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Kendall Jackson Truffle Orchard manager Brian Malone describes what it’s like farming the first truffles in Sonoma County.
Martin Klimek and Jasper Colt, USA TODAY

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Leo, a two-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo truffle dog, suddenly paws at the base of a hazelnut tree.

“He’s got something,” says an excited Brian Malone, 39, orchard manager at Jackson Family Wines.

Malone digs into the soil and unearths his prize: a lacrosse ball-sized Tuber melanosporum, the black Perigord variety truffle that usually hails from France. At $1,000 a pound, you can call it black gold. 

Now some 10 years into his truffle project, Malone has hit the mother lode, having scooped up more than 30 pounds of the aromatic treasure over the past few months.

► Graphic: Why are truffles are so darned expensive?

The fact that so many truffles have been found in Sonoma County, a region one hour north of San Francisco and best known for its wines, is stoking excitement among hopeful U.S. cultivators of the storied European crop. Experts say it could in a few years become a $6 billion global business.

“Some farmers were in a holding pattern to see if truffles might take off here in the U.S., but hearing about the success in California and other places has people energized,” says Brian Upchurch, president of the North American Truffle Growers Association in Asheville, North Carolina.

Truffles have been hunted and served for centuries across Europe, where pigs often were used to find the delicacy in the roots of wild oak trees. Royalty reveled in them.

But while France and Italy may be rich in truffle history, U.S. growers do have one big advantage: Chefs prize freshness, and a U.S. truffle can go from the ground to a chef’s kitchen in a day or overnight, where a European truffle may take days, losing its scent.

“A fresh truffle is intoxicating,” says chef Ken Frank, who loves to serve fresh pasta with shaved Perigord truffle slices at his Michelin-starred Napa Valley restaurant, La Toque. “That out-of-the-ground perfume is what allows me to do magic tricks.”

Today, there are a few dozen farms across the country that are cultivating truffles. Many are in predictably forested corners of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and North Carolina. And the man who has helped farmers start most of them is finding his services in demand.

“We are witnessing the very beginnings of this industry in North America,” says Charles Lefevre of New World Truffiers, an Oregon-based company that provides inoculated seedlings as truffle farm maintenance guidance and services. 

Lefevre has 22 customers who are successfully producing truffles. Many farmers choose to create their own techniques and often are highly secretive about their methods.

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“There’s a total mystery about truffle farming, and that’s what’s fun about it,” says Susan Alexander, who has been in the truffle world since 2006 and has a 300-acre orchard in Pinehurst, North Carolina. “I met a man from Spain, a guru of truffles, and after we got friendly on email he shared some of his secrets with me.”

Time and luck are key ingredients

Starting a truffle farm isn’t nearly as involved as getting into large-scale crops such as corn or soy: a few acres and some oak or hazelnut tree seedlings inoculated with the fungus that spawns truffles, and you’re up and running.

But time and luck play huge roles. Truffles won’t show up in the roots of the trees until upwards of a decade after planting, and the wrong kind of soil or too many competing fungi species in the ground could kill a truffle harvest. 

“It should not be surprising that producing truffles is difficult,” says Matthew Smith, a plant pathologist and truffle expert with the University of Florida. “The soil is teeming with biodiversity that we don’t understand very well.”

Smith says the keys to a truffle strike include ensuring that when the seedlings are planted they are bringing in the only fungus around, and ideally using soil that has a very high pH level so it’s harder for rival fungi to thrive.

But the potential financial windfall, as well as the sheer fun of the hunt, seems to be what is luring newcomers to the truffle hobby, causing attendance at truffle festivals and truffle dog training classes to surge.

“We started the Napa Truffle Festival 10 years ago, and it’s gone from a small thing to an event that sells out in a day, at $500 a head,” says Robert Chang, who also is co-founder of the American Truffle Company, a truffle supplier that manages dozens of farms in 25 countries. 

Chang is a former Yahoo executive whose company has gone the high-tech route, leveraging truffle farm data ranging from soil temperature to solar radiation to increase his chances of success.

“For centuries, it’s been the blind leading the blind, but using technology you can increase the success stories,” he says. 

One thing technology cannot do is locate the truffles. For that, you need a trained dog — which is where Alana McGee comes in. McGee runs the Seattle-based Truffle Dog Company, and her three-month classes regularly sell out in days. 

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“It’s personality-based really,” says McGee, who says one need not have a Lagotto Romagnolo to find truffles. “We have trained huskies, Bernese mountain dogs, even Chihuahuas. It’s not just about getting the scent, it’s not being distracted by squirrels.”

A truffle or just a gopher hole?

Spending an afternoon with Malone — along with his Lagotto puppy Lia, as well as his buddy, Alexander Truffle Company farmer Seth Angerer, and his dogs Leo and puppy Vito — makes clear how much patience goes into finding a truffle.

For hours, the dogs work tirelessly circling the 10-acre plot. Occasionally they paw at a spot. A single determined scratch at the surface near the trunk of the small trees is a good sign, whereas furious digging likely means the dog may be tunneling for a gopher.

“You start with them when they’re puppies, hiding little pieces of truffles around the house and whenever they find one, you rewarded them,” says Malone, whose dog Lia is still prone to distraction.

In contrast, Leo is fazed neither by his fellow canines or any other distractions on the rolling orchard. Nose down, he circles and circles until suddenly a right paw scrapes intently at the dirt, and he looks up.

Malone flips his baseball cap backwards and puts his own nose into the rich clay.

“Smells like truffles,” he says, before doing some digging of his own. Within minutes, he has what looks like a large clump of dirt in his hand. But the aroma — pungent, earthy and almost overwhelming — is unmistakable. 

He wipes away a layer of dirt and then hits the rock-hard fungus with a jet of water from a hose. The earth vanishes to reveal a dimpled, scented moon rock. Malone grins.

“Out there somewhere,” he says, sweeping a hand across the horizon, “some chef is going to be very happy.”

Follow USA TODAY national correspondent @marcodellacava

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