On a balmy June morning, Joshua Esnard stood before freshly cleared land on his 26 acres in rural Pittsboro and spoke of the riches to come.
Esnard, a native of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, had already had entrepreneurial success with the Cut Buddy, a do-it-yourself hair cutting tool that was featured on Shark Tank and is now available at Walmart, Target, and other major retailers. As improbable as that venture may have appeared—as it did to most of the Shark Tankjudges—Esnard’s new endeavor seemed even more quixotic.
In 2018, Esnard and his pregnant wife had been living in South Florida, but wanted to relocate to North Carolina, where he’d spent enjoyable early years as the child of peripatetic academics. Esnard’s plan was to buy some land, and grow … something.
“I was just fooling around on the Internet, looking up luxury crops,” he said. “At first, I was thinking saffron,” he said, until he learned how labor-intensive it is to harvest.
More internet searching led him to truffles, the elusive fungi traditionally found buried in the wild for which fancy chefs and gourmands are willing to pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per pound. But truffles aren’t a crop like corn, whereby a farmer seeds a field and can reasonably expect a harvest by the end of the season.
It can take eight years or longer for a single truffle to emerge, and that’s if the farmer does every step of the process right. Many would-be truffle farmers fail to produce any at all after hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars in investment.
The cleared acre sits behind a five-bedroom house, where Esnard, 36, lives with his family as well as his business partner and former Florida State University roommate, Tony Huey. Huey, his wife, and their daughter moved here from Texas. (The third partner, Mickey Mitchell, another former classmate, lives on Long Island.)
The house is off a dirt road, up a long, winding gravel driveway that cuts through woods on both sides. Esnard had recently installed a Starlink system for better internet service. But he had yet to find a reliable water source for the truffle orchard, and they were planning to plant their seedlings in only a few weeks.
Still, Esnard and his partners had reason for optimism. North Carolina is the hub of the country’s young truffle industry, with a hospitable climate and numerous success stories to draw from. Estimates of the number of truffle farms one acre or larger in the United States run between 500 and 1,000, but there are more than 200 in North Carolina alone.
Esnard also had a mentor in Dr. Omoanghe Isikhuemhen, a microbiologist at North Carolina A&T State University who has had reliable success producing truffles on the university’s test orchards in just two to three years.