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Geyserville hazelnut trees yield tasty truffles

Fran Angerer trains his dog, Tuber, a Lagotto Romagnolo, to smell truffles in the ground attached to the roots of the hazelnut trees at the Angerer Family Farm in Geyserville. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

ANN CARRANZA , TOWNS CORRESPONDENT

Cultivating truffles in Sonoma County? It has been an intriguing idea since Henry Trione first explored it with his friend J. Ralph Stone in the 1970s. But growing truffles in Sonoma County didn’t gain much traction until now.

Serendipitously, Fran Angerer, 68, and his son, Nathan, 36, became intrigued by the idea at about the same time a few years ago. Fran saw an article in a local paper about William Griner, who had planted truffle trees in Mendocino County, at the same time that Nathan was intrigued by an article on the subject in GQ magazine. After much exploration and study, in 2011 they planted hazelnut trees inoculated with truffle spores on a parcel of land in Geyserville.

Today, there is a growing excitement in the family, including Fran’s wife, Robin, 64, and daughter-in-law, Sheila, 32, as they get closer to harvesting their first black Perigord truffles, Tuber melanosporum, through Alexander Valley Truffle Co. These truffles, which grow wild in France, Spain and Italy, are often called “black diamonds.” In 2012, they sold for up to $1,200 a pound.

While waiting for the trees to begin producing truffles, Nathan and Sheila Angerer farm tomatoes at their Angerer Family Farm, selling to Diavola, Catelli’s, Big John’s Market, Oliver’s Markets and Andy’s Produce. They produce up to several thousand pounds of tomatoes each week during the season, following organic principles. Their farm also produces Padrone peppers and other produce.

It took the family a year to find the “perfect dirt” to grow the picky fungi that prefer rapid-draining, alkaline soil. The 10-acre parcel of land, located between the railroad tracks and the river on Highway 128 in Geyserville, is rich with alluvial deposits. Still, it required 425,000 pounds of lime, 1,700 pounds of phosphorus and 85,000 pounds of compost to enrich it before planting. The trees are planted in the perfect place for aquifer recharge, Nathan attests.

The nearly 10-acre plot now has 1,548 hazelnut trees infused with truffle spores. “For a crop that’s growing underground, we have to do a microscopic analysis to see if it’s spreading to the root tips,” Nathan explained.

An 11-month-old Lagotto Romagnolo water dog imported from a breeder in Vancouver, British Columbia, has been added to the family. At the right time, “Tuber” will sniff the presence of the ripened truffles and dig them up. To train Tuber, Nathan has planted corks infused with truffle oil at the base of the trees. When Tuber roots one out, she is trained to turn the cork over and sit beside it until she receives another command. “Truffle dogs” are specially trained to drop the truffles rather than eat them once they unearth them.

The Angerers have learned what a mystery product the truffles are. “Even the experts don’t know a lot,” Fran Angerer said. Father and son encountered that mystery when trying to get more information about this “magic mushroom” with so much value as a delicacy. Fortunately, they found world-renowned truffle experts Charles Lefevre, owner of New World Truffieres, Inc., and James Trappe, a “mycology master” at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry to inform them.

Truffles begin to produce between four and 10 years after the trees they spread under are planted. The yearling trees are between seven and 14 inches tall and cost between $20 and $50 each, depending on the type of tree and the species of truffle inoculation, as well as the number of trees purchased. They are raised for the first year in a laboratory setting to ensure that they are inoculated only with the species desired, since there are fungal spores all around.

Each tree may produce between one and two pounds, and there are three grades of truffles. Size, shape and appearance are important and determine price. Perigord truffle season runs from November through February. While the Angerers’ trees are already producing hazelnuts, the truffles will be the only crop harvested. The heavy equipment used to harvest hazelnuts could damage the truffles that grow near the surface of the soil.

In addition to the 1,500-plus trees inoculated with Perigord truffles, the Angerers have 10 hazelnut trees inoculated with Piedmont white truffle, Tuber magnatum, a variety that has never before been cultivated. It has the potential to sell for up to $6,000 a pound, according to Nathan Angerer.

The venture has been expensive. While Fran Angerer declines to reveal how much money he’s invested in the property, amendments and trees, the family agrees that they have all caught truffle fever. They hope to encourage other farmers to plant truffles in the Alexander Valley once their venture is proven. Fran’s biggest dream is to make Sonoma County a worldwide truffle-producing region.

But first things first. The Angerers will await the result of their first harvest.

Fran Angerer is one of three owners of Power Delivery Products, a distributor of electrical fault-detection products, located in Atlanta.