EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — Like his fellow horseradish growers,
Jeff Heepke is facing a hectic spring.
The frigid winter that persisted into March has left him
with few days to harvest and little to plant. When the calendar edges toward
corn and soybean planting, the situation will become even stickier.
Horseradish is generally planted in late winter or early
spring and harvested throughout an eight-month period beginning in September.
The winter of 2013-2014 has not presented the usual opportunity for either
harvesting or planting.
Another complication is that horseradish is planted from
saved rootstocks, not purchased seed. So growers must harvest in order to
“That is a large concern this year,” said Heepke, who grows
horseradish on 200 acres and serves as president of the Horseradish Growers of
Illinois. “We had problems in the fall getting people and machinery in the right
place. We’re definitely looking at some difficulty this spring.”
A large percentage of horseradish consumed in the U.S. is
grown along the Mississippi River in Madison and St. Clair counties.
“I would like to be looking toward planting horseradish, but
I have very few acres of seed stock because we haven’t harvested yet,” Heepke
said. “We’ve got that issue of needing to harvest so that we can replant it, as
well as looking at our corn and soybean crop going in the ground.”
An addition to the farm’s inventory of heavy equipment may
ease the problem somewhat. Last year, the family purchased a four-row,
self-propelled harvester. Previously, harvesting was done with two-row planters
pulled by tractors.
“That would have an extra tractor tied up,” Heepke said.
“And we have had labor on the machine, sorting (the roots). Now we’re looking at
some different ways of sorting roots in the soil to cut down on labor in the
Still, the deep freeze that began in early December and
continued through February likely will result in hand-wringing among horseradish
growers who must concentrate on planting and harvesting — as well as planting
corn and soybeans — at nearly the same time.
“We usually like to plant around the first of March,” Heepke
said. “We can plant it all in a week if we’ve got good weather. The other issue
is we’ve got a lot to harvest. We have to harvest it to get seed stock so that
we can replant it.”
Most horseradish growers use modified potato planters and
harvesters for their crop. Since horseradish roots grow deeper than potatoes,
the equipment must be adjusted. Also, potatoes are more fragile.
“With potatoes you’re digging about 8 inches deep, and you
want to be very gentle with potatoes, so you don’t bruise them,” Heepke said.
“Horseradish is grown 14 inches deep, and you do anything you want to it.
Beating it up doesn’t bruise the horseradish. You do anything you can to break
the dirt clods.”
Since the population of horseradish growers is so small and
there is virtually no mass-produced equipment for production, growers are used
to adapting machines for meeting their needs.
“I’ve been using potato planters,” Heepke said. “But I’ve
got an old International corn planter in the shop that I modified. I pretty much
used only the tires and the frame.”
A rule of thumb is that horseradish can be harvested in any
month with an R. The harvest season is spread out partly because of opportunity
and partly because of the need to secure rootstock.
The longer the roots grow, the bigger they get. Large roots
are of the same quality as smaller ones harvested earlier in the season.
A handful of farmers in the area produce at least half of
the horseradish consumed in the U.S. Total acreage in the region across the
Mississippi River from St. Louis is about 1,500. Most families growing it have
been here for generations.
“I’m 34 years old. I’m fifth-generation horseradish grower,”
Heepke said. “I would say acreage has increased, and the number of growers keeps
decreasing every year. Just like everything else, people get big, and others get
Demand, like prices, is relatively stable year to year. Most
of the crop grown in Illinois is shipped east to processing plants where it is
ground, mixed with vinegar and other ingredients and sold as a spicy condiment.