Hunting for black gold

Cate RocchiCountryman
Al Blakers and Lartai the labrador.
Camera IconAl Blakers and Lartai the labrador. Credit: Countryman

Lartai the labrador is harnessed and carefully walks through a hazelnut forest in Manjimup. He is sniffing for black gold - truffles. It's raining and hard for the dog to catch the scent of the prized fungus, but he finds a few and gets liver treats in return.

You can see from his behaviour that he does not normally work in the rain - he would prefer to be back in bed next to the heater, rather than getting his photo taken. The next truffle that Lartai digs up, he breaks with his paw.

Instead of a reprimand, Lartai's owner, Al Blakers of Manjimup Truffles, just gives him a cuddle and puts him back in the truck - he loves his dog.

Lartai is one of three working dogs that are part of operations at Manjimup Truffles. The other dogs are Jasper and Mischa. Lartai always wins employee of the month, Mr Blakers said.

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"The dogs will tell you when they're not happy and he won't be happy with this rain," he said.

"There is no point in getting wet, eh Lartai?"

We hop back in the truck and drive, very fast, back to home base.

The air in the workshop is thick with a musky, mushroomy scent. The truffles - known as French winter black truffles, black Périgord truffles or tuber melanosporum - are sorted into four different grades and cleaned and packaged.

Within a day or two, they could be sent anywhere, from a restaurant in Perth to a buyer in Paris or Hong Kong.

Sorting the truffles are Mr Blakers' son, Ben, and his wife Julie and employee Nigel Pitts, a former wine salesman.

They carefully trim and weigh thousands of dollars worth of truffles - it is a bumper harvest of a food that fetches the company up to $2000 a kilogram.

It looks easy but Mr Blakers, who is also a first-class nurseryman, has spent years developing his livelihood. To get to this point, he started years ago by sowing hazelnut tree seedlings.

Once the seeds have germinated and are about an inch high, Mr Blakers begins the truffle inoculation - but he keeps his methods secret.

When established, the seedlings are planted and treated like a standard orchard, with reticulated watering. Seven years later, the first truffles appear.

Truffle success *

While he is not the only person in the South West who can inoculate hazelnut trees with truffles, Mr Blakers believes he is one of the best. He claims his inoculated trees are the only ones that result in establishing successful, productive orchards that harvest more than 100 kilograms a year.

"Other people are doing it, but none have the success rate I have," he said. "Once you hit 100kg, you start to be a player."

Manjimup Truffles, which could harvest a record 1.2 tonnes of truffles this year, is the real deal.

Wholesale prices range between $1000 and $2000 a kilogram, while the retail price is $2500 a kilogram.

The WA industry is valued at around $9 million a year and is believed to produce 80 per cent of the nation's truffle crop.

"I might make a million but you have to pay everyone and freight," Mr Blakers said.

He said it took years for French customers to take the business seriously. "The French have been here and had a good look at what was going on. Now they know the truffles here are as good as what they can produce and the smart ones are going to get involved with us. They treated us as a joke for a long time and said we would never do it," Mr Blakers said.

Mr Blakers said the truffle world was secretive. Originally, he thought many Hong Kong orders were being eaten on the island but a distributor was quietly forwarding his truffles to Paris and New York.

"I served an apprenticeship with French dealers, without even knowing," he said.

Part of Mr Pitts' job description is keeping an eye on Mr Blakers on Hong Kong trips - but does Mr Pitts keep him on the straight and narrow? "No, you'll never keep me on the straight and narrow," Mr Blakers said.

One challenge of being an exporter has been dealing with red tape, according to Mr Blakers.

He said free trade agreements had increased both his costs and amount of paperwork.

"A five-kilo shipment to South Korea or Thailand cost me $250 in freight and paperwork," he said.

"Then you can add $200 for the free trade agreement, because I have to get a letter every time from the Department of Commerce and Trade to prove I am Australian."

But Mr Blakers said you had to be part of the system. Once harvested, truffles are sold and exported immediately.

"Truffles are not the kind of thing you want sitting around the airport," Mr Blakers said.

World demand for truffles outstrips supply. "We won't saturate the world market in the next 20 years," Mr Blakers said.

Manjimup Truffles' three orchards cover seven hectares. Mr Blakers aim has been to create a European forest, so oak trees have been planted among the hazelnut trees. Mr Blakers hopes his largest plot lasts for another 40 years, meaning his son Ben can take over the business.

According to Mr Blakers, hazelnut trees require about the same amount of water as apples.

There have been some teething problems, one of which was planting cork trees at the end of every row. Despite producing a nice truffle, the parasitic cork trees tended to kill off the neighbouring hazelnut in each row. "The more I learnt about them the more I hated them, but they do produce a nice truffle," Mr Blakers said.

Any advice for would-be truffle farmers? Mr Blakers said source good inoculated trees and be patient. "It is not a get-rich scheme but we are into the good times now," he said.

In addition to Manjimup Truffles, which is believed to be the third largest grower in WA behind Oak Valley Truffles and the Wine and Truffle Co, there are about 15 truffle farmers in the Manjimup area.

"Manjimup is going to be the centre of the universe with regards to truffles," Mr Blakers said.

"All the big players - the truffle dealers - have been here in the past couple of months.

"The truffle industry is like the diamond game, there is a limited amount of people who do it and it pretty unscrupulous. I love it."

Mr Blakers takes security very seriously. He has a high fence with alarms and "a big bloke" called Tim keeps his eye on the orchards.

"I have a good fence that will discharge 82,000 volts and, if you have a pacemaker, it will kill you," he said.

Mr Blakers' grandfather, Charles, came from Perth to Manjimup in about 1910 to grow apples. "He and Archie Fonty were one of the first to get into apples down here," Mr Blakers said.

Prior to nursery work and truffles, Mr Blakers spent 12 years as an aircraft engineer in the Australian Airforce. In 1986, he returned home to give his dad, Lionel Blakers, a hand for 12 months - but never left.

Mr Blakers doesn't like to be called a farmer.

"I am not a farmer, I make money," he said. "I just happen to grow things for a living."

Mr Blakers said he did not get ripped off and dictated the price.

In addition to truffles, Mr Blakers runs Five Acre Nursery. He reveals self-built tray filler machines and an air seeder, as well as a 45-metre by 15-metre hot house for seedlings. The hot house currently holds 80,000 cauliflower seedlings, which will be sold direct to a local farmer, and inoculated hazelnut seedlings.

Mr Blakers is also on the committee of the Southern Forests Food Council and is a WA ambassador for Restaurant Australia.

And so what are his plans for the future? "Stay alive," Mr Blakers said. Fair enough.

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