Terra Preta Truffles bringing life back to the forest and creating opportunities in the process

Heston Blumenthal, Shannon Bennett and Peter Gilmore all love them. Even the lesser known chefs among us know that truffles are a culinary delight that can make even a plate of scrambled eggs taste like it a 5-star dish. But what is a truffle?

To the layperson truffles are rare, edible, subterranean fungi or tubers.  Many people know that they are a type of mushroom, but quite different from the mushrooms we all know.  Mushrooms grow outside of the ground, but truffles grow underground. They like moisture and temperate conditions and are fussy about the type of tree they grow on.  Truffles evolved from mushrooms that started growing underground to protect themselves. Truffles are hard to grow and they don’t all provide that little taste of heaven.

Terra Preta Truffles

To Peter Marshall, the founder of Terra Preta Truffles, Tuber melanosporum or truffles, are a passion that has led to a globally recognised business exporting not just high-grade truffles, but also expertise in forestry and soil management.

Terra Preta Truffles is located in Braidwood. It has been the family home and business base for over 30 years.

“We took over classic degraded bare and empty paddocks with plenty of erosion and rabbits.  It was a disaster but my interest as a forester was to bring the land back to life,” says Peter.

Peter and his wife, Kate, wanted a place close to town to raise their kids.

“We preferably wanted an old dairy farm because it would have been close to a bus route and would have had good soil, water and weather and that’s what we found”.

Peter says that the property used to produce milk for the local cheese-making factory in the 1930s and the land was eventually destroyed during World War 2 by erosion. Cattle grazing then continued to impact the land.

“We started to bring the soil back to life 30 years ago. After about 15 years of deep ripping and fixing up the gullies and getting the air back into the ground we started tree planting.”

Peter has always known about mycorrhizal fungi.  To the non-scientist these are fungi that live in association with tree roots.  It’s a perfect symbiosis says Peter. This is how the truffle business got started.

“The trees on the truffle patch are about 15 years old and started producing around year 5 and really increased their production around year 10.  By this time, they had reached an excellent and stable level of production”.

Where did it all start?

Peter comes from a farming background and was keen to learn how to integrate trees into a farm and make a three-dimensional agriculture that was deep on and above the ground.

“This means good soil six feet below the ground and good air 40 feet above the ground, rather than the standard 2 inches of grass most people think of as healthy farming.

“I wanted to see if we could make a long term living out of forestry by creating high quality timber with an understory of some sort of agriculture that would pay for it, and that’s what we did,” says Peter.

Peter says that ever though he knew about mycorrhizae in pine forests, he was surprised to find that you could actually grow mycorrhizal truffles and generate a living from them.

“When the truffles went in 15 years ago it was very early stages of the industry and there was a lot of poor-quality advice going around.  We found out that in those days most truffle plantings in the country had failed.”

Peter says that many of the early truffle plantations weren’t established on a scientific basis.

“We paid a lot of attention to the genetics of the trees and the truffles.  There is a big difference in the flavour of truffles and ecological requirements for both the truffle and the tree”, explains Peter.

It’s not just any oak tree. There are 600 species of oaks and even within each species there are very different cultivars[1], each with different architectures, shapes and growth habits.

It has taken a number of trials but Peter says he now knows what works.  As soon as Terra Preta started producing good quality truffles, they started exporting them.

“We always considered truffles to be a product for export,” says Peter.

Peter never considered the Australian market big enough to absorb what he produced. But as it turns out the Australian market has grown very quickly. So once Terra Preta validated their 1-hectare trial plot they started planning for extensive growth.

“We now have about 24 hectares of truffle trees, which means that in the next few years we will be a very substantial exporter of truffles.  Last year we exported a bit under half a tonne.  The aim is to be exporting about 10 tonnes or so in the next 4 or 5 years.”

This volume will make Terra Preta a big player on the world market and they are aiming to be noticed.  Peter says that in some years all of France produces about a total of 40 tonnes.

“We have put a huge amount of effort into understanding the biochemistry of the truffle and figuring out how to maximise their flavour, resilience and strength.  They are a living thing and if their immune system is compromised and weak they won’t handle being transported.”

“Our truffles can handle an air freight trip to Europe and still be good for weeks after landing. Terra Preta is focused on quality and will only deliver a premium product to the market.”

Peter says that there are producers that try to sell any quality of truffle that comes out of the ground and this can affect the general reputation of the Australian product.

“We don’t want to get involved in that game so we grade our products really hard.”

What about the truffle?

Most of us think that truffles are grown on certain types of trees, but it isn’t quite that straightforward.

Peter says Italy for example has the Italian White truffle (Tuber magnatum) that grows under oaks, poplars, pines and willows.  Terra Preta grows the Black truffle, the Tuber melanosporum.  In its natural habitat, Peter says these will be found under French oaks, sometimes poplars and often linden and hazelnut trees.  The White truffle is the other highly valued truffle and Terra Preta has planted these but not yet harvested them.

In France the truffles grow around 3 species of oaks.  Peter says that using science has enabled Terra Preta to grow them under a range of different oaks including Japanese and Mexican varieties.

“So, we are now growing French truffles under Japanese oak trees and exporting them to Tokyo. This is really special to our Japanese customers.  The truffles have not only a distinctive flavour but a personal connection for the chefs.”

Peter says this is very important to their future plans because they have expanded the possibility of species as hosts.

“They are still in the oak genus but we can use different oaks from different parts of the world and continue to create unique features in the truffles.

“Mexico is an interesting opportunity for us”, says Peter “because the oaks there are generally really tough and resistant to drought conditions”.

“We have cracked how to grow drought resistant truffles, which is a pretty good innovation that served us well last year. We also had bushfires over the truffle patch this year and it didn’t bother them, so we seem to have been able to managed smoke and fire too.”

Peter talks about his trees with great respect. He talks about the hazelnut trees he has on the farm.  “There are dozens of varieties of hazelnut trees, some of these are 2000 years old.  We actually have a tree that was bred by the Ancient Romans in 1BC and its still a pure line to this day.”

“We actually ended up with the entire program for the 80-year-old Oregon State University Hazelnut breeding program. We transferred this knowledge over to Australia and have a lot of top quality genetics with unique growth habits.  Through our involvement in these programs, we are discovering that different trees have different flavours and we can match these flavours to a chef’s particular taste.  This is a great opportunity for us.”

and Canberra Peter goes on to explain that the flavours are very different depending on which type of tree the truffles grow under – it’s like wine.  There is a huge variation and this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily better or worse – they are just different and different chefs have different styles of cooking and like different styles of truffle.  To help manage this, Terra Preta have a broker in Melbourne that works with all the top chefs to get feedback on what they are producing.

“These days we have trees that belong to specific chefs – we have Heston’s tree and Sam’s tree.  We understand what people want.”  Peter says these chefs are very highly trained and the feedback they provide helps them with their grading.  So, anything that is exported is AAA grade and nothing goes overseas that isn’t.  Peter says they know this attention to detail is appreciated overseas.

“A chef likes to know where the truffle comes from.  They are really pleased that we are proud enough of our farm to talk about it and send them photographs.”

Peter said that many European chefs have spent a few days with them and loved being able to dig the truffle up and understand how it was grown.  In Europe because of buying arrangements it can be really hard for them to follow the supply chain.

Peter sells about 15percent of his truffles in Australia and the rest are exported. He says that the majority of future growth will be in export.  “We have people queued up and waiting.  Our clients in Tokyo will take 10 times what we send now.”

How has the current situation impacted on the truffle business?

Peter says that Terra Preta are looking forward to exporting out of Canberra.  We have been shipping out of Melbourne because our broker is down there wasn’t an option.  The Truffles are sent to Melbourne overnight and our broker does the final grading.  “There are never enough truffles to meet demand so everyday he has to decide who gets what depending on the specific taste profiles clients want.”

“Last year our major customers were in London, Paris, Tokyo, Dubai, San Francisco and Chicago.  Because of the fires we have had to tell a lot of potential clients, sorry but you are going to have to wait a year or two and they are happy to wait,” say Peter.

“We have been upfront with all our customers about our challenges over the past year and everyone has been really understanding.  We think that speaks to the quality of our product.”

First there was the bushfires

Peter says that their challenges started with the fires. The major issues weren’t the fire or the explosions in the forest, he explains.

“We were very lucky because of the structure of our truffle patch.  It is unique in that the way it is pruned slows down the wind speed and it retains high humidity even during a drought.  So, the fire dropped into the humid layer and it went out.”

Peter says that the real issue was the smoke and low visibility – we effectively had no sunlight for 3 months.  “The trees shut down and stopped photosynthesising for this whole time.  A deciduous tree only does this for 5 months of the year in normal circumstance anyway, so they lost two thirds of their photosynthesis for the entire year.”

Peter explained that the lack of photosynthesis means that the trees weren’t producing the sugar necessary to feed the truffles and the truffles decided not to fruit.  Instead they decided to extend their mycelia, which is a terrific thing because they are taking up more volume of soil and breaking down rocks and in turn generating more nutrients for the tree, which means they will be even stronger.

“We aren’t really concerned about having a rest year, because we are learning some really interesting things about the different physiologies of oaks.  We now have a lot of data that will inform our planning program for the next two years.”

Peter explains that after the smoke cleared the trees have reset their body clocks and have only just realised that its winter.  “We have told all our customers that this is going to be a fallow[2] year and that we need to look after our trees and let them recover.” We have let the truffles turn to spores in the ground and re-inoculate the trees, says Peter.

“Our clients were fine about us not shipping this year given most of them have been in lock down for a big part of 2020 and business has been slower”, says Peter.

Creating healthy forests

In many ways Terra Preta’s core business is the trees and the truffles are the valuable bi-product.  “I am creating a whole healthy forest that sequesters carbon and creates wonderful timber and biochar and the healthier things are underground the better the yields.”

And the better the yields get the more nutrients the truffle gives back to the tree the better quality of the timber.  Without the truffles the trees would die young.  “It’s a wonderful cycle and totally symbiotic”, say Peter.

The truly valuable thing all this experience has created is a huge stable of genetics and records.

“We now know which trees can cope with drought conditions, or increasing summer temperatures or heavy clayed soils.  This means in all our different plantings we can match the tree to the conditions of the soil and terrain.”

“This will also help our exports because we will have more and more different paddocks with different aspects and different shelter belts and that will even out our production in different weather conditions,” says Peter

What’s next?

Peter says that the work he does is hard physical work and he won’t be able to do it forever, but his family are all involved in the business and together they have created a solid future.

Innovative packaging

Scrubbing and sterilising the truffles after they are collected is complex and time consuming but they have put a lot of effort into export packaging.

“I hate using Styrofoam so we developed completely insulated, compositing boxes using shredded newspaper fibre as insulation.  We worked with a packaging firm in Melbourne to develop this.  We have a nice presentation and when it arrives at the other end, they don’t have to worry about a Styrofoam box.”

Peter says that the chefs don’t like Styrofoam and he doesn’t want to sell a forest product that is in non-degradable, non-recyclable packaging because it doesn’t reflect the nature of the product or who they are as a company.

The value of IP

Truffles aren’t the only export opportunity for Terra Preta.  “I have been offered a substantial amount of money for consulting to start truffle patches in South Africa, South America, New Zealand and Europe. I have said no at his stage, because our IP is actually worth more to us and we would be creating competition for ourselves. Chile and South Africa for example, have similar seasons to ours.

“Working in the Southern Hemisphere means that we don’t compete with European production. Chefs are having the new experience of getting truffles in summer and experimenting with a new cuisine.”

Peter says that the European producers don’t see them as competition either and are happy that customers can get supplies all year round.

 Exporting expertise

There are a number of passion projects that Peter is also very proud of, including working with the Farm Forestry Association in New Zealand and acting as a caretaker for an Arboretum that was established over 100 years ago.  He also talks about working with the neighbours to start a truffle patch as a way of funding this important charity work.  He also talks about his work with the Himalayan Oak Trust and how they are acting as a genetic refuge for endangered species of trees, which is exporting acorns to India for reforestation in the Himalayas.

“I got involved in this project in the last two years but it started decades ago. What we are doing is so interesting that scientists come from around the world to our farm in Braidwood to see and learn.  We get professors setting themselves up with labs in our local hotel and they stay here for weeks or months at a time.  It is an amazing sharing of ideas and knowledge,” says Peter.

“We have created our own small university and we learn so much from these relationships and we now have access to a worldwide network of world leading microbiologists and foresters.  I guess we are exporting expertise as well,’ says Peter.

“I learn the science from them and they learn the management techniques from us”.

As if Peter wasn’t busy enough over the past few years he has been exporting a lot of knowledge around erosion control.

“I developed a new method to fix up erosion gullies, which is quite unique.  We provide the concept here and are exporting that methodology to places like North and South America.”

Peter says that when international travel opens up again, he will be spending some time selling this IP around the world.  He said that the idea came from his background in a gold mining family.

“My grandad spent his whole life creating erosion gullies, my Dad spent his life trying to fix them and I’ve developed a new technique involving a geo-textile I have invented which makes it cheaper and easier to fix big erosion gullies and effectively turn them into underground green houses.”

Long-term management of natural assets

Peter says it’s all hard work, but incredibly satisfying because it fixes the landscape and he wants to keep increasing the amount of land he fixes.  He spoke about a project he is working on in the Monaro with Charles Massy, author of Call of the Reed Warbler, to build a large fodder forest, bringing around 1000hectares of compacted ground back to life.

“Foresters are used to big plots and doing things in units of 30 years and this sometimes freaks other people out.  But the long-term management of natural assets is extremely important to the future of any kind of primary production in Australia,” says Peter.

 

[1] A plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding.
[2] Farmland that ploughed and harrowed but left for a period without being sown in order to restore its fertility or to avoid surplus production.

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