Unearthing black gold down south

By Bree Swift
January 2 2022 - 12:00am
Stonebarn Truffles owner Dion Range and his oldest truffle hunting Labrador, Périgord, named after the premium French black truffles grown on his commercial truffle farm in Manjimup.

DION Range's motivation when he first purchased his property on the Warren River and Quinninup Brook was to have a place for his children to enjoy the natural world, rather than them be on their screens all of the time.

When you witness the truly breathtaking 64 hectares (160 acres) of land that Mr Range selected in the Manjimup region, it comes as no surprise that his plan seems to have worked.

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A winding road leads you inland to a bubbling creek and picturesque two-storey stone lodge which overlooks a large dam, lush forest and truffle trees, with every element of the stunning property designed by Mr Range himself.

Hailing from South Africa and with a background in tourism, he chose the perfect spot to build a holiday lodge for his wife, Sharon, who is a gastroenterologist and their two boys, Jake, 18 and Ari, 15.

After building the lodge, which is rented out exclusively for weddings nine months of the year, and clearing the Bluegum regrowth on the property, Mr Range was left to ponder what the fertile soils and temperate climate would be most suited to growing.

"My first thought was a vineyard, but I quickly discovered after speaking to some of the local wine growers that that was just a fantasy," Mr Range said.

"Then I investigated olives and found out you could grow them in the desert with just a bit of fertiliser, so obviously it wasn't the best option for here."

It was only after being put in touch with Nick Malajczuk, a truffle guru in the region, that Mr Range considered planting truffle trees on the property.

Stonebarn Truffles' four truffle hunting Labradors; Hazel (left), Hunter, Périgord and Duggie.

"After some discussion with Nick over lunch and a bottle of wine, I realised it was our best option and the rest was history," Mr Range said.

About 2000 oak and hazelnut trees were planted on the property in 2004 and the business, Stonebarn Truffles, was formed.

Not being in it to make a quick buck, it wasn't until June 5, 2010 that the first French Périgord Black Truffle, or Tuber melanosporum, was unearthed.

"It's a slow process but, if you get it right, it is very rewarding and now we are finally at the stage where we can breathe again," Mr Range said.

For a trufferie of about 1000-2000 trees, generally you will be waiting about five to six years before the first truffles are found and unbeknownst to many, not every tree will actually produce truffles.

However once a tree does produce a truffle, all things being equal, it will produce truffles every year for the rest of its life.

Dion Range never intended to grow truffles on his 64ha property in the Manjimup region.

"You learn by default sometimes, so we've learnt a lot of things now that we didn't know when we first started growing the trees," he said.

"The Hazelnut trees typically live for 15 or 20 years, the English Oak (Quercus Robor) can live for a hundred or more years and the oldest example of the French Oak truffle (Quercus Ilex) is in Spain, which is reputed to be 1400 years old."

Fortunately, something about the combination of factors in the Manjimup region makes it the ideal place for growing the premium French Périgord Black Truffle, which is the most expensive black truffle in the world.

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The success of the region in growing Périgord truffles has been so high that Manjimup has produced more than 90 per cent of Australia's black truffles in recent years.

Mr Range said a top grade Périgord truffle would sell in the region of $1500 at a wholesale level and about double that at a retail level.

"As a rule of thumb, a mature successful trufferie in Manjimup would produce 700-800 grams of truffles per tree annually," he said

"Compare that to a good European trufferie in Spain or France, which might produce 70-80 grams of truffle per tree annually, and that would be considered to be a very successful trufferie in Europe."

About 95pc of Stonebarn's truffles are exported with the remaining five per cent sold to domestic markets in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

The Stonebarn Truffles lodge is rented out nine months of the year, exclusively for weddings.

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Due to Stonebarn's trees being planted up to six years later than most of the other commercial trufferies in the region, Mr Range said he had opted to sell their truffles to markets in the United States, as Stonebarn's local competitors already had well established markets in Europe.

With their shelf life only about two weeks, speed of delivery and freshness are vital components when it comes to exporting truffles.

Harvested over the winter months using truffle hunting dogs, Stonebarn initially used the services of professional trainers.

However due to the bottlenecks occurring over the harvest period, Mr Range later decided to buy and train his own dogs to dig up the black gold.

Today Stonebarn has four labrador truffle hunting dogs that are fantastically food driven.

"We have a white Labrador called Peri for Perigord truffle, who is nine years old, Hunter is our black Labrador and Hazel is our brown Labrador and they are both about five years old and our newest addition is Duggie, who is our only male and is also a white Labrador," Mr Range said.

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In order to train them, Mr Range followed a simple pattern which taught them to associate finding a truffle with getting a reward.

"Initially part of the process was to make their food smell like truffles and then you separate their food from the truffle," he said.

"Our youngest puppy still tries to eat truffle when he finds it, but the other dogs are wonderful."

During harvest, the dogs run through the trufferie, following the tree line, and if they find a truffle are taught to scratch the ground above it.

Due to the large quantities of truffles they find, rather than stopping the dogs and making them wait, the trainer takes a tag and places it where the dog has scratched, so that they can continue on with the process.

Another person then follows behind the dogs and excavates the search area.

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The truffles are then cleaned, graded and packed at a specially designed facility on the property and shipped to their destinations so that they arrive as fresh as possible.

Mr Range said a well graded truffle was one that hadn't been damaged by insects, had a nice regular shape and an excellent aroma.

"Aroma is really critical because a lot of what you taste is what you smell," Mr Range said.

About four years ago Stonebarn began diversifying its product offering and branched out from only selling fresh truffles to producing a whole variety of truffle products including truffle seasoning, mayonnaise, aioli, mustard, oil, salad dressing, chilly sauce and even a truffle beer that is brewed locally in Manjimup.

"It is a much newer business, but it is growing incredibly quickly," Mr Range said.

"We have food scientists working on the technical aspects and it's fun to play with the flavours and to taste the different products.

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"The difference with our product range is that it lends itself well for export and it is much more scalable than just selling fresh truffles, so we will continue to focus on expanding that aspect of our business."

About a year ago, Stonebarn also started selling inoculated truffle trees, a truffle fertiliser and a soil regenerator, specifically designed for nourishing truffle trees.

A passionate advocate for regenerative agriculture, Mr Range said trials on their own property using both the fertiliser and soil regenerator had produced stellar results.

"The more you read about truffles and fungi the more you come to understand that you aren't just growing trees, you have to worry about what is growing underground," Mr Range said.

"If you use traditional NPK chemical fertiliser, herbicide and pesticide methods you tend to kill the life in the soil, but in order to be successful with truffles you need to foster a good ecosystem and microbial life in the soil.

"Besides our fertiliser, which is organic and has expensive fungal stimulants in it, the soil regenerator introduces live microbes into the soil to get that life back.

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"After one season of applying our fertiliser and soil regenerator, our last truffle harvest was substantially up on the previous year.

"We went from having 48.9pc of our trees producing in 2019 prior to trialling our Stonebarn Fertiliser and Soil Regenerator, which was extremely high in the first place, to 76.8pc in 2021 after two years of application, so it was a big jump."

Acknowledging that trufferies were suited to being family businesses due to their long-term nature, Mr Range said he would definitely welcome his sons taking over the business in the future, if it was their preference.

"We certainly won't be putting any pressure on - it's entirely up to them as they can . and be anything they want, but they are very interested in it and enjoy working here on their school holidays."

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