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By ALAN J. ORTBALS
p02 horseradishThe gnarled horseradish root is a hot topic in Southwestern Illinois.    Each year in the dead of winter 50 horseradish growers and grinders come together in the “horseradish capital of the world,” Collinsville, Ill. After all, nearly 80 percent of the world’s horseradish is grown in the American Bottom in Madison and St. Clair counties.
    Jeff Heepke is a fourth generation horseradish farmer and president of the Illinois Horseradish Growers Association, an organization of just 12 members all of whom farm the root in Southwestern Illinois.
    In addition to the members of the growers group, companies that grind the root — called “grinders” — come from across the country for the annual conference. They meet at the University of Illinois Extension office in Collinsville to discuss issues, problems and needs in the industry. The organization also works closely with the University of Illinois and supports its crop research. Dues are levied on a per-acre-of-cultivation basis.
    Horseradish is only grown on about 1,500 acres in Southwestern Illinois. Because it is such a small, specialty crop, cultivators face problems unlike those of growers of staples like corn, wheat or soybeans.
    “Because horseradish is grown on such a limited number of acres, there is no company that designs and builds horseradish equipment,” said Heepke. “We have to design and build our own equipment or modify equipment designed for other crops.”
    Another problem unique to the industry is chemicals. Like the problem with machinery, because so few acres are cultivated, chemical companies don’t spend the money on research and development of products for horseradish farming. So, the IHGA works together to try to get chemicals developed for other uses approved for horseradish.
    And horseradish has been stricken in recent years with a fungus. Verticillium disease is threatening the industry and the growers are working with the University of Illinois to try to find a solution.
    “We grow horseradish in a field every five to seven years and rotate with corn and soybeans to try to keep the disease under control,” Heepke said. “Once the disease gets built up in the soil it can show up in the root as a black peppering or even a total rot. We’re working on a breeding program with the university, looking for new strains of horseradish that will be disease resistant, produce a good yield, good color and good taste.”
    While nearly all the growers are here in Southwestern Illinois the grinders come from across the country. Heepke sells to companies in Maryland, New York and Ohio. Horseradish is sold by the 100-pound bag and the typical yield is 75 bags per acre. Prices and quantities are usually negotiated with the grinders while they are here for the annual confab and can range from 40 cents per pound for wild root to $1.25 per pound for selects.
    Some grinders mix the granulated horseradish with vinegar and spices and sell it to grocers under a variety of labels. Others sell 55-gallon drums of the granulated root to other food processors that use it in a variety of dips and sauces. Roughly 24 million pounds of horseradish roots are ground and processed each year to produce some 6 million gallons of prepared horseradish.
    “We work out prices with the grinders and have it under contract prior to planting,” Heepke said. “Each grower meets with the grinders individually to find out what their needs will be for the coming year and what the grower expects to produce. The price doesn’t fluctuate much from season to season.”
    The harvest takes place over a roughly six-month period from fall through winter, partly because the grinders need a gradual flow of product and partly because once it’s pulled from the ground it needs to be refrigerated at 28 degrees. Building refrigerated storage large enough to house the entire year’s production would be cost prohibitive.
    “We harvest any month with an ‘r’ – from September to April, when it’s large enough to harvest,” Heepke said. “Generally, we have a mild winter here and finish up in March or April, though sometimes, you have to put an ‘r’ in May to get your harvest finished.”
    Once the horseradish has been harvested, the green tops are removed and the smaller roots are planted to produce next year’s crop. Most of the horseradish farmers also grow other crops. Heepke said the goal is to start planting the horseradish roots in March so you can then switch over to your corn and soybean fields.
    “It’s quite a balancing act to work with the buyers and keep everybody’s needs satisfied,” Heepke said.