Jeff Heepke displays a horseradish root in a refrigerated storage barn containing bales of the crop awaiting shipment to processing plants in the East. Producers in the region in southwest Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis grow horseradish on about 1,500 acres, making it one of the most productive areas in the nation.
Jeff Heepke displays a horseradish root in a refrigerated storage barn containing bales of the crop awaiting shipment to processing plants in the East. Producers in the region in southwest Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis grow horseradish on about 1,500 acres, making it one of the most productive areas in the nation.
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 plant.

“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 field.”

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 out.”

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.