Thursday, December 27, 2007

Captain Jack Will Get You High

Captain Jack Ponticelli flies hot air balloons above the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina. I meet him on his farm in the agrarian region west of Winston-Salem that for decades yielded tobacco. When everybody stopped smoking, farmers had to find other crops. Today, the region is best known for its vineyards and wineries. But Jack doesn’t grow grapes.

We are supposed to fly, but the winds aren’t cooperating. “Trust me,” he says. “You’d much rather be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were down here.” Since I’ve come all this way, he asks if I would like to see his truffle farm. No, Jack doesn’t grow bite-size, fancy chocolates either.

Truffles are fungi, akin to mushrooms, that grow on the underground roots of trees. It generally takes four to five years for a crop to mature. They are most famously farmed in France and pigs are trained to sniff them out with their sensitive snouts. They are culinary delicacies--you’ve probably seen menus with appetizers and entrees drizzled with truffle oil. Chefs pay top dollar for truffles, and Jack knows this.

After doing lots of research, Jack found that this part of North Carolina is a perfect climate for truffle farming. So, he and his wife moved from New Jersey, bought several acres of land in Forsyth County, and sank $75,000 into an orchard of sapling hazelnut trees that were inoculated with the fungus spores. That was about four years ago, and Jack has yet to see his first truffle.

We hop on his four-wheeler and ride out to the fields behind his house. Cold winds swirl and neither of us has dressed warmly enough. We walk among the young trees, and he squats down and begins digging with his rough, cracked farmers’ fingers to show me where the truffles would be growing. He happens to uncover what looks like the cap of a mushroom.

“That’s the first one I’ve found,” he says quietly. His understated tone dampens the significance of his statement, so I muster an indifferent, juvenile response.

“Well, that’s cool.”

I fail to comprehend that that tiny black thing in the ground is the initial inklings of payoff on Jack’s gigantic investment. What must it have taken to convince his wife to supplant her normal life of friends, family, and routines with a high-end mushroom farm thousands of miles away? What kind of risk does it take to cultivate hundreds of trees he can only hope are full of spores?

I’ve never waited five years for anything.

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