FEATURE: Horseradish Hotspot
Insights on the Chippewa Valley's Little-Known Creamy Cash Crop
The Chippewa Valley’s national reputation is based on a few excellent products we are able to grow around here. We have Leinenkugel’s beer, for one, which enjoys quite a bit of exposure outside of our little corner of Western Wisconsin. Eau Claire incubated the first Menards before releasing it onto the rest of the country. And, of course, we are currently building some status for our current harvest of sensitive, mostly bearded, indie rockin’ gentlemen.
Absent from the list of commodities we are known for is a piece of actual vegetable produce that, considering its history and local cultivation, really should warrant its own heading on the Valley’s Wikipedia page. The farm fields surrounding the Valley’s cities are one of only four areas in the entire country that grow this particular plant. Eau Claire is home to the world’s largest single grower and producer of this foodstuff. The plant is just about the perfect mix of traditional, kitschy, local, and spicy. Still, most locals are surprised to learn that we are a major national player in the … wait for it … horseradish industry.
First, a little history. Horseradish is one of those supposedly magical plants that has been used as food and medicine for pretty much ever. It is probably native to Eastern Europe/Western Asia, and a whole gamut of learned ancient peoples wrote about using horseradish – Greeks, Egyptians, Atlantians, etc. Germany and Scandinavia inherited a love of the root, and this part of America inherited a lot of Germans and Scandinavians. A popular theory of the origin of the name “horseradish” even comes from the German word for the plant – meerrettich – which translated to “mare radish,” which became horseradish. One particular local European immigrant, Ellis Huntsinger, founded Huntsinger Farms and by 1929 was selling jars of horseradish for 10 cents apiece out of his wagon, firmly rooting Eau Claire’s place in the national horseradish scene (for more on Mr. Huntsinger, please see the Horseradish, I Say! sidebar).
Huntsinger Farms still exists, just south of Eau Claire on Highway 37. Part of this farm is a natural spring on a hill, Silver Spring, and this notable natural feature lent its name to the company that facilitates all of our little-known horseradish glory, Silver Spring Foods.
Ken Traaseth, Vice President of Agricultural Operations at Silver Springs has worked at
Huntsinger Farms since he was a little kid, and he explains that while the farms used to be a little more dynamic in their output, growing melons, corn, soybeans, and potatoes, they now primarily focus on horseradish and its necessary rotation crops, including corn and soybeans. The company also operates a processing and bottling plant on Eau Claire’s west side. And even if the operations of this company are not common knowledge to most in this community, their products are a fixture of restaurant tables and brat stand counters throughout the area: those squat little bottles of Sliver Spring mustard in all the delectable flavors, including their best seller, Beer and Brat Mustard, according to company president Mike Walsh.