I pull into her driveway after a thirty-minute drive down the Carolina back roads. That morning I felt like roaming the roads less traveled so I skipped the highway and took two-lanes all the way from Winston-Salem to Pfafftown to Tobaccoville out to King. It’s Veteran’s Day and American flags were flying high from one small town to the next.
When I arrive I see she is already out in the orchard with a familiar face. I park my Jeep and walk in the warm November sunlight to join the conversation in progress.
“Beautiful drive out here huh?” Kevin says as we hug. I smile big and nod. He tells me he skipped the highway and took the backroads too. We tell her how much we appreciate the peace of mind that the drive out to these foothills brings.
We ask her if finding this place, this land, was intentional. “Oh yes!” she says, and tells us the tale that began this season of her life. We are standing with Jane Morgan Smith, former corporate administrator turned massage therapist turned truffle farmer, executive director, fundraiser and child welfare advocate. Today we are walking the grounds with her on her nine-acre truffle farm she’s named Keep Your Fork Farm where she single-handedly operates nationally known, Truffles NC.
“So about fifteen years ago we wrote our property wish list down and titled the sheet “Paradise”, and then I started driving around looking for it.” Through that focused search she came across the property we are standing on today. “Five acres, ranch house, full basement that was paradise for me. The only catch was the property’s listed price.” The listing was twenty-five thousand dollars above what was noted on their wishlist. But as luck and faith would have it, a few weeks later the realtor’s “For Sale” sign came down and was replaced with “For Sale By Owner”. She picked up the revised information sheet posted in the front lawn and there it was – a twenty-five thousand dollar price reduction. Thirty days later, “Paradise” was hers.
Thing is she never really set out to be a farmer, and certainly not a truffle farmer. It is just one of those things that sort of happened slowly. She leaned into the new direction and as with anything you focus your attention on, the plan grew beyond what she expected. “First you have to think it. Then you say it. What you say eventually becomes your reality.” she says.
In the early 2000s she decided to retire early from the world of corporate banking just as her employer Wachovia merged with First Union bank. A Lot of changes were happening internally with the merger and she said “I just felt it was a sign to try something new.” She enrolled in both a massage therapy and an energetic bodywork program and shifted her focus to becoming a healer. She opened her own private practice after graduation.
Back on their newly acquired land, she and her partner Rick were interested in trying their hand at cultivating shiitake mushrooms as a side-project. They visited a supplier in Hillsborough, North Carolina. While there the owner, Franklin Garland, introduced them to the idea of growing truffles instead. The seedling supplier himself was making the transition to the Black Winter Périgord Truffle, a gourmet truffle native to the Périgord region of France. Garland believes that the Piedmont and Foothills of North Carolina, with its moderate climate and suitable soil, has the opportunity to become home of the United States truffle industry just as Napa Valley is for wine. The idea, which continues to be explored today, is that truffle orchards could help replace tobacco as a crop and preserve farmland in the state. Although price varies with the market, often a pound of the elusive fungus can go for $800 making cultivation quite appealing.
They heard enough and were sold. They came home that day energized with interest in tree seedlings inoculated with Black Winter Perigord Truffle spores.
Jane became an avid researcher on the subject of truffle cultivation, networked within the small group of growers, and together with no farming background between the two of them, she and Rick planted 125 inoculated seedlings to start their orchard. All the while, Jane remained working in her private massage practice.
But as her interest and passion for truffle farming continued to grow in step with those initial tree seedlings, she realized there was no denying where her heart was leading her next. Back to “Paradise”, back to land. She closed up shop, and eventually they expanded their orchard to more than five hundred trees.
As Jane explains truffle growing is not for the faint of heart. “Don’t quit your day job,” she says jokingly and then gets serious, “Actually, really… don’t do it. Don’t invest your life savings. It is really risky.” Cultivating truffles is an investment – of money yes, but more importantly, your time. “It takes a lot of patience. It typically takes at least seven years to get truffles.” And that is if you’re lucky to have a harvest. But once they do, if your trees remain healthy, you can expect a harvest each sequential winter.
“It took six years to get our first truffles and that was really outstanding” she shares. During those six years there was a lot of pruning, a lot of tilling and tending to the orchard. “And we were able to harvest for three years following that first find.” And it was just around that six-year mark, in 2006, when Jane received the call of a lifetime.
“There I was in Walmart on the way home from the dentist with a mouth numb from Novocaine,” she says. It was Betty, the wife of their supplier Frank Garland. “She said that Martha Stewart was coming to film a segment about North Carolina truffle growers for her television show and wanted to visit our farm. I didn’t take her seriously at all. I mean really,” she laughs. But Betty was serious and Martha was coming. When it finally registered, Jane said she started panicking. “I mean the queen was coming! Martha Stewart was coming to my house. What would she think?!” We laughed. The pressure!
She said she soon settled into the idea and reminded herself that Martha was not in fact coming to inspect her decor and table presentations, but instead to see her orchard. “And the orchard looked wonderful so we were ready.” Thirty days later, “the queen” and her film crew arrived. Together they harvest a batch of the season’s first truffles and had a marvelous time. “She and her crew were so kind. They even flew us up to New York to watch the segment run live on air.”
It was the kind of national exposure people pay great money for, and there they were, unintentional truffle farmers, with their phone soon ringing off the hook.
“People wanted to come tour the farm and see where Martha hunted truffles. So we started giving tours.” She continues to do so today.
“I thought it might be nice to sit around the table after the tour and enjoy a lite snack. So I started making truffle butter to enjoy with warm bread.” A visitor recommended she start selling the butter, the idea resonated with Jane, and just like with everything in her life she just ran with it. She started researching jars, talked to the NC Department of Agriculture about how she might go about starting a food business and in short order she was selling at the Reynolda Farm Market which led to a booth at Cobblestone Market in Old Salem.
To adhere to the many, many regulations set for food entrepreneurs she started working out of a certified kitchen over at nearby Camp Hanes. She is grateful for their early support of sharing their space. Three years ago she took the plunge to bring the operation onsite and transformed that underground basement once on her “property wish list” into a commercial kitchen space.
Over the past few years since debuting her value-added products, which include truffle butter, truffle honey and truffle salt, she has connected with Whole Foods in the South and Mid-Atlantic Regions who have added her products to their shelves. She personally calls each store to speak with buyers, she goes to the stores to demo for customers and she creates and ships the product. A one-woman operation start to finish.
These value-added products became increasingly important to her business mix after 500 of her inoculated trees died in 2012 due to blight. The weather and disease are always something farmers must contend with. Both can be devastating.
Today approximately 100 trees remain in the orchard with the potential to produce. Her mix contains Holly oak, Chinkapin Oak, English Oak and Filbert trees, all sourced from the country’s top three seedling producers. She remains optimistic for future harvests and today, as we roam her orchards she shares her biggest challenge of the moment – finding time.
It is something I think all of us can relate to, particularly those who have stepped out on their own like Jane, with Truffles NC and Kevin Reddick, owner of the popular local food truck The Screaming Radish.
Today Kevin has come out to see Jane’s property and discuss a fundraising dinner he will be helping her with soon. Beyond just growing their individual businesses, both share a deep love for community and helping the greater good. They both have found a way to do that through food.
Kevin is committed to sourcing as much as he can from local farms to support a good food economy which together we hope to help grow locally. Kevin is particularly focused on supporting The Farm at The Children’s Home.
Jane took the knowledge she had acquired over many years of research and generously put it to work for the great grower community serving as Executive Director of the North American Truffle Growers Association (NATGA). NATGA is working to make the U.S. a reliable source of truffles for worldwide consumers. She talked of how it’s important to work together to exchange knowledge, and to continue to uncover new techniques for success here.
In addition to industry work, Jane has been a steadfast supporter and fundraiser for organizations like the Second Harvest Food Bank’s Backpack Program. After reading an article in the local paper about food insecurity in our area, she learned that approximately one in every four kids do not know where their next meal will come from. “I thought if people can afford to eat truffles they certainly can afford to share with people who don’t have as much.” So she developed a fundraising dinner centered around her decadent truffles. Thousands were raised and she made it an annual event.
I personally helped her with one of these events and was inspired by her generosity. That particular year she did not have the truffle production needed to donate product for the dinner. In her personal life she was facing many challenges as her orchard was dying off with blight and many things were uncertain. But that didn’t stop her from giving of herself both time and money. She personally purchased a supply of truffles from France to make sure the dinner went ahead as planned. To me it was a testament to Jane’s character, a true giver and doer, not a taker.
Recently, she has shifted her philanthropic focus deeper into the root cause of hunger. She has been exploring the reasons why so many households are food insecure.
“There are many reasons why these kids are hungry. Oftentimes it is because the family situation is not good. In many of these homes, there is domestic violence stemming from poverty or a history of abuse through generations.”
She reached out to county commissioners and city officials to find out how she could better serve given this new insight. That networking led her to a luncheon hosted by Family Services Inc. where Naomi Judd was the guest presenter. There she met some folks from The Children’s Law Center of Central North Carolina. In the moment she felt she had found the organization she was looking for and last year partnered with them for their first annual truffle dinner and raised $2,500. The next event will be held on February 6th, 2016.
I ask her how she prioritizes her time to keep Truffles NC running smoothly and expanding — she just shipped her largest order to date this year of 120 cases of truffle butter to supply Whole Foods Mid-Atlantic market – and still give of herself with her volunteer work.
She tells me, “It isn’t that I have endless energy. It is just something that I cannot NOT do. It has taken me fifty years to get to this point but I now can admit that I, myself am a victim of domestic abuse.” She talks about the abuse happening during her first marriage. She was a child herself, only 16, and still to this day she still wrestles with residual emotional effects. “You may overcome the damage and live a meaningful and rewarding life just as I have, but you always have these unexpected moments when those memories are triggered. It still pulls at my heart strings.”
So with that, she continues to use her current position and resources to give back in ways she never expected. She says that in this past year she has realized that this is the legacy she wants to leave – a legacy of service and fundraising through an unexpected means – truffles.
I find it quite beautiful this journey Jane has been on since finding “Paradise”. Ultimately it wasn’t the lucrative truffle that brought richness into her life. Instead that richness comes from giving of herself and sharing her own story to encourage others as they find their own way.
And of giving of herself, she is also learning to value herself and her time particularly as it comes to Truffles NC. Early on she tried to be everything to everybody. Kevin echos the same, as do I. But now she is honing in on where help is most valuable. She has started contracting help for production to give her more time to connect with retail buyers and help work on a grant project that is exploring the best practices for truffle cultivation. This journey is far from over. ~ Andrea Littell