Horseradish Is A Crop With Punch

One of a dwindling number of horseradish growers in North America describes the back-breaking work and ponders the crop’s future.

By Lynn Coulter and Amy Bickers | Photos By Katie Alaimo

The pungent roots, which belong to the cabbage family, are labor-intensive.

The pungent roots, which belong to the cabbage family, are labor-intensive.

Horseradish thrives in deep, sandy soil, the kind you find in America’s bottomlands, including third-generation farmer Barry McMillin’s 1,200 acres near Caseyville, Ill.

“German immigrants lived in this area,” McMillin says, “so it’s a tradition to grow horseradish here.” Today, he’s one of about a dozen larger-scale growers left in North America, because the pungent roots, which belong to the cabbage family, are so labor-intensive.

“It’s backbreaking work,” he says of growing the plants on his land, Bluff View Farm. “You almost have to be born into it, because not everybody has the tools or the wherewithal to attack a crop like this. It’s not like corn or soybeans, and there’s not a lot of technical data or research on ‘how-to.’”

Planting and Growing

For McMillin, planting typically starts in March and April, but wet weather hampered efforts last year and planting wasn’t concluded until the first of June. “We like to have them in the ground by May 1, ideally, to have your best yield. Horseradish is similar to corn in that respect. You don’t want to plant too late because it starts taking off yield right away,” he says.

Planting is done with broken lateral roots and branch roots from selected stock. McMillin plants the roots in 36-inch rows, 18 to 24 inches apart, and hills them up like potatoes.

“To casual passersby, the plants look similar to tobacco or sugar beets,” he says.

When he fertilizes, McMillin uses potash, phosphate and some nitrogen. “We’re heavier on potash than any other soil amendment. It’s a fertilizing program similar to what’s used for soybeans.”

During the growing season, horseradish foliage can reach 3 feet tall, and it’s hard to get off until there’s a heavy frost. McMillin hasn’t had much luck using the tops as cattle feed. “The tops have a pungent smell, like the roots, so it’s probably just not tasty to the cattle.”

Harvesting and Soil Prep

With so few growers, there’s not a lot of buyers for horseradish harvesting equipment, so McMillin and other producers often assemble their own, modifying tools and equipment used for other crops. “We use a converted potato harvester,” he says. “But we have to beef up the frame because we dig 16 inches down—much deeper than potato farmers—and have heavier soils.”

By some estimates, only 3,000 acres of horseradish are grown today in the U.S.

By some estimates, only 3,000 acres of horseradish are grown today in the U.S.

The roots have many small, fine hairs and can go deeper than most growers are willing to dig. “I’ve seen roots down 3 or 4 feet when we drove an irrigation well, and they can go further. That’s true of rye and other crops too. But it’s not economically feasible to keep going down.”

The harvest starts in late October and often runs through Christmas. In mild years, McMillin says he’s able to dig on and off throughout the winter, as long as the ground isn’t frozen.

This winter, the freezing cold weather arrived a bit earlier, so McMillin stopped harvesting the first week of December. “Toward the first of January, we’re usually frozen out. But we dig any time we can, if we have a warm period. We try to conclude the harvest by May 1, but in very wet years, we’ve harvested well into May.”

When the roots are harvested, the deep digging creates a lot of leaves and other debris. McMillin uses flail mowers and hay rakes to push over the plant tops in windrows that are moved back and forth. “The hay rakes don’t last long. The crop is pretty tough, with lots of ridged rows and mud.”

When the horseradish is in, McMillin runs it through a tumbler to knock off more dirt. He then uses manure spreaders to distribute the “trash,” or field debris, dirt and additional cuttings from the cleaning and packing process that takes place in his shed.

“We used to haul the debris out in wagons and dump it in piles, but now the manure spreaders let us spread it out more evenly, so we don’t get ‘hot spots’ when it’s decomposing.” The plant tops are turned under to “recycle.”

Processing and Markets

“We do our own packing,” says McMillin. “We select the planting stock off the roots we harvest, and use butcher knives to trim the tops. The roots that are going to the processor are packed into 1,200-pound bales.”

Ready for the processor, 1,200-pound bales look like giant, lumpy ice cubes.

Ready for the processor, 1,200-pound bales look like giant, lumpy ice cubes.

They’re then covered in stretch wrap, creating bales that look like giant ice cubes. For that, McMillin uses a homemade wrapping machine. “Most of our stuff is modified, rigged up to suit our purposes. A grower in Canada saw a wrapper used for boxes in manufacturing and modified it for wrapping horseradish.”

As with harvesting equipment, McMillin says, “We build our own machines because there’s not enough demand for them. It would cost a fortune to have engineers build specialized machines just for us.”

Beyond planting and harvesting, another challenge is that there are fewer people to sell to on the other end. His plants go to J.R. Kelly Company, the largest supplier of horseradish roots in the United States. “We have contracts with them, and they have contracts with processors,” says McMillin. “They disperse the produce from there.

“It’s very difficult to push a price increase through,” McMillin continues, “because you’re dealing with huge conglomerates. They dictate pricing. We’ve seen this past year or so that demand has leveled off. Maybe the economy is catching up with us.

“I’m not sure what the business is going to look like in 10 years,” he continues. “There aren’t a lot of us horseradish farmers out there.”