, but they can also be as large as a baseball. There are dozens of truffle species. 

“Depending on what species you have, the black truffles that we have here are generally worth $500 a kilogram.”

That’s about two pounds.

The truffle has a rich history going back centuries. In 14th-century Europe, truffles were valued food among the wealthy. Italy and France have grown truffles for hundreds of years. Homegrown truffles did not appear on the farming scene in the United States until about fifteen years ago.

Margaret Townsend is the president of the North American Truffle Growing Association. She grows truffles on her farm in Allen County, Kentucky near Bowling Green.

Townsend says her twenty-five-acre orchard is one of the largest truffle-growing farms in the U.S. She says the West Coast is a key region for growing truffles. Townsend says Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina have also seen more truffle farms in the last decade.

She estimates there are about a dozen truffle growers in Kentucky including a brand name in the bourbon industry. Maker’s Mark in Marion County planted a truffle orchard a couple of years ago. 

Brian Mattingly is the manager of the distillery’s Star Hill Farm where 875 seedlings went into the ground. Why truffles? Mattingly says about eight years ago they discovered naturally growing truffles on the distillery property, and that sparked the idea for an orchard.

“We just set out to grow these native truffles so that we can use them in our cocktail program and in our restaurant program. And if you haven't had a cocktail that's been infused with truffles, you're definitely missing out. I think it just has a little bit more of an earthy taste. When cooking there is more of like an onion flavor, but in a cocktail, it just made a really earthy additional flavor I think to the bourbon that was already great.”

A key part of the truffle growing project at Maker’s Mark is Star. The bundle of energy is an Italian breed called a Lagotto Romagnola, and is trained to find truffles. Her handler is Amanda Humphrey, the distillery’s Advocacy and Experience Manager.

“He is the most loving dog that I've ever had the pleasure of looking after. And he is so smart. One of the smartest dog breeds that I've ever worked with, he picks things up incredibly well.”

After a year of training, Humphrey says Star is doing a great job finding truffles.

“Great news is that I don't have to say he's in training anymore. He's fully hunting truffles.”

Townsend says what’s needed to grow the truffle industry is more education. She says the public needs to understand the difference between artificial flavors of truffles served at local restaurants versus the truffles grown on farms that are not a chemical reproduction.

Part of that education will come this Fall when the University of Kentucky and Maker’s Mark host two-days of seminars and activities related to truffles. The North American Truffle Growers Association is organizing its “congress” on October 28th and 29th. Details on how to take part will be available at trufflegrowers.com.

If you have never tasted a bit of truffle, Chris Barton recommends you try it. 

“The truffles are so expensive that very seldomly would you eat one raw. Once we start producing out here, I'll give it a try. But usually, you shave it over pasta or eggs, or you add it to things to give flavor to your dishes. And generally, that's the way I've always had it is just, you know, lightly graded over, you know, something and it just adds a little kick to the food you're eating.”

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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.
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