Mycorrhiza Biotech, a Burlington company with ties to N.C. A&T, has achieved a breakthrough harvest in truffles, the hard-to-grow, mushroom-like, underground, edible fungus associated with upscale restaurants and gourmet cooking, in only two years.
CEO Nancy Rosborough credits her partnership with A&T – especially the Mushroom Biology and Fungal Biotechnology laboratory, led by Dr. Omon Isikhuemhen – and the N.C. Biotechnology Center, as being instrumental in the company’s success.
“If not for their support, we would have closed our doors years ago,” says Rosborough, whose company, Mycorrhiza, takes its name from the mutually beneficial relationship between the fungus from which the truffle grows, and the root system of the tree on which it depends.
“This company is running on the science we did together,” Isikhuemhen says, noting the inoculated seedlings his lab provided the company several years ago. “We did the lab research, then moved to the field, and now, we have truffles.”
With the recent harvest, the company has become the first to gather expensive white truffles from the roots of loblolly pine trees, and in such a short time; truffles usually take four to six years to mature. Both the truffle and the tree repressent a significant step forward in the development of what Rosborough and Isikhuemhen say could become an important cash crop for North Carolina. The truffle’s high market price – more than $500 per pound, compared with historically-lucrative tobacco’s $2.70 per pound – makes it worth cultivating, while loblolly pines are the most commercially important tree in the southeast and the second most common tree in the nation.
“Truffles only need an acre or two,” Rosborough says. “If there are 500 trees on an acre, a grower only needs to use some of them for truffles to make more money than he or she could by timber-harvesting the entire acre – and the grower still has the trees.”
As lucrative as they can be, truffles have struggled to catch on as a commodity crop because of the difficulty growing them. Soil and water conditions, and the condition of the tree host, must be managed. Certain climate conditions must be present: truffles like hot summers and cold winters. Since they grow underground, determining the size of the harvest – and whether it is present at all – can be difficult. Research is ongoing to overcome some of these difficulties, Isikhuemhen said.