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Farming fancy fungus in North Carolina

In the old days, truffle hunters used pigs to sniff out the rare and pungent fungus growing wild in the forests of France. Today in Yadkin County, North Carolina, Jack Ponticelli uses Hallie. "She's a North Carolina redneck mutt," says Ponticelli. "She has lab, border collie and some chow. She was born behind a gas station." He urges the dog on: "Where's the truffle? Find the truffles girl. Come on. Go to work." Despite her modest pedigree, Hallie spends her days hunting the fungal equivalent of pure gold. The black perigord truffle is so sought-after by gourmet chefs that it fetches an average wholesale price of $800 a pound. Hallie tugs at her leash and sniffs along the tidy rows of oak and hazelnut trees, searching for a whiff of truffle on the cold breeze. "If you took an apple tree and turned it upside down, that's what the truffles look like underground," explains Ponticelli. "They're attached to the roots of the trees." Ponticelli is one of about 100 truffle farmers in the U.S. The majority are in North Carolina, where the climate is right for growing what looks like a moldy black golf ball and smells like a cross between dog's breath and dirty socks. But that's an ignorant view Ponticelli's quick to correct: "Some people think it's dirty socks. Other ones think it's the best aroma in the world," laughs Ponticelli. So he's one of those people that thinks it is a good aroma? "It's a very good aroma," says Ponticelli. "And $800 a pound is quite alluring too." The potential for big bucks led Ponticelli from New Jersey to North Carolina five years ago. Here he met Franklin Garland who gets credit for planting the first trees in North America infected with the black truffle fungus. Ponticelli bought an old tobacco farm and planted 15,000 of the trees. But he has yet to turn a profit because it can take 8 years for a tree to produce its first truffle. That's eight years of weeding, irrigating and spreading lime to raise the pH of the soil. Once the tree and truffle are mature, both can produce a yearly crop. But frankly, Ponticelli's getting antsy. "This would be the worst of it, I guess," says Ponticelli. "It just takes time. I'm just encouraged by Tom Michaels and Jane Smith, and you know, their success." Tom Michaels is a Tennessee farmer and the only person producing a commercial crop of truffles in America right now. But Jane Smith is not far behind - and she's just a few miles from Ponticelli in the town of King, North Carolina. She had no farming experience before planting 650 trees she bought from Franklin Garland in 2000. "The best harvest we had was about 4 pounds, and that was year before last," says Smith. "That was the year that Martha Stewart came and did the truffle hunt with us." Yep. THE Martha Stewart went truffle hunting with Smith, exclaiming excitedly the entire time. After Martha Stewart, Smith says other curious people began showing up at her farm so she started giving tours. She has no problem sharing secrets of the truffle trade with potential competitors. In fact, she's more of a truffle missionary than a cutthroat businesswoman, "because we don't think that there's any chance that the demand for truffles will be met in the next 50 years," says Smith. "There are some people who will always be able to buy them." Smith even helped found the North American Truffle Growers Association as a support group for fungus farmers. With struggling tobacco farmers, she preaches truffles as an alternative crop. And with gourmet chefs she prepares them for the day when they can ditch European suppliers in favor of North Carolina truffles that are fresher and fit the trend toward cooking with local food. "And chefs who have used them both say they are every bit as good," says Smith. Only a fraction of the estimated 50 tons of truffles produced each year worldwide, are grown in the U.S. But within a few years, dozens of farms in North Carolina will reach maturity. Then, Franklin Garland - the first to plant black truffles in the state - hopes to realize the ambition he boasted in his interview with Martha Stewart. "We're trying to turn the North Carolina economy from a tobacco producing one to grow truffles and hopefully become the next Napa of the U.S., but with truffles, in North Carolina instead of grapes," said Garland. But will it work? It'll take a few years to find out. First Annual Truffle Fest, sponsored by the National Truffle Grower's Association March 5-8, 2009 Asheville, NC Tickets and registration at www.nationaltrufflefest.com