Export orders by high-end restaurants for truffles are up in the air as primary producers look to alternate sources of revenue as hospitality and foodservice businesses remain closed around the globe.
It's a worrying predicament for commercial grower Stuart Dunbar who has grown the delicacies mainly for an international market for the last four years.
Last year Mr Dunbar, who owns Yarra Valley Truffles, exported about 100 kilograms of truffles to places including the United States, Dubai and China.
While the mass of product does not compare to more commonly exported products such as grain or red meat, a Victorian-grown black truffle can wholesale for as much as $1.50 a gram.
With harvest season - which normally takes place during an eight-week period sometime between June and August - fast approaching, the window of opportunity to secure prospective buyers for the black winter truffle is concerning growers.
"I will be lucky to break even this year and I have already about $45,000 in expenses from the last 12 months," Mr Dunbar said.
"Last year with my farm gate sales I made only a third of that so with international demand for the product reducing, we are heading into very uncertain times."
About 90 per cent of Yarra Valley Truffles' revenue is sourced through wholesale export orders which are then on sold to high-end eateries, most of which have closed or are operating at reduced capacity during COVID-19.
Mr Dunbar started the farm in 2006 when he planted about 600 trees with a third of them now classed as productive, meaning they provide truffles annually.
But with signs of an earlier than normal "autumn flush", the truffle harvest season could be extended by a few weeks allowing growers to find alternate ways to sell their produce.
"The only alternative is to plan for the future and look at agri-tourism but because the season only lasts six-to-eight weeks, I don't have the time to run those things like tours," Mr Dunbar said.
"But even if I was to triple my domestic sales, I will only break even."
North-east of Ballarat, Black Cat Truffle owners Tom and Kristen Eadie are waiting with bated breath in the hope social distancing restrictions will be lifted before June.
The Eadies bought the business six months ago and are busy planning for their first truffle season expected to start next month.
Between 20 and 30pc of their revenue is sourced from restaurants who buy the black truffles direct from the farm gate, while the major funding source of the business is made through truffle tours.
"The tours consist of a truffle hunt and tasting and so we sell not only truffles themselves but also truffle products like truffle salt, truffle honey, truffle butter and oil," Mr Eadie said.
"The tour groups can't come until the truffles come so we're hoping by then restrictions will have been eased because the tours are conducted outdoors so we hope the laws will be relaxed."
Mr Eadie said harvest was shaping up to be a "bumper season" in central Victoria after a warm summer with rain and a cold and wet winter; the perfect conditions for truffles to grow.
If restrictions aren't lifted, it will make it more difficult because we get a lot of exposure through our tours and that's where we get most of our income from- Tom Eadie, Black Cat Truffles
He expects to harvest about 50 kilograms of truffles in the coming months.
"If restrictions aren't lifted, it will make it more difficult because we get a lot of exposure through our tours and that's where we get most of our income from," he said.
On the Mornington Peninsula, Red Hill Truffles made the unprecedented move to cancel all tours for 2020 until further notice.
Owner Jenny McAuley said COVID-19 had led her to put seasonal events on hold with truffle hunts and tastings unavailable for the foreseeable future.
The agri-tourism sector equates to a third of her business, however, she had praised her council which had allowed her to open a temporary farm gate stall to sell direct to the public.
As people stay indoors and turn the focus to nutritious, home-cooked meals, growers hope truffle sales will increase as people experiment in the kitchen.
In uncertain times for the industry, Mr Dunbar said it was one of the few positives from the virus.
"Simple food preparation and ingredients are the best for showcasing truffles' gourmet nature," he said.
"Truffle on a table is generally half the cost of the wine accompanying it, and a simple roast chicken can be transformed into a luxurious dining experience."
While public demand could increase in the coming months, direct sales are unlikely to cover the costs of growers' operations.
"Likewise surviving restaurants are going to need to spoil customers with some special food," he said.
"There's room to educate chefs about quality truffle yielding better results, with longer shelf life, rather than them buying the cheapest truffle possible."
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