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Horseradish Hot Crop for Illinois Farmers

April 28, 1988

COLLINSVILLE, Ill. (AP) _ The horseradish, touted through the years for its ability to spice up everything from romance to steak, grows nowhere quite so well as in the nation’s ″horseradish capital.″

Now the proud farmers just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis who still cultivate the ugly, pungent root that their ancestors brought from Europe in the 19th century have decided it’s time to celebrate its success.

So they’re sponsoring the First International Horseradish Festival Saturday in Collinsville, complete with contests to see who can eat the most horseradishes or throw their roots the farthest.

So rich is the soil, so perfect the climate, so experienced the farmers that this little section of southwestern Illinois produces about 60 percent of the nation’s horseradish supply.

″It’s a lot of work but it’s family tradition,″ said Craig Keller, 31, a fourth generation horseradish grower. ″It’s what we know how to do, and we enjoy it.″

The festival Saturday is co-sponsored by the growers and WRYT radio.

″We’ll have a horseradish root-throwing contest, spoon races carrying horseradish, and a horseradish eating contest - if we can find someone willing to participate,″ said Kent Scheffel, general manager of WRYT radio.

Centuries ago, claims were made that the white root that can grow up to a foot long would stimulate the appetite, relieve colic, rid children of worms and serve as an aphrodisiac. Now, it’s more likely to be served with prime rib.

Though actually a member of the mustard family, the Germans called it a sea radish - ″meerrettich.″ Many of today’s plants are from the original European root cuttings.

″It’s like immortality,″ said plant geneticist Jack Juvik of the University of Illinois, perhaps the only place horseradish research is conducted.

Growers say the best horseradish burns their tongues and makes their eyes water - and they love it.

″When you smash it with your teeth, there is a chemical reaction and that makes the heat,″ said Keller. ″It gets real hot.″

Most of their crop is bought by companies that grind up the roots and bottle them as traditional horseradish sauce.

Besides volatile prices there are other problems for the growers. Horseradishes have to be lifted from the soil by hand and stripped of secondary roots; weeds have to be cultivated manually since herbicide companies do not want to develop chemicals for a low-volume crop; and machinery has to be built by the farmers.

″You don’t call John Deere and say you want to buy a horseradish picker,″ said Keller, who harvests from 5,000 to 10,000 pounds per acre.

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