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Smells Like $500

As the story goes, a French company was successfully inoculating the roots of specific trees, such as filberts and oaks, with the truffle organism and, under the right conditions, producing crops of mature truffles after a number of years. He thought, "I'll try that myself."

In the end, it took Garland 11 years of trial and error to produce just a few Perigord-like truffles, often referred to as black diamonds. When his first truffles were unearthed, he received a brief flurry of publicity in the United States. Since then, he has been quietly producing a few more pounds each year, selling them mostly in the North Carolina area.

AN EXPENSIVE AROMA: Washington chef Todd Gray takes in the pungent smell of Garland Gourmet truffles on an expedition to a North Carolina orchard. Below: Farmer Franklin Garland and his truffle-sniffing dog Ginger walk along the filbert trees, whose roots are friendly to underground truffle growth. At top right: Ginger, hard at work. (Photos Karen Tam For The Washington Post)

By his calculations, the climatic conditions in the Perigord region are similar to those in the more temperate areas of the mid-Atlantic states. Over the years, he fine-tuned the moisture level that the trees and truffles need.

Garland won't say exactly what type of soil is best for truffle production, although he takes unusual steps to maintain an alkaline soil by spreading large amounts of lime. His brochure adds that the soil should not contain more than 40 percent of clay, sand, loam or rock. The trees must be densely planted to produce an abundant root system. Weeding the orchard is important.

Not all filbert trees, which take six years to mature, bear black diamonds. But on average, by Garland's estimate, one acre will yield 75 pounds per year. And the filberts should live for 28 to 30 years with proper care.

There are other trade secrets that he prefers not to share, and for good reason. Truffle farms are underway in Texas and Oregon.

"This business is becoming a lot more competitive," says Garland, who planted a new 25-acre orchard last fall in Winston-Salem. Since 1998, he has sold 60,000 inoculated filbert seedlings for as much as $20 each, with thousands on order growing in his greenhouse in nearby Hillsborough.

Fresh local truffles may be turning up at farmers markets and at more restaurants in the Washington area in the years ahead. Garland sold 1,000 filbert trees each to two farms in the Warrenton area but prefers not to name the owners. A grain farmer in Charlottesville planted 1,300 inoculated trees five years ago. But thus far, not a truffle has been found.

"We've put in a great investment with the trees, fencing and irrigation, and we're getting a little concerned and frustrated," said the Charlottesville farmer in a telephone interview. She preferred, for security reasons, that her name and farm location not be disclosed. She said Franklin Garland "was perfectly honest and forthright with us and made no guarantees."

Last year, the Garlands were awarded a $235,000 grant from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, a state program designed to assist tobacco farmers by encouraging alternative crops. It's funded by a portion of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco manufacturers to settle lawsuits over smoking-related illnesses and change the way tobacco products are marketed. Fifty of the state's tobacco farmers will receive 200 trees each as well as technical consultations.

"For us, tobacco has always been king. But we need new niches for farmers, and this is a neat opportunity," says the tobacco trust fund's executive director, William Upchurch. "We don't think it's any magic bullet to help our farmers who have tried and failed with, say, pick-your-own strawberries or herbs. But this is unique."

Garland says that launching the project has been a challenge.

"The idea is to make this the truffle capital, like what Napa [California] is to wine," says Garland, who enjoys an omelet every now and then filled with sliced truffles sauteed in butter with sour cream and sherry. "But at first [the farmers] ask how we can be growing candy. Then there is the reluctance to grow a crop that's all underground."

Bob Passarelli, co-owner of the field just outside Rolesville where Ginger found the truffle during Gray's visit, has high expectations for his orchard. But he had a tinge of skepticism at the get-go.

"Until I saw my first truffle, I thought it was a scam," says Passarelli, a chef and food consultant in Raleigh. Now he is a believer. Says Passarelli: "This is going to be the savior of the North Carolina family farm. Yes, indeed."

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