Jane Morgan Smith admits that she never set out to be a farmer—and certainly not a truffle farmer.
In the early 2000s she decided to retire early from the world of corporate banking just as her employer, Wachovia, merged with First Union bank. “I just felt it was a sign to try something new.”
At the time, she and her husband, Rick, were interested in trying their hand at cultivating shiitake mushrooms as a side-project on their newly acquired land. They visited a supplier in Hillsborough for help getting started. While there, owner Franklin Garland introduced them to the idea of growing Black Winter Périgord truffles, a gourmet tuberous fungus native to the Périgord region of France.
Through Garland, they learned that the Piedmont and Foothills region of North Carolina, with its moderate climate and suitable soil, has the opportunity to become the hub of the U.S. truffle industry, just as Napa Valley is for wine. The idea, which continues to be explored today, is that truffle orchards could help replace tobacco as a high-value specialty crop and preserve local farmland. Although price varies by market, a pound of the elusive fungus can often go for $800, making cultivation quite appealing. (In fact, “60 Minutes” once referred to truffles as “the most expensive food in the world.”)
Smith became an avid researcher on truffle cultivation, and with no farming background, she and Rick planted 125 inoculated seedlings to start their orchard. Eventually that orchard grew to more than 500 trees.
These days, Smith—aka the Truffle Lady—presides over a 9-acre truffle farm in King she’s named Keep Your Fork Farm, where she operates her nationally known business, Truffles NC.
Smith notes that cultivating truffles isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a huge investment of time and money—along with a little luck.
“You need a lot of patience,” she says. “It typically takes at least seven years to get truffles.” But once they arrive, if your trees remain healthy, you can expect a harvest each sequential winter. “It took six years to get our first truffles… and we were able to harvest for three years following that first find.”
It was around that six-year mark, in 2006, when Smith received news that Martha Stewart was coming to film a segment about North Carolina truffle growers and wanted to visit her farm.
Sure enough, 30 days later, Stewart and her film crew arrived and helped Smith harvest a batch of the season’s first truffles. The segment would later air on Stewart’s talk show, “Martha,” causing Smith’s phone to start ringing off the hook.
“People wanted to tour the farm and see where Martha hunted truffles,” she says, “so we started giving tours.” Tours are now offered May through October and cost $50 a person, which includes a sampling of various truffle products.
Several years ago, a tour-goer recommended that she sell the truffle butter served up after the farm tours. Smith liked the idea, so she started researching jars, talked to the N.C. Department of Agriculture about regulations, and was soon selling her truffle butter at local farmers markets.
She has since expanded her specialty products into truffle honey and truffle salt, all of which are sold at area Whole Foods and on the Truffles NC website. These products became increasingly important to her business in 2012, when 500 of her inoculated trees died because of blight. Today approximately 100 trees remain in the orchard with the potential to produce.
In addition to her work on the farm, Smith volunteers weekly at Brenner Children’s Hospital and has been a steadfast fundraiser for local nonprofits. “I thought, if people can afford to eat truffles, they probably can afford to share with people who don’t have as much.”
This past February, she hosted a Truffle Dinner fundraiser for the Children’s Law Center Central North Carolina (CLC) and raised more than $3,000 for the nonprofit. She’ll host another truffle dinner on Feb. 6 with proceeds again benefitting the CLC. Details for the event are available on the Truffles NC website,
She says that in this past year she has realized that this is the legacy she wants to leave behind—a legacy of service and fundraising made possible through a phenomenal form of fungus.
Keep Your Fork Farm is at 1194 Marshall Smith Road in King. For more on tours, the Truffle Dinner fundraiser, or to order Truffles NC items, call 336-631-8080 or go to www.trufflesnc.com.
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