ALTHOUGH Colin Carter grew up in Doncaster, his uncle and aunty had a farm in Digger’s Rest where he would spend all of his time during school holidays.
“It was a mixed farm,” said Mr Carter.
“You would milk the cows, separate the cream and feed the pigs and chooks.
“It was one of those classic 1968 farms that don’t exist anymore.”
When Mr Carter finished high school in the 70s, he went off and studied horticulture at Burnley College, one of the oldest universities in Australia, and now part of Melbourne Uni.
“I always had farming interests,” he said.
“And in those days it was the premium horticulture school in Australia.”
Upon graduating, he found a career in nurseries.
After meeting his wife Jan, the pair went on to own and run their own nursery in Gembrook, where they sold wholesale to Safeway for many years.
Then they traded the nursery for a flower business, supplying Woolworths.
“The stores were open 24 hours a day and we had to run seven days a week, so after 10 years I got tired of it all and sold that business, too,” said Mr Carter.
He had always had a passion for teaching, and eventually found a job in the nursery at Swinburne Uni.
“I started doing casual relief teaching, and they were really good at training their staff,” he said.
Mr Carter was there for 12 years and became the manager of the horticulture and environment department, but when TAFE cuts came calling, he took a package and a chance.
While he’d been working at Swinburne, they had supported Mr Carter’s research into truffles in Europe.
“I was already teaching about local fungus and I needed a project for my students, so growing truffles really leant itself to the research,” said Mr Carter.
He also won a fellowship with the International Specialised Skills Institute (ISSI).
“That allowed me to go to Europe and really study their truffles, because our knowledge in Australia was pretty poor.
“And the people that did know something about them didn’t want to divulge too much – it was all a bit secretive.”
So, Mr Carter, with his son Nathan in tow, visited Italy, France and Spain.
The trip proved so valuable, that the pair has been back three times since.
“Spain leads the world in truffle research and production,” said Mr Carter.
“And Australia now has a good association with Spain growers, built off that fellowship.”
Mr Carter has since adopted the Spanish certification scheme for his own trees.
“Prior to that, it was just a chance on the buyer that the tree grower would know what he was doing.
“Now with certification, people can be assured that the trees are properly inoculated for truffles.”
Australia is the fourth largest producer of truffles in the world – impressive considering the industry only started 20 years ago, and France and Spain have them growing naturally in their forests.
Early growers were told that Aussie soil was too acidic and it would never work.
“Australians are a funny bunch,” said Mr Carter.
“If you tell someone they can’t do something, they will make it happen.
“Now Europeans are actually coming over here now to see how we have made it so successful in such a small time.”
Although most of our truffles are grown for the export market, our domestic market is growing at an amazing rate, mostly due to the popularity of cooking shows, which often feature truffles.
There’s great complexity in growing truffles, but as an ex-teacher, Mr Carter identified quickly that people need to know how the whole system works.
So, along with another ex-teacher, he started up a grower seminar, and they now run 12 a year.
“It’s all about education, not selling trees,” said Mr Carter.
“The tree sales take care of themselves once the interest is there.”
Since the retirement of original Australian truffle pioneer Tim Terry, the Carters and their propagation nursery have become the main truffle tree supplier in the nation.
Business has grown exponentially over the last few years and now their son, Nathan, also works with them full time – and Mr Carter hopes he will take over the business when his own retirement calls.
It all goes hand in hand with the sister business of growing hazelnuts.
“Hazelnuts are a perfect dual crop,” said Mr Carter.
“The hazelnuts produce the truffles, and then they produce their own premium nut.”
In the past, Australian farmers had tried to produce commercial hazelnuts straight from the seed, but it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.
So, Mr Carter found someone that could import production hazelnut seedlings from overseas and made himself a hazelnut nursery.
The US now has a hazelnut disease, so with Australia’s border closed to new hazelnut trees, the market is locked down.
Australia currently imports about 2000 tonnes of hazelnuts a year, worth around $10 million dollars.
However, there are currently less than 75 hectares of trees planted commercially.
“There is a great opportunity for import replacement by planting, cultivation and distribution of fresh hazelnuts,” said Mr Carter.
“Especially as most imported nuts are several months, or even as much as two years old, at time of importation.”