By Brandy Saffell, Education Program Assistant, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension
Part I: Gucci and the Joriad
OSU Master Woodland Manager Marilyn Richen and her family own forest land in Columbia County. Her story about Gucci, her yellow lab, and the Joriad Truffle Hunting Competition is a modern day retelling of The Ugly Duckling.
Gucci was born into a training program for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Sadly, she could not stay in the program because of scavenging behaviors (i.e. seeking out and nabbing food). The upside of this otherwise disappointing situation was that Marilyn and her partner, Tammy Jackson, could officially adopt Gucci. They decided, though, that they desperately needed to find some sort of activity or training to help focus Gucci’s excessive energy.
This is where truffles enter the tale. Truffles are fungi that develop underground in symbiotic association with the roots of trees; they are also a culinary delicacy. Marilyn has had an interest in truffles for many years and has attended several truffle classes including those offered at Tree School and through the Oregon Woodland Cooperative. She was also aware of truffle hunting with dogs but did not have a dog to train until Gucci came along. Could truffle hunting be a way to channel Gucci’s energy into something productive?
In 2013, Marilyn, Tammy, and Gucci began working with a truffle dog trainer, Jeannine May. The training regime involved weekly practice with Jeannine and then daily reinforcement of the skills that she taught. Gucci was finding truffles in the wild regularly by the end of the truffle season (roughly December through February). This past season, Gucci went out truffle hunting once or twice per week, gradually improving her ability to identify truffles and dig them up. The time had come to put Gucci’s sniffer to the test against other dogs.
Marilyn and Tammy entered Gucci in the Joriad, a North American Truffle Dog Competition event. Gucci passed with flying colors in the qualifying rounds, which took place in an arena filled with hidden truffle-scented objects. She proceeded with five other competitors to the final field round: a foggy, dense Christmas tree farm near Eugene. Each contender embarked on their own in the woods, searching for as many wild truffles as they could find in one hour. Gucci won, and although the results were not made public, she was rumored to have found more than twice the number of truffles than the second runner-up. Our champion, Gucci, had undergone her transformation from the storybook ugly duckling into a truffle-hunting swan.
Part II: Opportunities for Landowners
When I consider this story about Gucci, I see an opportunity for landowners to embrace truffles as a non-timber forest product. Truffle hunting has been a tradition in southern Europe for centuries and remain a highly esteemed product up there with foie gras and caviar. Although there are thousands of truffle varieties, the most widely known and prized are French black perigords and Italian whites. The market value of European black and white truffles can be anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per pound. In the U.S., truffles grow especially well in the mild climate of the Pacific Northwest, primarily west of the Cascades. Oregon has its own native black and white truffles and peak production is found in dense, coastal Douglas-fir stands, around 15 to 25 years old. Despite the fact that these stands are common throughout our region, only a small percentage of the potential truffle crop is harvested each year (about 13,500 pounds). Part of the reason is that most commercially productive truffle habitat is on privately owned lands, but more importantly, the truffle market in Oregon is largely undeveloped.
In recent years, Oregon black and white truffles have been valued at around $320 and $220 per pound, respectively; much lower than their European relatives. Poor quality control has been suggested as one factor in the lower value of Oregon truffles. A large proportion of our truffles are harvested by raking the surface of the forest floor to uncover the hidden crop. Raking typically unearths immature truffles, which lack the savory taste that develops with ripeness. In turn, Oregon truffles have earned a bad name as less potent than European varieties.
Marilyn has found both black and white truffles on her 450 acres, but only a few ounces here and there. “For now, it’s a hobby,” she says. But she and Tammy see the potential for profit from truffling in Oregon, which is still a very young science. They excitedly share with me that they have found truffles far outside peak season and sometimes even in atypical forest habitat. “This is where training dogs can be useful,” says Tammy. They only find mature truffles (so there is inherent quality control) and will tell you what is out there on your property throughout the year.
So what are some options for landowners to explore? You can look into training your own dog and explore the potential of your property. You could also lease your property to truffle hunters and take a share of the profits or agree upon a flat fee. Consider using a harvest permit and products sale document with your hunters. Another interesting possibility is hosting truffle forays, which are high-end events where a small group will pay to be led on a truffle hunt with dogs on the property followed by a chef curated, truffle-themed dinner. You can also look into cultivating truffles, a process that requires heavy investment but can potentially yield large quantities. For more information about Oregon truffles and other non-timber forest products: http://ntfpinfo.us/publications/index.html.
Editor’s note: since this article was written, the South County Spotlight also wrote an article about Marilyn and Gucci.