At The Farm GateHot fact: Illinois No.1 in Horseradish
As a kid, I only knew horseradish as the white, hot condiment that Mom enjoyed on her roast beef sandwich. As an adult, I learned a cool fact about the vegetable with sinus-clearing heat: Illinois ranks No. 1 in horseradish production. Farmers in southwest Illinois grow two-thirds of the nation’s supply, easily winning the horse(radish) race with more than double the acreage of No. 2 California.
Illinois’ horseradish reign can add some flavor to picnic table talk and even the picnic food itself, appropriate during July, dubbed National Horseradish Month. Squirt some prepared horseradish on a hot dog. Add it to the picnic meatloaf.
Shave some raw root onto a tossed salad. People even toast the vegetable in Bloody Mary cocktails during a competition at the International Horseradish Festival in Collinsville, where festivalgoers also hurl roots for sport.
Noticeably different from Illinois’ dominant landscape of corn and soybeans, horseradish is a root crop. Its above-ground leaves resemble oversized, three-foot-tall greens. Its white root delivers the heat desired in condiments and popular on prime rib. Rob Gerstenecker’s family has grown horseradish for around 50 years near the Mississippi River basin, the “American Bottoms” where the crop thrives in the rich soils and climate.
Horseradish production delivers another set of busy seasons for the Gersteneckers, also corn and soybean farmers. Before corn and soybean planting, they plant and harvest final horseradish roots in early spring. After corn and soybean harvest, they harvest most of their roots, then clean and pack roots through the end of the year, saving quality finger roots for “seed” to plant the following year.
Each root is planted, weeded, harvested and packed by hand (I repeat, by hand), making the crop’s labor demands as intense as its heat. The family hires extra hands to help, and Rob estimates one day of work in the field equals up to three days of work in the shed to prepare roots for shipment to the farm’s buyers, which include processors in Maryland and Ohio.
During the growing season, farmers hire Rob to scout for bugs and diseases in horseradish fields, including in the top-producing counties of Madison, St. Clair and Monroe. At home, his family enjoys horseradish in spaghetti sauces and on meats off the grill. For the amateur, he suggests adding horseradish to foods enjoyed with onions to taste test and support Illinois’ hot crop.
About the author: Joanie Stiers farms with her family in West-Central Illinois, where they grow corn, soybeans, wheat and hay and raise beef cattle and backyard chickens.