After Blight Decimated His Famed Chuckey Truffle Operation, Michaels Is Now Helping Innovate A Whole New Model
CHUCKEY — Tom Michaels of Chuckey was rocketed into instant fame in the culinary world in early 2007 when it became known that he had achieved something on his small farm here that no American truffles-grower had ever been able to do — produce Perigord Black Truffles as fine as those raised in France.
Several years of dramatic business success followed the 2007 breakthrough, but devastating blight and some harsh winters have all but ended that exciting period of his life.
In another surprising twist to the story, however, the much-sooner-than-anticipated conclusion to Michaels’ exciting first chapter as a grower of Perigord Black Truffles has unexpectedly opened the door to what he believes may become a game-changing advance in the commercial production of truffles.
A Fast Track
It has been a fast track in the last nine years, with some sharp up-and-down turns.
Back in December 2006, no important chef or food writer in America had ever heard the name of Tom Michaels, Ph.D., then 59, a plant-pathology scientist with a laid-back manner and a warm, quick smile. He was living quietly with his family on a small farm in eastern Greene County.
By mid-March 2007, however, his name and telephone number had been added to the Rolodexes of first-rank chefs and leading food writers all across America — and many of those chefs were urgently calling him hoping to buy a type of rare mushroom he had been able to grow at Chuckey.
The trigger for those phone calls was top-quality Perigord Black Truffles, sometimes referred to in food circles as “Black Diamonds,” a gourmet delicacy native to France, famous around the world, and in such intense demand that they regularly sell for about $800 a pound — $50 an ounce.
Because of their rarity and cost, Perigord Black Truffles are not well known to most people, and are not sold in even the best grocery stores.
But they are highly prized by the world’s top chefs not only for their flavor but also, and especially, for their rich, pungent, and very distinctive aroma — sometimes fruity, sometimes musky, often spoken of as “earthy.”
Michaels explained to then-Greeneville Sun staff writer Bill Jones in early March 2007 that truffles can be thought of as “sort of mushrooms that grow underground.”
The reporter also noted in his article that the Plantin America website describes truffles (technically, “Tuber melanosporum”) as “underground mushrooms that grow in symbiosis with certain trees, especially oaks.”
In plainer language, Michaels explained, truffles are fungi whose spores germinate and begin “colonizing” the tree roots in the same basic way that a bread-mold spore affects bread, producing a cottony substance called a mycelium, or mold, that is microscopically linked to the cells of the tree roots.
After a number of years, in a way that is little understood but similar to pollination, unknown stimuli trigger the initial formation of a truffle from the mycelium. The tiny truffle grows to maturity over approximately the next nine months.
At that point, the truffle is ready to be harvested — and ready to eat.
O’Neill Broke Story In N.Y. Times
New York Times Sunday Magazine food writer Molly O’Neill was the reporter who broke the story announcing that an East Tennessee plant-scientist/farmer had been able to grow Black Perigord Truffles to rival those imported from France.
That was Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007, and her article in the Times’ Magazine “Dining & Wine” section made big news in the world of elite U.S. restaurants and their chefs.
The story instantly launched several years of spectacular success for Michaels as a Black Perigord Truffles grower and marketer.
Executive Chef John Fleer of The Inn at Blackberry Farm, at Walland, Tenn., which some call the finest resort in the country, was one of the first chefs to discover — and buy — Michaels’ truffles. That purchase took place in January 2007, a few weeks before the article appeared in the Times.
O’Neill happened to be at Blackberry Farm winding up a project on the very day when the soft-spoken scientist/farmer from Greene County showed up with a cooler of fresh truffles to make his first call on Fleer.
Both Fleer and O’Neill were stunned — and delighted — by the quality of the truffles, which Fleer bought on the spot and placed prominently on Blackberry Farm’s menu the next day.
And O’Neill, only hours away from her scheduled departure time to return to New York, sensed that an important story was waiting to be told, and telephoned Michaels at his farm.
Later, she arranged to interview him there.
‘This Is It’
On her interview visit to Chuckey, she also picked out and bought five ounces of his truffles and brought them back to New York.
There, she personally took sample truffles to several top chefs including Daniel Boulud, a famed French chef and the chef-owner of more than 10 restaurants in Manhattan and other cities in the U.S. and abroad.
“This is it — the first time in America,” Boulud told O’Neill, she wrote in her February 2007 article. “This Tennessee truffle is the real thing.”
Fleer is no longer at Blackberry Farm, but the noted chef and Michaels remain friends.
In the meantime, Michaels has also become both a friend and a supplier of truffles to numerous other top-level chefs in cities ranging from Knoxville, Nashville and Asheville to Charleston, S.C., Atlanta, Chicago and New York.
The Greeneville Sun was one of the news organizations that published interviews with Michaels in the weeks and months following O’Neill’s bombshell story in late February 2007. But the Sun had not published additional stories on him and his company since that year.
So, recently, I met with Michaels, a longtime friend, at the newspaper office to get an update on his still-young career as a nationally celebrated producer of Black Truffles.
To my surprise — shock, actually — I learned three things I had no idea I would hear:
• first, that the dreaded Eastern Filbert Blight and some hard winter freezes had hit Michaels’ hazelnut orchards very hard in the last few years, killed most of his trees, and convinced him to shut down his truffles business entirely and sell most of his farm property;
• second, that the collapse of his formerly-thriving Black Truffles business had unexpectedly opened a new and potentially much more important opportunity for him in the field of truffle-production; and
• third, that there are several other Greene County families who are at some stage in truffle-cultivation here!
Mushrooms and ‘Pure serendipity’
It seems “right” somehow that Michaels would become what the New York Times’ O’Neill described in 2007 as “the first truffle farmer to produce commercial quantities of truffles of a quality that commands top dollar.”
Brought up on a Button Mushroom farm in Illinois where his family raised the familiar small mushrooms commonly sold in American grocery stores, Michaels has been fascinated by mushrooms throughout his life.
While his two brothers left the family farm as soon as they were old enough to do so, Michaels says he loved the farm and was reluctant to leave it. In fact, he jokes, “the family lore is that the stork didn’t bring me — they found me in a compost pile!”
He also believes he has benefited greatly in his career from what he calls “pure serendipity.”
At the University of California at Berkeley, he earned his undergraduate degree in physical science (physics and chemistry, he explains), then a Master of Science degree in plant pathology at the University of Nevada/Reno in the 1970s.
His next academic/professional goal was a Ph.D. in plant pathology, and in a few years he moved west to Oregon State University, known internationally for its excellence in the field of plant pathology and, specifically, truffles.
But Michaels had not actually planned to focus on truffles-related research at OSU.
“I got accepted at Oregon State to study a disease of the Button Mushroom, but I didn’t have any funding [to support the research].
“And lo and behold, some bankers wanted to start some truffles in the U.S., and they did their homework and found out that Oregon State had the scientists and expertise to work on that project.
“I was a broke graduate student walking the hallways looking for funding, and there was the assistantship to grow truffles, and there I was, wanting to get my degree.” So he adjusted his plans.
‘Truffle Trees’ At OSU
Instead of studying a Button Mushroom disease as he had planned, he focused in his doctoral dissertation on the extreme difficulty of raising truffles under controlled cultivation conditions — in other words, in a nursery or other laboratory-type setting that would enable researchers to study the truffles and experiment with different nutrients, try to produce higher yields, look for ways to make the host trees disease-resistant, etc.
During his Ph.D. research in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he says, he actually developed the first “truffle trees” in the United States by successfully inoculating the roots of some trees with truffle spores in the university greenhouses.
“At least we got the [truffle fungus] to grow on the roots of trees. That wasn’t revolutionary. That was basically ... doing under our conditions what had just been developed in France ...”
His truffles research would serve him well later when he moved to East Tennessee, but in the early1980s that move was years away and far out of sight.
“I needed a real job, so after the Ph.D. I went back to my first [research] love, which was the Button Mushroom, and worked in research and development with Dole Foods and Monterey Mushrooms.”
Later, he and his family moved back to Oregon, where he established a small mushroom farm.
‘Truffle Farmer by Necessity’
He came to East Tennessee from Oregon in late 1992 not for the purpose of raising truffles but for family-related reasons.
He explained that Dr. Robin Michaels, a physician to whom he was married, was named medical director of Greene Valley Developmental Center, and it was such an outstanding job opportunity for her that the couple decided to move here, along with their two young children.
His wife’s Greene Valley responsibility was very demanding, so he became very involved in his children’s care — a role he loved and deeply enjoyed.
In thinking about ways to use his spare time and develop additional family revenue, though, he began to focus on truffles, realizing that the climate and soil found here were similar to the climate and soil in the Perigord region of France where most first-quality Perigord BlackTruffles have always been grown.
During this time, his interest in truffles was reinforced by a visit to the Hillsborough, N.C., greenhouse of Franklin Garland: a truffle-grower himself and a nurseryman who would go on in future years to sell thousands of truffle-inoculated tree seedlings to other growers.
After further local research, Michaels decided, with his wife’s encouragement and support, to apply at their small Chuckey farm his extensive knowledge of mushrooms in general and truffles in particular.
Specifically, he decided to try to grow Perigord Black Truffles — something that no one in the United States had previously been able to do with the quality and volume needed for commercial success.
He likes to joke of himself that “I am the only person that I know who has grown truffles out of necessity — everyone grows them out of the romance of it!”
The Waiting Begins
Between 1999 and 2004 he planted some 2,500 trees — about 85 percent hazelnut trees bought from sources in Oregon, and about 15 percent oak trees from truffle-producing orchards in southern France.
He planted them in four orchards amounting to 18 total acres of land, almost all of it in eastern Greene County.
In each case, the trees had been raised from seeds in the local greenhouses of Afton resident Danny Peters, and their roots had been carefully inoculated with truffle spores, following the same procedure that Michaels had used during his Ph.D. research decades earlier.
With the “host trees” planted, he began the patient, necessary process of keeping his truffle orchards cleaned, pruned and fertilized in a way he thought might be helpful, while he simply waited out the six-to-seven years needed to see if the spores inoculated into the hazelnut tree roots would actually produce truffles.
He knew that the maturation process would take three-to-four years years longer for the spores inoculated into the roots of the relatively few oak trees he had planted along with the hazelnuts.
Truffle-Growing Knowledge ‘Primitive’
Perhaps especially for a trained plant scientist, the limitations under which truffles are traditionally cultivated are extremely frustrating and what Michaels considers “primitive.”
“We don’t even know the macro levels of growing nutrients — that’s your potassium and nitrogen,” he said in the recent Sun interview. “We don’t know what the best fertilizer levels are to optimize the yields. ... So it’s not for the faint-hearted.
“For people that want to grow truffles, it’s not the soil, it’s not the climate, it’s not starting with a good tree — you can buy those trees from any responsible nurseryman.
“It’s your ability to deal with free-floating anxiety. I say that half-humorously, but really, you are waiting for years, and you don’t have an agricultural base from which to make really solid decisions ...
“We don’t even really know how we should irrigate, how we should prune, how we should weed. Do we control the weeds or let them go?
“There is a lot of speculation about how to work the soil — whether to disk it or whether to rip it or whether to leave it alone.”
He added that he believes the current scientific and agricultural status of truffle-production is actually at the stage where Button Mushroom-growing was 200 years ago.
“By that I mean this,” he said: “When you go out to hunt some truffles today, if you get a basket full of truffles after an afternoon hunt, you have had a good day.
“Two hundred years ago, if you went out into the pasture to hunt some Button Mushrooms, if you got a basket of them, you had a good day.”
Six slow years passed at Michaels’ orchards, and then, very unexpectedly, on Jan. 3, 2007, he spotted a truffle actually pushing up through the ground in one of his hazelnut orchards. It was a “‘Eureka!’ moment” for him, he remembers.
He quickly discovered other truffles in the same orchard — enough to convince him to see if he could market them to some restaurants in the area.
Michaels told a Sun interviewer in March 2007 that “I expected some of the trees to begin producing [truffles] next year. I was caught flat-footed in January, when I suddenly found that some of my trees were producing ahead of schedule.”
He said in the interview with the Sun last week that “I literally stumbled across my first truffle when I was blowing leaves cleaning up the orchard, because some of [the truffles] will literally ‘blister’ and ‘pooch up’ out of the soil.
“So all of a sudden I’ve got the truffles on a tremendous Eureka moment. But now what do I do?” he recalls wondering.
Truffles For Orangery, Blackberry Farm
He soon found interested buyers.
According to Vicki Blizzard, of Knoxville, a close friend and marketing adviser, the first truffles Michaels sold were bought Jan. 8, 2007, by Chris Stallard, then executive chef at The Orangery, a much-awarded Knoxville restaurant which emphasizes French cuisine.
Two days later, on Jan. 10, came the sale to Executive Chef Fleer at The Inn at Blackberry Farm, followed in late February by O’Neill’s article announcing that a European-quality Perigord Black Truffle had been grown in the United States, by a previously-unknown farmer at Chuckey, Tenn.
O’Neill noted in her story that “The truffles from Chuckey are not the first American-grown Perigord truffles. They are, however, the first American-grown Black Truffles to excite some of the country’s top chefs, like Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, John Fleer and Jonathan Waxman.”
Whirlwind Of Buyer Interest
The next few years became something of a whirlwind for Michaels as he continued to harvest top-quality truffles that continued to be in extremely high demand in upscale American restaurants.
O’Neill herself and Mike “Rathead” Riley, a Bristol, Va., insurance and financial services adviser who was a board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, personally contacted numerous prominent U.S. chefs to urge them to order Michaels’ Black Truffles, and a number of them did.
His customers over those years included, for instance, besides Stallard and Fleer, Executive Chefs Sean Brock of Charleston, S.C. (Husk, McCrady’s Restaurant), and Nashville (Husk); Linton Hopkins of Atlanta (Restaurant Eugene); Joseph Lenn (formerly of Blackberry Farm, soon to open Holdways restaurant, in Knoxville); David Chang, of New York City (Momofuku); and Peter Yuen of Chicago, a Master Pastry Chef (Euro-Asian Bakery).
Chang and Yuen, Michaels recalled, even took his Greene County-grown truffles to separate competitive culinary events in Paris, where, the chefs told him afterwards, the truffles were highly regarded.
In Yuen’s case, he placed second in his category, and credited Michaels’ truffles as a key factor in the honor.
By 2010, Michaels’ success even made it feasible for him to buy “Brenda,” a fully-trained Lagotto, a type of dog bred specifically to sniff out truffles under the ground by their pungent aroma, which the dogs can detect even through several inches of earth.
Michaels commented last week that he had not needed to make a sales call in the last six years, so strong had been the demand from various chefs networking with one another, learning about his truffles and their quality, and contacting him in Chuckey.
Signs Of Trouble
In 2010 and 2011, however, storm warnings began to show up for Tennessee Truffle, with the first early signs of the dreaded Eastern Filbert Blight. (Filbert is another name for hazelnut.)
“[E]verything was going swimmingly,” Michaels recalled last week. “We started producing in 2007.
“It’s hard to say when [the first signs appeared] because the blight is a little hard to catch visually. But around 2010-11 I had seen the blight.”
Eastern Filbert Blight attacks wild hazelnut trees and serves as a continuing source of contamination for hazelnut trees brought in from other regions.
The blight works in much the same way that chestnut blight virtually wiped out chestnut trees in the Appalachian region in the 1900s.
Michaels said in the recent interview that he knew a lot about Eastern Filbert Blight in 1998 when he was deciding whether to try to grow truffles here, and, if so, what variety of tree to use as “host” for the truffles he hoped to produce.
He explained that, after conducting local surveys, he found no wild hazelnut trees that were close enough to his orchards for the infection to be transmitted to the trees he was planting.
He reasoned, then, that there was a very good chance that any new hazelnut trees he planted as hosts for truffles would escape infection by the blight.
Another factor arguing for hazelnut trees rather than oaks, he said, was that the time between planting and truffle production is usually about six or seven years for hazelnut trees, but three to four years longer for oaks.
In addition, he said, oaks themselves can be susceptible to Powdery Mildew as a consequence of the humid climate here. Hazelnut trees, he added, are not.
“[The decision to plant mainly hazelnuts] was a rational choice. I went into this with my eyes open .... Call it rolling the dice.
“That was my gamble, that I would be able to get into production, and who knows how long it would be if the blight would show up.”
The Gamble Fails
In the end, the gamble did not work out.
Slowly but relentlessly over the last few years, the Eastern Filbert Blight began killing Michaels’ hazelnut trees, as well as many other hazelnut truffle orchards in Tennessee and North Carolina.
By 2012-13 the impact on his orchards was severe, especially since 85 percent of his trees were hazelnuts and only about 15 percent were oaks.
Only “a handful” of the approximately 2,200 hazelnuts in his orchards have not been infected by the blight and are still producing truffles, Michaels said recently.
The relatively few oaks he inoculated and planted are also unaffected and are beginning to produce truffles.
He began removing the dead hazelnut trees last fall, and he plans eventually to burn over the sites where the trees were taken out, in order to get the land prepared for other agricultural uses.
Production Drops Dramatically
Understandably, his ability to meet the truffle needs of his many customers has been dramatically reduced.
During the approximately three-month 2016 season that began in January, he says, there have been about two dozen customers, but “they weren’t getting truffles every week.”
Michaels, now 68, said that his production dropped this year to about 10 percent of its peak level, reached in the winter of 2008-09 — about 20 pounds this year versus about 200 pounds in 2008-09.
At this point, he said last week, “I am basically disengaging myself from the truffles business.”
He has moved past the grief he felt at the collapse of his truffles orchards from the blight, he said, and is working on completing the process of removing the dead and diseased trees and cleaning up the property to be sold — perhaps to another truffle-grower.
“There is nothing wrong with it as a truffle-growing site ... I mean, the soil has produced truffles. It is primed and limed and ready to go.”
He also noted that blight-resistant varieties of hazelnut trees — “cultivars,” in technical terms — are now available that were not available in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“[But] the person that wants to grow truffles would have to start re-planting the trees from scratch.
“At my age and since I’ve had this run, I don’t want to do that again. But the land is available, and it has been proven as truffle-producing land if someone wants to take that eight-to-10-year lead time.”
He said this week that he plans to keep Tennessee Truffle officially open as a company for the present, even though he is selling only a few truffles now. He noted that he still does some consulting work under the name Tennessee Truffle.
New, Significant Venture
In the wake of the destruction of Tennessee Truffle by the blight, however, he has turned almost all of his attention to a new, unexpected truffles-related venture he believes may prove to be much more significant than anything he has done before.
He and Patrick Fiorentino, a resident of Florida who also owns property in North Carolina, and who Michaels says is another former truffles-grower whose orchards were also hit by Eastern Filbert Blight, are forming a partnership to tackle a challenge that researchers in the U.S. and abroad have always found impossible to crack.
Their goal: producing top-quality truffles at commercial volumes under controllable conditions — in other words, in some form of greenhouse-type environment where factors such as blight and harsh weather will be irrelevant.
The setting they have in mind will thus be drastically different from the existing — and longstanding — model involving outdoor orchards, with truffles maturing underground for long periods of years, where they are beyond human control, and usually hard to detect even when mature except by specially-bred dogs.
The new partnership, Michaels explained, is designed to combine his own extensive background in plant science, and specifically in truffles, with his partner’s extensive technical background and resources.
Their new venture, he summed up, is an attempt to bring the cultivation and production of truffles “into the modern age.”
Eventually, he added, he hopes the new effort will greatly increase the volume of fine truffles, thus lowering their current high cost and making them available to customers in at least some grocery stores.
Managing The Genetics
Michaels said that his new venture with Patrick Fiorentino developed over a period of about nine months after Michaels and the former business executive and truffle-grower talked during the summer of 2015.
That talk, both men said, resulted from a suggestion to them last spring by Steve Frucht, another truffle-grower who was a mutual friend.
In an email to the Sun on Tuesday following a telephone conversation, Fiorentino explained that “I have been working on truffle production in controlled conditions for several years, with some success and many failures.
“The entire story [concerning this process] was not apparent to me (us) until we started putting our heads together.”
(Editor’s Note: Patrick Fiorentino, former executive vice president of Sales at Tiger Direct, was not charged in the multi-year federal securities fraud and tax fraud case in which his two brothers, Gilbert and Carl, pleaded guilty in December 2014. Gilbert and Carl Fiorentino, who had been senior executives of Tiger Direct, were sentenced to prison terms in March 2015.)
“I don’t want to sit on the couch and watch TV all day,” Michaels said in his recent interview with the Sun. “... I want to stay very active ... and he [Patrick Fiorentino] is about the same way.
“He is about eight or 10 years younger [than I], and this is his thing. He wants to get these truffles in a rational way.
“There is enough circumstantial evidence out there that say that we can jump to the next level. There is a way to ramp up production.
“We are going to give it about five years of development work.” Within that period, Michaels said, they hope to have produced truffles using their different approach.
“An example is that Patrick has a controlled environment that is typical of a ‘clean room’ at a silicon chip-producing plant [with] filtered air, and we know all the carbon dioxide levels, humidity levels, and we can drip in any kind of nutrient formulations we want, and we can run the tests — which is my expertise: how to design good field tests with good ... statistics.
“I love statistics. Properly done, they are a key to advancement in agricultural research, and I know how to do that. That is what my career was before moving to Tennessee.”
Michaels also explained that “[O]n this scale we are getting our arms around the genetics of it. ...
“For example, we can decide what stage of ripeness [of a truffle] you want to harvest.
“If it is the lighter side of ripeness, you get the lighter aroma — because we are going to know where the truffles are. We are not going to wait for a dog when the truffles start sending up a plume of aroma to find it for us.”
Will Continue Living Here
He said the partnership “is functionally in place” and should be firmly set in about two weeks.
Their test site is near Winston-Salem, N.C., but Michaels said he plans to continue living at his home in Chuckey.
“I love my spot right here. I’m set here. I’m set in my ways, and have a beautiful place ... The people ... It’s my world right here.
“But by the nature of the [new] project, you can do so much long distance now with communication.
“...[F]or our spring preparation, where we are getting the seeds, [getting] the trees started, and actually installing the ... treatments and trials, I’ll be there. But [for] the ... day-to-day watering and management of the greenhouse, I don’t have to be there.
“So basically — finally — I’m not just the farmer. I’m getting back to wearing my ‘science hat.’
“Over the years I sort of morphed from wearing the ‘science hat’ to the ‘farmer hat,’ and now I’m going back to doing it from the technical end. ...
“[T]he thing is,” he continued, “you sit on that tractor, and you have a lot of time to think as you are going down the rows, and you are looking at those trees wondering what the truffle does, and how to do it, and how to manage it.
“I mentioned that it is art, and a lot of by-gosh-and-by-golly guessing, and now I get to take all those little thoughts and organize them and do some controlled work.”
Failure And Success
The potentially groundbreaking aspect of the new truffles venture appeals to Michaels at a deep level.
“Talk about one door opening and one door closing ...,” he mused toward the end of the recent interview.
“I wouldn’t be doing this pioneering project to grow truffles in a totally new way if I was happily harvesting my truffles out of my orchard every year. ...
“I want to make a mark ... I still want to be focused on where my heart is, making a mark.”
He acknowledges that, at this point, “The plans are all blue skies and green lights,” but he also expects that the road to his new goal is likely to include some missteps and failures.
That possibility doesn’t appear to worry him — in fact, he almost welcomes it, he indicated in the recent interview.
“There is,” he said, “a great book by Stuart Firestein, a neurobiologist ... about what failure is in science and how it moves science forward ...
“We know there is going to be failure along the way. That’s necessary to bring about a success ... To try to phrase it, you learn by your failures.
“If this was easy, it would have been done before.”
The writer is the former editor of The Greeneville Sun.