BLACK GOLD: Dog trainer stumbles on $1 million industry
WHEN Stanthorpe dog trainer Matt Hibberd was first approached by clients wanting him to train a canine to find truffles, he'd just stumbled upon an industry worth potential millions to the region.
The owner of Lawdogs Australia is on the frontier of the truffle gold rush in the Southern Downs, which he believes could soon become a major income driver for the frost capital of Queensland.
The region is the only location in Queensland where truffles, a lucrative and expensive cooking item, can be successfully grown.
Usually fetching between $1.50 and $2.50 a gram, a big score can be worth thousands.
Mr Hibberd said it started when hobbyists approached him early last year.
"I trained sniffer dogs and then truffle hunters came across and asked if we could train a truffle detection dog," he said.
"Before we handed her over, we actually started training more of them."
The experienced canine whisperer turned his training facility into a tourist attraction, where visitors can learn how dogs find the truffles and how the fungi is infused into oils, honey and other condiments.
"Our aspect is the tourism area - we'll have a display plot of 40 trees and the dog will go along and find it with the tourist," Mr Hibberd said.
"We're the first place in Australia that offers truffle hunts as a tourist attraction all year around (truffle season is during the winter months).
"It's a year-round experience where people can come (even) in summer."
While Mr Hibberd is one of the first to start turning truffles into an industry, he said more people were moving to the region to commercialise the fungi.
"The industry definitely started 10 years ago, but it was very experimental, but now it's getting really serious," he said.
"There's at least three or four that I'm aware of that have developed commercial operations, then there are few others starting out.
"Australian conditions weren't actually suitable, so that means putting a lot of time and effort into it - it's a five-year wait, which is why they're quite expensive and rare.
"The commercial truffle industry will be worth potentially $2-4 million a year in Queensland in a few years' time, with tourism (set to inject) $1 million per year into the Southern Downs economy."
On top of the dog facility, Mr Hibberd said several other tourism operators around Stanthorpe were preparing to cater for truffle getaways, where couples travel to the region, stay at a bed and breakfast, then go hunting and cooking.
Mr Hibberd's exploits attracted the attention of Southern Queensland Country Tourism.
CEO Mary-Clare Power said truffles could become an exotic addition to the region's culinary tourism.
"The tourism links are the fact that if you can get that regional produce, this just adds to the menu," she said.
"If truffles are going to be grown and harvested here, and they're not already exported, it will add to the original menus of chefs in Toowoomba and homes.
"I always love to see using local produce to help our region - an experiential culinary experience is popular."
For more information, head to Matt Hibberd's website.