Gold under the feet: Ukraine restored ancient traditions of growing truffles bit by bit

There are certain types of food in the world that have always been elite, due to the lack of their mass production, in particular black caviar, meat of certain species of fish and crustaceans. An important place in this list, of course, has such a kind of mushroom as a truffle. In Europe, they began actively collecting these mushrooms for eating in the Renaissance. Now, thanks to its exquisite taste, the demand for truffles is growing all the time. Restaurants are willing to pay a lot of money for this product.

This summer, a story of the farmer Oleksandr Dzhyh from Vinnytsia, who decided to cultivate valuable mushrooms in Ukraine, investing in the creation of his own farm, made the headline in the Ukrainian mass media.

Agronews contacted Oleksandr by phone to ask him about the general state of truffle business in Ukraine and the prospects for its future development. It turned out that he is now taking best practices abroad in growing truffles from European and Asian colleagues. Mr. Oleksandr kindly answered our questions, and also told about the important events that will take place in the field of truffle cultivation in Ukraine in the near future.

Mr. Oleksandr, how favourable are the conditions for the development of truffle business in Ukraine?

Today, there are all conditions for the development of the truffle industry in Ukraine. For us today, the only truffle that is listed in the Red Book is the black summer truffle, which is the cheapest one and not interesting for sale, so there is no obstacles in this issue.

The next advantage is that now the state is regulating the legislation on wild plants, for the export of which all the conditions are in place. Another positive thing is that there is no quota for export of truffles today in Ukraine, unlike other crops.

There are old traditions of growing truffles in Ukraine. Even during the tsarist times, the local landlords laid on these plantations of such valuable delicious mushrooms in our lands.

In addition, the development of truffle business is an opportunity to earn money for people, save forests, and not cut them off when a small bunch of dirty officials will earn on it.

How truffle production has been developed in Ukraine today?

We have areas where wild truffle grows, namely Zakarpattia, Chernivtsi, Lviv, Rivne, Ternopil and partly Khmelnytskyi regions. Industrial procurement of wild truffles in Ukraine is not developed.

In addition, plantations of former landowners have left at our disposal. They are concentrated in the central and southern Ukraine, in particular in Cherkasy, Vinnytsia, Khmelnytsky, Odesa and Kherson regions.

Today, the topic of growing truffles in Ukraine is rising. I know that besides our farm, which is engaged in collecting mushrooms on the former landowner’s plantation, about 50 people are engaged in this industry throughout Ukraine. These are the people who either found old plantations or already work to lay their own. Somebody takes the material abroad, and somebody takes local truffles for breeding.

This summer, the Ukrainian media reported that you, besides picking truffles, had laid a new plantation of truffles, how are you doing in this regard?

We laid a plantation with an area of ​​1.5 hectares. Next spring, we plan to increase the area by another 1.5 hectares. Thus, the total area will be 3 hectares. Four years will be needed for the first harvest; we plan to get the first mushrooms in 2021.

Is there a demand for truffles in Ukraine, and are there inquiries for products from abroad?

Today, the truffle market has not formed yet. We already have restaurants that have a fairly high demand for truffles. In particular, one of the Ukrainian restaurant networks, consisting of seven restaurants, is ready to buy 15 kilograms of truffles a week. The only condition is that the goods arrive on a permanent basis. Another network of restaurants wanted to receive 10 kilograms a week, but we were forced to refuse, because we do not have a stable volume yet, as our current plantations are not of an intensive type.

In the general mass, the domestic Ukrainian demand is still satisfied from imports.

At the same time, Italians and Spaniards have contacted us recently. These countries now have the leading positions in the world in this field. They are interested in developing our market, since Ukraine, along with other post-Soviet countries, is very promising from the point of view of increasing consumption of truffles. Moreover, they see us perspective in terms of growing truffles, and in the future, they would like to buy these mushrooms from us.

Now Europeans are helping us to create a professional association that should be established in the near future.

They also invited me to become an honorary member of the truffle producers association in Spain. They introduced us to Urbani Tartufi, one of the largest truffle buyers and sellers in the world.

In January next year, all the people from Ukraine, who lay or plan to lay truffle plantations, or who are interested in this business, are invited to visit the largest truffle plantation in Spain, a dog training school (truffles are collected by specially trained dogs – Ed.), nursery of truffle trees and processing enterprises. We are also planning to show how European restaurants sell goods, i.e. they will teach marketing. Europeans would have to pay a lot of money for all these things; for us, it is done for free with a view for future cooperation.

You said about the work on creating a profile association in Ukraine, who will be its chairperson?

The chairperson of the association, most likely, will be me, and the vice president will be the person who helps us, they now have the largest factory for processing truffles in Spain. Members will be people who sell truffles in Ukraine and the people who are now laying the first truffle plantations.

Returning to our main conversation, who are the main producers of truffles in the world today?

The largest producer of wild truffles is Bulgaria. This industry is also developed in Romania and Slovakia. If you take industrial plantations, then the leaders here are the Spaniards. Current producers of truffles at one time fell under the state program of compensation for planting costs. They did not plant apples, as did people in our country, and now they do not know what to do with them because of overproduction. The Spaniards first bought wild truffles, and then they thought why not use these subsidies and not make the plantations. At that time, the French, on the contrary, started to cut the truffle business due to the fact that they had a lot of lands infected with cheap summer truffles and production became unprofitable because of the high cost of labour.

And the Spaniards spent significant sums of money, purchased quality material, made a good nursery and planted about 15 thousand hectares of truffles and benefited from it. After all, at that moment, prices rose due to the reduction of the area and yields of truffles in the world.

In Europe, quite a large area was laid in Australia, which has a very favourable climate for growing truffles. By the way, the Australians have already set a record for yields. It collected 250 kilograms of black truffles, which is one of the most expensive species. This yield is twice as high as it is in Europe.

Where are the main markets of truffle sales in the world?

The main markets are the US and we have opened one of the largest online stores in the premium segment, which sells various elite products, such as black caviar, various mushrooms and others. Their market there is simply limitless. The volumes currently available in Europe can be consumed by America for months. Then goes the market of Japan. They have a very developed market of mushrooms; they eat different mushrooms, including truffles.

But it must be kept in mind that international certification is required for trade in these markets. For the US, it is GlobalGEP and organic certification from the American Organic Association. For Europe, it is Global GEP. It is a bit more complicated with Japan, meaning that in addition to GlobalGep, you also have to undergo a difficult internal certification. But the Japanese are interested in getting products from outside, so if you give them a normal price and volume, then they are ready to cope with these issues on their own.

China produces quite a lot of truffles as it consumes. They have a large stratum of rich population and mushroom consumption is high. But they grow them using more chemical technology and Chinese truffles are not demanded in Europe.

What place in the world market of truffles, based on the potential you have described, can Ukraine take on the world market?

According to the archival data, as of 1907, about 80 tons of truffles were exported from Ukraine for one season – and this is only to Europe. If we consider that 90% of the plantations were destroyed in Soviet times, 8 tons can be collected even from what has left. The cheapest price for white truffles is about EUR 4 thousand per one kilogram, black – from EUR 1.5 to EUR 2 thousand per kilogram. You can calculate the amount of it on your own.

Speaking about growing truffles, then, in principle, 15,000 hectares available in Spain, with their land and water of poor quality, for Ukraine, where there is a good land and plenty of water, a mild climate – it’s nothing.

I believe that if we invest in this industry, we can become the number one not only in Europe but also in the world.

You mentioned about the investment. How much should be to invest in growing truffles per hectare of territory.

In order to just lay a plantation, approximately EUR 12 thousand will be required in order to make it all work, to arrange the infrastructure, it is, count, about EUR 20-24 thousand.

It is also necessary to spend about EUR 300-350 on an annual basis for maintenance.

One more part of this business is the growing of dogs looking for truffles. Are they already dealing with this issue in Ukraine?

In fact, dog training to search for truffles is not very different from teaching dogs to search for explosives or other dangerous substances. This can be done by any dog training school. The only thing you need to have is the material you would use to train dogs. By the way, this year, a lot of people bought truffle just for the purpose of training dogs.

Do you have such dogs in your household?

Yes, I have a dog trained to collect truffles. My friend, who also deals with truffles, has as many as four dogs that are trained and work very cool.

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