Major Chilean truffle grower to embark on first export deal

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Major Chilean truffle grower to embark on first export deal

While the development of the Chilean truffle industry is still well behind their Southern Hemisphere competitors in Australia, the South American country's oldest grower is about to make the jump from exporting processed goods to the fresh fungus itself. 

According to reports last year from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) last year Western Australia alone was set to produce 8.5 metric tons (MT), which is about 28 times the minimum expected output from Chile in 2017. 

While growers tend to be tight-lipped with revealing volumes produced of the luxury food, the oldest commercial orchard belongs to Katankura, one of the leading players and perhaps the largest producer in the country. 

CEO Sonja Ungar tells Fresh Fruit Portal initial experiments into the fungus in Chile from forestry engineer Rafael Henríquez 17 years ago were eye-opening, as it was widely perceived truffles were for collection in the wild.

"We decided to embark on this because of the beauty of the project and the commercial opportunity that introducing the crop to Chile could mean, as an option for counter-seasonal exports to European markets," she says.

The company's exports in recent years have been with value-added goods such as truffle oil, truffle balsamic vinegar and truffle cream, but now the volume is reaching levels that can justify a fresh truffle export program.

"We estimate a production of 150kg (330lbs) this year, of which 100kg (220.5lbs) will be destined for fresh export in both markets [the United States and Europe] and the rest will be for processed products," she says, adding this would be double last year's output.

"This will be the first commercial campaign where we'll sell our fresh truffles and we're very excited," she says, adding some small trials have already taken place this year but not yet in commercial volumes. 

Katankura CEO Sonja Ungar

Ungar said that she recently visited the U.S. where she managed to close a deal with to sell the value-added products, while also achieving deals to sell the product fresh through different outlets in Miami, Los Angeles and New York.

With the orchard now in its 11th year of production, Katankura is reaching yields of about 33.4kg (73.6lbs) per hectare

In their 11th year, the oldest of Katankura's orchards are yielding of 33.4kg (73.6lbs) per hectare, and Ungar adds there are another 11 orchards reaching various levels of maturity but significant rates of production nonetheless.

"The good thing is that well managed plantations can last for 40 or 50 years," she says. 

Rafael Henríquez's company Agrobiotruf currently offers services and training to interested truffle growers, as well as a nursery that propagates mycorrhizal oak plants with black truffles.

"We have the capacity to generate close to 50,000 plants per year," he says. 

"We think that expansion will be slow but with very good quality in the establishments. Today with the knowledge we possess we can tell customers in what type of soil to plant, because not all sites are adequate, and what types of management are appropriate for their types of soil and climate," he says, adding that trees can start to bear truffles generally between three and six years after planting. 

He believes there are about 400 hectares dedicated to truffles in Chile, although no more than 10% are in production yet. 

If this is the correct estimate, the Chilean Truffle Growers Association has a long way to go in attracting members.

The group's president Javier Rozas says there are currently 29 affiliated growers with around 80 hectares of production between the regions of O'Higgins and Aysen, although this is up from the 13 growers who started the organization in 2013. 

Companies like Katankura have been able to find such success thanks to the support of the pioneering Agrobiotruf project from Chile's Foundation for Agricultural Innovation (FIA) which created the project and co-financed its research and development.

FIA program and project unit chief Rodrigo Gallardo says Agrobiotruf is an "insignia" project for his department.

"They had the vision and we had the flexibility to bet on an item that nobody knew, a product that was unthinkable for production in Chile, and we took on the risk.

"Today everything is going by itself and the recommendation for growers who want to try this crop is that they seek consultation from those who have experience, who have already passed through all the steps and are now focused on sales in niche markets."

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