Create Income Hunting Truffles – A Five-Step Plan
Truffle hunting hauled our family out of the recession
In 2008, when my husband John found himself out of work, truffles allowed us to keep our heads above water, truffles paid our bills. This was a time when entire families like ours in the rural areas of south Europe were forced to pack up and migrate to big cities or wealthier countries like Switzerland and Germany. It is only because of truffles and a bit of luck that we were able to stay put in our small village on this fourth generation family land. Thanks to truffles, we got to raise our two children out here in the countryside as we had planned to when we got married. And as I write, 15 years later, truffles are putting food on the table and both of our kids through college. So our family is testament to the fact that you can make proper money hunting truffles.
However hunting professionally is not just a matter of finding a few truffle patches and celebrating by packing in your day job. When we first started finding white truffles, I thought we were sorted for life. Looking back now, I am glad we had the good sense to exercise some restraint So many factors in truffle hunting are out of your hands, gluts can be followed by droughts, seasons will vary wildly from one to the next, prices will go up one year and then plummet the following year. There are few guarantees yet there are many pitfalls along the path to turning this hobby into your full-time job. So how do you make a living in a business which is so unpredictable?
It’s sensible in almost all cases to start slowly. There are steps you can follow and it does seem that hunters who follow these steps through maximize their chances of success. Having a general plan of action helps minimize the risk of ending up back where you started within a couple of seasons.
I remember how elated I felt when we found our first truffles. Then, once the initial elation subsided I realised that we had no idea what to do next There was no queue lining up outside the house to take the truffles off our hands. You cook a beautiful meal but when you’re washing the dishes you start wondering what happens now?
Quite simply, you now need to root out the people who are willing to pay you well for the truffles that you find. In order to do that, you need to immerse yourself into stage one- find out about your local truffling communities and get involved in them. This means spending time online. Check out facebook pages for buying and selling truffles, snoop around on twitter, go mad on google. Then get yourself out there. Your main aim is to find out who the local dealers are and then to foster friendly relations with them. If you have fresh truffles, dealers will take all sizes off your hands. They will make your life easy and you can focus on hunting. Talk to other trufflers and learn the names and numbers of all the different truffle buyers. This way you can see who is offering the best prices.
When you are online, check out the companies who manufacture truffle products too. They usually offer the lowest price but you have to start somewhere and you want to be making money not making aristocratic butter with the truffles you can’t shift. A useful thing you can do to avoid getting ripped off is to learn how truffles are graded. In addition, you should make sure that you know how to correctly store, clean and send truffles too – you don’t want to be sending the dealer a box of half-rotten product. Try to do things right and ask someone more experienced if you are not sure what that is
While you are helping truffle dealers get rich, have an eye to the future and thoroughly research the market for truffles in your broad area. This second step is all about investigating the culture of fine dining in your region. The high-end restaurants, gourmet grocery stores, fancy hotels, the luxury catering companies. Establish contacts with restaurant buyers and chefs, instagram foodies, perhaps even farmers’ markets. Do you know anyone who knows chefs who can put you in touch with other people in the industry? Ask around. In time, you want to able to bypass the middleman and have a network of customers to whom you sell directly .
For your homework, start your truffle seller’s notebook detailing potential buyers in your area. Then get hold of a list of your region’s restaurants and go through all the menus. Which establishments serve truffles? Take your cool box and visit these kitchens. Choose a quiet time of day when the chef is not too busy or stressed. Show chef your biggest, freshest, best-looking truffles, maybe leave a sample. Nine times out of ten, you will get knocked back. Try not to take this personally. These rejections will form part of your experience, especially if, like me, you are starting off with no idea about sales and are clueless as to the workings of restaurants and kitchens. The more you persevere, the more opportunity to develop your pitch and meet people in the industry.
Be honest with potential buyers but don’t give away specific truffle locations. Establishing trust between sellers and customers takes time, especially where high-end products are concerned. As you begin gradually to side-step the dealers your income will increase substantially but building up connections of your own does take time. So once again, be patient and don’t expect to start earning fat cash overnight.
The problem that you need to overcome is the following. Restaurants tend to avoid buying from an unknown lone hunter. They will usually prefer to source their truffles from a trusted dealer who can reliably supply a quality product. Now you could step in and try to undercut the dealer. While this move may increase your chance of making a sale, it might also cause you problems later on. This price sabotage affects the market and will make you unpopular within the truffling community. It is a far better strategy to aim to become that trusted dealer who can reliably supply a quality product. Getting to that stage will take time and effort and along the way, you will benefit from aligning yourself with other truffle people rather than creating unnecessary rivalries and antagonism.
When success does not happen overnight there is plenty of time for doubt to creep in. You start feeling that there are already too many people hunting and supplying truffles. That there’s no room for you. Don’t listen to that voice of hopelessness! What you are experiencing are the very normal difficulties that everybody has when trying to get started in a new line of work. The high price of truffles tells you that demand usually outstrips supply, so don’t go trying to find excuses to cop out when things get tough. Prepare for things to get tough and when they are, console yourself with the thought that the well-established players often end up getting lazy, sloppy or just plain old. Focus on yourself and the aspects of your new line of work that are within your control. Be professional, well-informed and persistent and you should gradually find that you start getting a share of the market.
In the meantime, you will be working on step three: develop your hunting, improve your skills, improve your dog’s skills and above all, work to expand your truffle patches.
If you aim to be responsible for a restaurant’s truffle supply you will need to have multiple sources. Very few areas will produce year in year out, so if your usual location dries up one year, you need back up. If you feel you have exhausted all the options in your vicinity, search further afield If you need to go too far from home then this will be problematic in terms of time and travel expenses. One solution is If you have trusted friends living in other truffle areas. Teaming up and sharing knowledge with other hunters can be an effective strategy. During scant seasons you hunt together in the area which is more productive and this can help both of you through lean seasons. Or you might want to continue alone but relocate during the season. Forget about digital nomads, for decades now truffle nomads have been moving to work. Hunters will move from season to season even changing countries. They follow the truffles.
To begin with it will be hard. You might be working your regular job, aiming to transition to full-time hunting gradually. However to establish yourself, you need have a steady stream of fresh truffles and this is tricky when you don’t have a lot of free time. Hopefully, though, you really enjoy the hunting side of your life and find that it energizes rather than drains you. Making a steady truffling income will not be an overnight process. We are talking years usually. However as your hunting grounds expand, your skills increase and you begin to have your own network of customers, you might find that it becomes viable to devote yourself to truffle hunting full-time.
Having said that, even when you start to earn good money, remember that truffles are fickle and that seasons and prices can vary erratically. When you are counting your money, you need to figure in that one great season could be followed by two dreadful; ones. Whatever you do, do not run off and buy some Gucci dog coats. Instead, put money aside to cover your truffle-related expenses for one preferably two years. The upkeep of your vehicles, vet bills and the various costs for your dog.
Which brings us to step four. Create a more stable source of income so you are not solely dependent on hunting. Rather than splurging excess cash try to secure your future in the truffling world by investing your truffle profits in one or more of the following five areas,
a) One of the most popular sources of income for hunters is breeding and/or training truffle dogs. Some hunters find they have a knack for this and enjoy it. Depending on where you live and how experienced the dog is, a trained truffle hound will sell from between 2,000 to 10,000. euros/dollars. In Europe, dogs are substantially cheaper than in the States. This is mostly because there are more people who have been doing it for longer. Lagottos are popular as companion dogs and can be trained to hunt relatively quickly. You could start with training the two smartest pups in the litter and see how it goes from there. Another form of income is to take in other people’s dogs and train them in some form of truffle academy.
When you get into selling dogs, you have to show the buyer the animal in action to prove that it can actually hunt. So you will often need to take the customer to a place where they can find truffles. While the revelation of secret truffle places will push up the dog’s price tag, it also upsets other hunters. More truffle dogs and more hunters means fewer truffles to go round. Herein lies the rub. You have unleashed a potential rival into the truffle arena and might be shooting yourself in the foot in the long run.
b) Another popular side earner is the education/entertainment route. Organised truffle tours are popular both with tourists and would-be hunters. You can make decent money taking groups out into the forest every weekend and showing them a truffle dog in action. Some of these outings involve seminars and teaching people how to hunt rather than just displaying skills. Often there is a meal afterwards and your guests get to try out truffle-based dishes, There are all manner of creative variations on the truffle excursion format but you get the general idea. Again this type of money-making venture can be problematic, as teaching people about truffles will ultimately lead to more hunters and more competition further down the line.
c) The third money-making option is the safest way forward and a route which will not affect your own truffle source. Dealing in truffles yourself often evolves naturally. As your network of customers grows, you may not be able to keep up with demand. Prepare for this eventuality in advance by building your relationships with other hunters. These connections will help you reinforce your truffle supply chain. When the time comes, you can start buying from your fellow hunters and you can show them gratitude by giving them a really fair deal.
d) Option four requires an outlay and a lot of patience. Cultivating your own truffle orchard from innoculated trees is not cheap. You will have to wait a minimum of 5 years to get results and there are no guarantees. If you have land or a garden in an area with a suitable climate, get the soil analysed, get in touch with one of the many truffle tree companies worldwide. Truffle cultivations have proved to be a really worthwhile investment for a growing number of people in the USA, Spain and the UK to name but a few. There is no difference on the market between a cultivated truffle and a wild one. However, as a grower, you are far more in control than the hunter can ever be. Orchards are less vulnerable to the whims of nature and as such can give you a far steadier supply of your own truffles.
e) The final source of income has the greatest money-making potential as profit margins can be very impressive. Manufacturing truffle products like truffle salt, truffle oils, truffle sauces and so on. To produce, market and sell these products is relatively complicated and will require investment. So this might be your end goal as you get more involved in the industry.
So , we have talked about finding dealers, building up a customer base, honing your skills and finding other truffle-related sources income. What is step five? Well if you plan to stay in the game and take your truffle hunting seriously, the final step is essential
Invest in yourself as soon as you can. What do you need ? A better off-road vehicle for instance, might pay for itself if it allows you to access more truffle places. Full-time hunters will always have more than one dog – seasons can be short and a tired or sick dog will put you out of action and out of pocket. Invest too in decent equipment for yourself. A truffle hunter is only as good as his dog and only as good as his legs. Look after your feet, get the best boots you can afford and some waterproof clothes. This will mean you can go out in bad weather and hunt while others are home in bed. Look after your health, eat well and sleep well. Truffle hunting is a challenging occupation and you need to be in pretty good shape so work on that too. Another solid investment is to travel about and explore new areas. Go out and widen your circle of truffling friends. Spend time with people who share your passion while creating mutually beneficial alliances.
Friendships like these are vital because it would be remiss of me not to mention that the truffling world can get rather nasty. When there is a lot of money to be made this does tend to happen and at times you will need a strong stomach. However truffle hunting is not all meanness and rivalries. There are a lot of genuinely good people, so hopefully your paths will cross.
Finally, it can be hard to break into this rather secretive world but there are two common elements in nearly every story I hear about people getting started. The first factor is persistent hard work that seemed to be going nowhere until the second element struck. There was some coincidence where they met some generous soul who helped them out and changed their life.
And this is basically our story of how we were able to stay in our family home during some pretty difficult years. There’s talk of another recession just around the corner. The wealthy are not affected by economic downturns and for that reason neither are luxuries like truffles. For those of you who are not wealthy and are worried about the future of your family, like we were back then – perhaps truffle hunting might help create income and keep you sane in a crazy time – I really hope so. All the best to you!