On a balmy June morning, Joshua Esnard stood before freshly cleared land on his 26 acres in rural Pittsboro and spoke of the riches to come.
Esnard, a native of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, had already had entrepreneurial success with the Cut Buddy, a do-it-yourself hair cutting tool that was featured on Shark Tank and is now available at Walmart, Target, and other major retailers. As improbable as that venture may have appeared—as it did to most of the Shark Tank judges—Esnard’s new endeavor seemed even more quixotic.
In 2018, Esnard and his pregnant wife had been living in South Florida, but wanted to relocate to North Carolina, where he’d spent enjoyable early years as the child of peripatetic academics. Esnard’s plan was to buy some land, and grow … something.
“I was just fooling around on the Internet, looking up luxury crops,” he said. “At first, I was thinking saffron,” he said, until he learned how labor-intensive it is to harvest.
More internet searching led him to truffles, the elusive fungi traditionally found buried in the wild for which fancy chefs and gourmands are willing to pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per pound. But truffles aren’t a crop like corn, whereby a farmer seeds a field and can reasonably expect a harvest by the end of the season.
It can take eight years or longer for a single truffle to emerge, and that’s if the farmer does every step of the process right. Many would-be truffle farmers fail to produce any at all after hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars in investment.
The cleared acre sits behind a five-bedroom house, where Esnard, 36, lives with his family as well as his business partner and former Florida State University roommate, Tony Huey. Huey, his wife, and their daughter moved here from Texas. (The third partner, Mickey Mitchell, another former classmate, lives on Long Island.)
The house is off a dirt road, up a long, winding gravel driveway that cuts through woods on both sides. Esnard had recently installed a Starlink system for better internet service. But he had yet to find a reliable water source for the truffle orchard, and they were planning to plant their seedlings in only a few weeks.
Still, Esnard and his partners had reason for optimism. North Carolina is the hub of the country’s young truffle industry, with a hospitable climate and numerous success stories to draw from. Estimates of the number of truffle farms one acre or larger in the United States run between 500 and 1,000, but there are more than 200 in North Carolina alone.
Esnard also had a mentor in Dr. Omoanghe Isikhuemhen, a microbiologist at North Carolina A&T State University who has had reliable success producing truffles on the university’s test orchards in just two to three years.
In 2019, before they planted a single tree, Esnard and his partners formed Truffletopia, a company that manufactures truffle products in Italy. They sell the offerings—various truffle oil and sauce concoctions derived from Italian truffles—back in the United States to a handful of gourmet shops and restaurants and on Amazon.
They hope by the time they start producing truffles in North Carolina, Truffletopia will already have brand awareness, Huey said. Their ambition is boundless, like many a wide-eyed truffle farmer before them.
“We want this to become an agritourism site, like wineries in Napa,” Esnard said. “We’re building a truffle Disneyland.”
A truffle is a type of mushroom, which is the fruiting body of a spore. The fungi grow in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots, providing water and nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates that the trees generate through photosynthesis.
While most mushrooms send their fruit above ground, truffles remain subterranean, their reproduction relying on foraging animals like birds, deer, and rodents passing spores in their waste. Traditionally, humans have relied on pigs and dogs to locate truffles by their scent, both in the wild and, later, on truffle farms. (Dogs are generally preferred since they, unlike pigs, don’t typically enjoy eating the truffles.)
According to Zachary Nowak’s Truffle: A Global History, they first appear in recorded history on a clay tablet recording a functionary’s gripes about a letter from King Zimri-Lim, who ruled over a pocket of present-day Syria in the second century: “Ever since I reached Saggaratum five days ago, I have continuously dispatched truffles to my lord,” the bureaucrat wrote. “But my lord has written to me: ‘You have sent me bad truffles!’”
Other culinary references to wild truffles can be found in ancient Greek and Roman texts, but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that French farmers began growing their own truffles. The French transplanted oak and hazelnut seedlings from truffle-producing woods, and used trained pigs and dogs to find the harvest.
By 1915, France was producing about 1,000 tons of truffles annually, but the World Wars crushed the fledgling European industry, which never fully recovered thanks to the urban drift and deforestation of the late 20th century. Today, France produces less than 50 tons of truffles annually; Italy and Spain produce only slightly more. Meanwhile, the industry expanded to other parts of the world, most notably China, the United States, and Australia.
And while upstart California winemakers once struggled to garner the praise heaped upon older, long-acclaimed French and Italian producers, the same snobbishness applies less to truffles, where the most coveted characteristic is aromatic freshness.
“Let’s say you take a Pèrigord black truffle in Europe that’s harvested on Christmas day, packed in a box, and sent out the next morning,” said Carolina Truffières’ Davis Upchurch, who along with his parents, cultivates 100 acres of truffle orchards near Asheville. “It hits another hub, and maybe it gets to Chicago or New York three to five days after coming out of the ground and a few days longer to reach California. A week-old truffle isn’t considered fresh.”
Domestic producers are better suited to provide truffles to local restaurants and other customers, a fact Franklin Garland, a polymath North Carolina farmer, realized in the late 1970s, when he became obsessed with the fungi.
Garland, the doyen of the United States truffle industry, grew up in Tarrytown, New York, and majored in math and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Looking to flee the northern winters, he moved to North Carolina, where his brother was in graduate school in Chapel Hill.
In 1975, he bought land in Hillsborough, built a home, and began growing greenhouse tomatoes. Then he heard about a French company that was looking to start a base for truffle farming in the United States. Garland and his father traveled to a conference in Santa Rosa, California, that the company hosted in the late ‘70s.
“They didn’t even serve us truffles, and I’d never had one before,” he said. But his curiosity was piqued, and he went to France to tour several truffières—French for “truffle orchard”—and was served a truffle omelet. “I fell in love with it,” said Garland, now 71.
In 1979, Garland began planting hazelnut seedlings that had been inoculated with spores of the black Pèrigord truffle, a highly prized varietal, which unlike white truffles, doesn’t lose its aroma when heated. The now-defunct French company he’d purchased the seedlings from gave him very little advice. “They said plant them, come back eight years later, and get truffles,” Garland recalled.
But it wasn’t so simple. “The soil’s different here, and it needs to be modified,” he said. Truffles require soil with a pH of 7 to 8, which is significantly higher than most soil found in North Carolina and the Eastern U.S. Garland added lime to the soil to increase the alkalinity.
“Around the 12th year of our orchard, we did a drastic soil mediation, and in 1992 we finally got truffles,” he said.
Other operations sprung up, with upstarts buying inoculated seedlings from the Garlands or other grower-providers. Recently, the North American Truffle Growers Association, the industry’s trade group, estimated that as of 2020, there are about 200 orchards of at least one acre in production in the United States.
But Charles Lefevre, who founded the Oregon-based New World Truffières 20 years ago, guesses the number is higher. “There’s fewer than a thousand, but my company alone provides seedlings to more than 100 growers,” he said. Upchurch, the founder of Carolina Truffières, said there were about 200 orchards in North Carolina alone.
Many farmers are tight-lipped about their business. “A lot of growers ended up planting bad trees and don’t want to talk about their failures,” said Upchurch. But farmers can also be wary of publicizing their successes, given the possibility of theft of their valuable and portable produce.
Most farmers plant 400 to 500 trees per acre that can yield 50 to 100 pounds of truffles per year. That produces upwards of $50,000 in revenue per acre—but most farms are less than ten acres and the start-up costs are high.
“It costs a minimum of $15,000 to $20,000 per acre to buy the seedlings and get started in the truffle business, and that doesn’t include the cost of the land or the years of labor and investment to keep it going,” said Garland, whose family currently has 10 acres under production.
Meanwhile, disease is a constant threat. Many orchards have succumbed to Eastern Filbert Blight, a fungal disease that preys upon European hazelnut trees. Nearly 20 years ago, the blight ravaged Garland’s orchard as well as a large operation near Charlotte, Piedmont Valley Truffles.
“One of the big mistakes truffle farmers made was starting with European trees,” Upchurch said. He visited one North Carolina orchard recently that had been there 18 years.
“But it was all hazels,” he said. “Half were dead, and half were infected.”
Esnard and his partners had thought that they’d plant black Pèrigords like Garland, with whom they consulted, or perhaps Burgundy truffles, another popular species. (The world’s most expensive varietal is the Italian white truffle; a two-pound specimen sold for $118,000 at auction last year, but it has to be successfully farmed.)
But there were some concerns in Truffletopia. While Garland and other farmers had shifted from European hazelnut trees to hybridized trees that were more resistant to the blight, they were not immune to it. Plus, the partners were hoping to get product to the market without waiting a decade for their orchard to mature.
“We’re not millionaires, and we can’t just burn through money,” Esnard said.
Last year, Esnard attended a North American Truffle Growers Association conference in California where he met Omoanghe Isikhuemhen, who suggested a different approach to truffle farming. Isikhuemhen, known to many as simply “Dr. Omon,” grew up in Nigeria in a family of subsistence farmers and studied botany at the University of Benin, focusing on mushrooms. He earned a doctorate in microbiology in the Czech Republic, conducted research at Duke University and in Japan, and joined the faculty at North Carolina A&T in 2002, initially focusing on shiitake mushrooms, developing hundreds of new strains.
Isikhuemhen noted that there wasn’t much scientific inquiry into truffle cultivation in North Carolina. He’s spent the last decade working on truffles—specifically the Bianchetto, commonly known as the white spring truffle, which isn’t as prized as the Italian white varietal (Tuber Magnatum). Rather than rely on European trees, they grew the truffles with loblolly pines, native trees better suited for the climate and local disease.
“We already had a lot of loblollies on our property, so we knew they could survive,” Esnard said.
Previously, the fastest you could grow Bianchetto truffles was four years. “We got that down to two years and six months,” Isikhuemhen said.
But he’s cagey about his methods. For a flattering Smithsonian profile last year, he told a reporter that his success involved “microbial dynamics” and manipulating the “growth media” he used to inoculate the seedlings with truffle spores.
“You need to do the science right,” he told The Assembly in an interview, but offered a mystical explanation of said science. “For 10 years, I was observing the tuber,” he said. “You have to talk to them.”
The university, which operates 4 acres of truffle orchards, doesn’t sell its truffles or its expertise. “We don’t want to compete with the industry,” Isikhuemhen said. “We do research and academics.” But he also consults pro bono with growers, most notably Burwell Farms in Burlington, which inoculated its first loblolly seedling in 2014 and now produces more than 200 pounds of white spring truffles annually.
While not challenging Omon’s scientific bona fides, other growers say his success has been overstated. “There’s really nothing new going on,” said Lefevre, the New World Truffières founder, who holds a PhD in forest mycology from Oregon State University. “The Bianchetto truffle is well known as the easiest truffle to grow … The reason people haven’t grown it is that in Europe, it’s not really a valuable species.”
“They don’t taste as good as the Pèrigord truffles,” Garland said, who offered an analogy with French dessert wines. “It’s like drinking a regular sauterne versus a Chateau d’Yquem.”
But Burwell Farms and other white spring truffle growers are still selling to retail buyers at $100 per ounce and at $40 to $50 per ounce to restaurants and wholesalers—on par with the going rate for the prized black Pèrigords.
“What’s interesting is not that Omon succeeded in growing truffles,” Lefevre said. “Everyone knew he would. The interesting thing is that they’re able to charge high prices because it’s a novelty and it’s local.”
By late August, the 415 loblolly seedlings the Truffletopia partners planted earlier in the summer had grown to about 2 feet tall. Researchers from N.C. A&T had visited the orchard and told them “the trees look great,” said Huey, who quit his pharmaceutical sales job last year to devote his full attention to the truffle business, while Esnard splits his time between Truffletopia and his Cut Buddy business.
But logistical challenges remained. The small pond they had relied upon for irrigation had dried up, forcing them to truck in water. “We could put in a well, but that could be cost-prohibitive if we need to go down a thousand feet,” Huey said. Mowing the grass between the rows of seedlings was difficult because there were so many rocks on the plot. They hope to see their first truffles within three years and realize a commercially viable yield within five. They plan on clearing more new plots on the property to plant seedlings.
“Part of our vision, which is implied in our name, is that we’re living on the land in a utopia setting,” Huey said.
“We’re not a cult,” Esnard deadpanned.
But just as there are wine obsessives and car obsessives, there is a cult, of sorts, of the truffle.
And the hope for Esnard and his partners, as well as Garland and other growers, is that in the near future their orchards will attract the attention not only of local chefs and consumers, but truffle devotees across the globe.
Paul Wachter has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, ESPN, and The Atlantic. He lives in Chapel Hill.