Become a truffle Plantation Owner for £129? ……. From the ridiculous to the sublime!
That’s what one family business was offering at the recent Property Investor Show at Excel – London. Truffle Trees in France Founder Martin Waddell was offering this to an eager crowd of investors on their Stand at the show. He also gave us the chance to enjoy his real expert’s insight into the mysterious and fascinating world of truffles at his packed, main theatre seminar on Saturday afternoon. I can certainly say that the truffle oil tasting available with him and his daughter Ella was sublime.
At the seminar we found out why fortunes are bid by billionaires, prized hounds are stolen; the wealthy fly in for lunches by helicopter and the Chinese are causing chaos. We were taken through a history from ancient times of man’s relationship with truffles, found out just exactly what truffles are, where they come from and how they grow.
Truffles are an ancient and adored delicacy, but are disappearing fast under changing climate conditions. With 95% of sources lost since 1903 (see graph), can the latest developments in truffle science, knowledge and cultivation keep them coming to our tables?
Martin is someone who is perhaps rarer than truffles themselves. He describes himself as a “black Scotsman that grows black truffles”. Now we’ve enjoyed truffles from time to time and knew a bit about them. However, the scope of knowledge Martin covered tore away the layers of myth and obfuscation, which have always surrounded the global truffle business. He laid out in clear, engaging and considered bites the real world of truffles from ancient Greeks and lightning strikes; and 19th century crop disasters to the cutting edge of truffle science and tree production.
But this was a property show so at first we couldn’t understand the connection between luxury food and property. When we started to hear about the returns involved and added value benefits of this unique alternative forestry investment, we began to sit up and pay real attention.
Like a lot of people we thought truffles grew in the forest. However, Martin quickly de-bunked the myth that many people in the truffle business like to proliferate – that truffles can’t be cultivated. Nearly all can be cultivated, it’s just not commercially viable to do so with many for a variety of reasons. One thing that really came across is that with patience, the right expertise, the right location, soil and conditions; and of course the right truffle this is an astonishingly lucrative business. Despite this many have spent fortunes trying and failing completely. However, Martin explained that the new proven scientific approaches and controls applied to truffle propagation, tree management and plantation husbandry have the potential to revolutionise the world of truffle production, producing greater yields, more reliably and much earlier.
So money does grow on trees after all….well the roots anyway!
The White Alba Truffle – retails at up to 6,000 Euros per kilogram. In general it has never been cultivated with commercial success. It grows wild in very limited and secretly guarded places in parts of Northern and Central Italy and the Moldovan Forest in Croatia. The Black Perigord or Winter Truffle that Martin grows – retails at up to 2,400 Euros per kilogram. It is a cultivatable truffle, but much expertise is required to be successful. It grows wild in Spain, Southern France and parts of Italy. Unlike most other truffles it is not a canopy or forest based truffle, but rather needs the sun to “touch” the soil. The Black Summer or Burgundy Truffle grows across many parts of Europe in the wild including the UK and even Scandinavian countries. It costs almost as much to cultivate, but the sale prices are about a fifth of the Perigord.
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Truffles spores exist on the roots of and grow in a symbiotic relationship with their host trees. They are as Martin explained, “kind of like” the opposite of a parasite and bring enormous benefits to their hosts, helping the tree to gain better nutrients from the soil it’s planted in. In return the tree gives the spore sugars, which help it to develop and grow the actual fruit – the truffle. Key understanding of this relationship and how it develops over time is what the world leading scientists that Martin partners with brings and what makes the difference to the performance of their truffle trees and crop yields.
Supertrees and More
In fact they’ve become so good that they’ve reduced the time to first yield from an average of 10+ years a few years ago to just 5 years this year, producing up to 80g of truffles per tree on their Catalonia experimental plantation. All this, from trees only as high as your waist. (See pictures)
The 5,000 trees Martin has in the nursery at the world class leading plant research facilities of the Institute Research and Technologie Agronomia (IRTA) near Barcelona, are a huge leap even beyond the trees pictured that are producing at 5 years old. It’s up to 1,500 of these trees that Martin is offering on a 15 year licence for people to share in the crop and the huge potential returns.
Getting down to the Nitty Gritty
We asked him just how much a single tree could produce. He was very reserved at first on this, explaining about scientific rigour and historical data, showing us the tables in the brochure* and the caution in the basis of projections there for multiple numbers of trees and saying he was reluctant to offer projections for single trees. In the end, we just asked him flatly and he explained that a single tree can produce up to 10kg of truffles and well maintained can do this for over 50 years. So how much do we get of this? He explained that tree buyers get 80% of the crop or the truffles during the life of their licence and 50% of the tree sale price when he sells in the 15th year.
*“A hectare – 500 trees would cost just over £80k on a single payment and would return over £777k net profit and tax free – based on a maximum yield of 64kg p/hectare = 128g p/tree and a wholesale average p/kg price of €800”
Our eyes popped (even more than when we had tasted the truffle oil) as we recounted the €2,400 p/kg sale price and “did the math”. But what’s the catch blurted out my friend? Well you might get nothing he answered openly. What are the chances? Well he said, based on the performance over the last 10 years of plantations for which we have data and taking into account the improvements of the last 3 to 4 years we’ve made, we are fairly confident (he droned on cautiously) that the failure rate will be below 5% of the plantation in terms of trees not producing anything. That’s why we tend to only offer projections for multiple trees.
Ok I said, if it’s so good how come you’re selling trees to other people? Why don’t you keep them all for yourself? In truth he said, it was always a vision to share it as a fun, lifestyle, foodie, holiday type members club and in any case I’m only licensing a maximum of between 1,000 and 1,500 of the 5,000 trees we have this year. Establishing this is not a cheap operation and returns, despite the reduction-to-crop times we have achieved are still a long way off, on typical business investment return schedules. This is a way of bringing some earlier returns, as well as the chance to do a bit of “champagne social enterprise”. I might do the same next year and the year after, but probably not again.
Basic Economics, Demand & Supply will get you in the end – apparently not with truffles!
The last obvious question was, if you’re going to supply so many new truffles with your new scientific methods, won’t this drive the price and my returns down? He looked at us as if he was some great sage, explaining to his people about the basics of life. In 1903 the world population was 1.9bn and only a tiny, tiny proportion of those could afford to buy truffles from the bounteous harvest of 1050 tonnes. You’ve seen the graph and you know that these days we have between 6 and 60 tonnes variable annually over the last 15 years or so. You’ve seen that Spain produces 34% of the World’s harvest and that 95% of Spain’s supply is wild and that in season 2012/13 Spain had no wild truffles and the global price doubled. The trend is set in terms of wild truffle and dry summers and we know how long new plantations (not ours) take to come on stream. There are not that many and very few in France and they tend to be keen amateurs on less than a couple of hectares at most.
Now add to this that the World’s population is presently 7.2bn and accelerating and that a much larger percentage, compared to 1903, of the new population is in a position to enjoy and desire life’s ultimate luxuries. Then take a look at the 22,000 new millionaires and 5,000 new super-rich that China created in 2011 and what the Chinese have done to the desire for luxury goods, food and drink and in particular French fine wine. It’s not just the new rich in emerging nations. The US truffle market alone has grown from $4m to between $12m and $20m in the last 8 years. The Chinese have blown the lid off the price of the 55,000 case Bordeaux premier cru market in this time. There are other BRIC and MINT country newly rich to follow. I’m betting we’ll manage to sustain price. What do you think?
We didn’t answer but thanked him for his time and patience and grabbed a last breadstick to dip into the truffle oil, clutched our brochures to our chests and retreated to plan our Southern France truffle plantation purchase and holiday strategy for the coming years. I was already thinking I could cancel my next girly spa session to get the first tree.
As we headed off he called us back… I’m sorry I forgot to mention that it’s a forestry purchase that’s commercially managed, so assuming you’re UK tax payers it’s totally tax free. How come we asked? Well for any forestry investments made by a UK tax payer, individual or organisation, where the trees are planted in the European Economic Area (EEA) it’s free of Income Tax, Capital Gains Tax, Corporation Tax and Inheritance Tax. Oh! and its VAT free as well as it’s a food producing plant. You know he said, “It might be the most tax free investment for UK people there’s ever been”.
It’s certainly the most unique, fun and tasty investment I’ve ever come across I thought.
Cindy Whittaker is a freelance journalist originating from San Diego – She was at The Property Investor & Homebuyer Show at Excel in April 2014
You can find out more about Truffle Trees in France at – www.truffle-trees.com