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Plant breeders at Southern Illinois University have mostly solved a decade-old disease problem for horseradish growers, and the tangy condiment is all the brighter for it.

Austin Keating, Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer

October 16, 2020

2 Min Read
Jeff Heepke's arm holding large horseradish root
UP CLOSE: Illinois horseradish grower Jeff Heepke says newer varieties of horseradish help his fourth-generation farm achieve consistent yields.Austin Keating

Alan Walters probably wouldn’t admit to saving the Illinois horseradish industry. But at the very least, he made it brighter.

Just 10 years ago, horseradish farmers were dealing with a disease complex that darkens the white interior of the tangy root consumers love. At that point, farmers ranked it as their top horseradish-growing concern.

Related: Horseradish farmers regroup as restaurant demand sinks


Enter Walters, a plant breeder at Southern Illinois University who breeds new lines of horseradish for Illinois farmers. He’s focused on producing crosses that are tolerant to root discoloration. He then gives the new clones to Illinois horseradish farmers, who plant them, save the side roots, and plant them again at a much larger scale.

Combined with crop rotation, Walters reports the modern clones have a strong tolerance to root discoloration. “Many farmers are saying it’s not really a problem for them anymore,” he adds.

Jeff Heepke, a Collinsville, Ill., horseradish farmer and president of the Illinois Horseradish Growers Association, says most farmers who sell to the condiment and ingredient industries grow three to five different varieties, picking them not only for root discoloration tolerance, but for biomass yield as well. Growers who sell higher-quality roots for fresh markets are also concerned about texture of the root skin.

Illinois Ag Facts on Horseradish infographic

Walters explains, “Those roots that get really, really big tend to be barkier on the skin surface. The ones that have a little less biomass and a little more quality tend to have smoother roots.”

He cites an old variety known for high biomass, big top western horseradish. It doesn’t have high tolerance to root discoloration, but it’s still grown by some farmers.

Heepke points out the need for new and improved varieties. “As the varieties grow older, we need something new to come in and replace it,” he says.

He adds that it takes a few years to get enough horseradish roots to produce at a commercial level. He will sometimes scrap a variety if it’s not performing well, drawing on other varieties from Walters to fill the 200 acres he and his family put into horseradish every year.

“That constant flow of new varieties helps us achieve consistently good yields,” Heepke concludes.

About the Author(s)

Austin Keating

Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer

Austin Keating is the newest addition to the Farm Progress editorial team working as an associate editor for Prairie Farmer magazine. Austin was born and raised in Mattoon and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in journalism. Following graduation in 2016, he worked as a science writer and videographer for the university’s supercomputing center. In June 2018, Austin obtained a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he was the campus correspondent for Planet Forward and a Comer scholar.

Austin is passionate about distilling agricultural science as a service for readers and creating engaging content for viewers. During his time at UI, he won two best feature story awards from the student organization JAMS — Journalism Advertising and Media Students — as well as a best news story award.

Austin lives in Charleston. He can sometimes be found at his family’s restaurant the Alamo Steakhouse and Saloon in Mattoon, or on the Embarrass River kayaking. Austin is also a 3D printing and modeling hobbyist.

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