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A history of horseradish at Huntsinger Farms
Eric Rygg is president of the world's largest horseradish producer, growing 9,000 acres of crops that include 1,000 acres of horseradish.
Jim Massey | Mar 04, 2020 | https://www.farmprogress.com/master-farmers/history-horseradish-huntsinger-farms
Eric Rygg says he is delighted to be a 2020 Master Agriculturist, but he sees the award more as honoring the legacy of his family’s business than recognizing his contributions as the company’s president.
Rygg is president of Huntsinger Farms and Silver Spring Foods of Eau Claire, Wis. The farm is the world’s largest grower and processor of horseradish, marketing the product in a variety of forms to consumers around the globe. The company recently celebrated its 90th anniversary since its founding by Rygg’s great-grandfather, Ellis Huntsinger, in 1929.
The Master Agriculturist recognition comes in the same year as Rygg and the company’s 300 employees will host Wisconsin Farm Technology Days. The event is scheduled for July 21-23 on the farm just outside of Eau Claire.
“This award is a great opportunity to highlight the work of our family business for 90 years, and all the work that the farmers and laborers put in before I got involved with the farm,” Rygg says. “During our 90-year history, multigenerational families have contributed so much to Huntsinger Farms and Silver Spring Foods. It will be great to recognize them for all of their hard work.”
Rygg, 39, took a circuitous route to his top position with the company. He grew up in California, where his mother, Nancy Bartusch, moved after meeting her husband while skiing at Squaw Valley. Rygg was on skis when he was 18 months old and started racing when he was 6. Skiing became his passion, and he pursued a dream of becoming a world-class skier as a ski team member at Middlebury College in Vermont.
“I had a decision to make after college: Do I continue to pursue this passion, or do I do something different?” Rygg recalls. “I ended up going into the food business.”
Rygg worked on his family’s Eau Claire farm during the summers while in college and became familiar with the food business. He decided to pursue a master’s degree in food marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and while there, he helped his family purchase a horseradish company called Kelchner’s Horseradish Products. He helped run Kelchner’s while he completed his master’s degree program.
In 2015, Rygg moved back to Wisconsin to become vice president of sales and marketing for Silver Spring Foods, and three years later, he became president of Silver Spring Foods and Huntsinger Farms.
Rygg and his wife, Brittany, met while water-skiing in California. They have three children — Evan, 9, Aria, 6, and Sabrina, 3 — and live just across the road from the farm. “It’s been absolutely wonderful,” Rygg says. “We couldn’t think of any better place to raise our family. We love it out here.”
Rygg’s mother serves as the company’s CEO and chairwoman of the board from her home in California but relies on Rygg to manage the operation back in Wisconsin. Rygg’s older brother Ryan also has an ownership position in the company, although he is not actively involved in its operation. He teaches a graduate level course on nuclear fusion at the University of Rochester in New York.
The Huntsinger Farms cropping operation includes 7,000 acres owned and rented in Eau Claire, Dunn, Buffalo and Chippewa counties, with another 2,000 acres near Bemidji, Minn. About 1,000 acres are planted in horseradish, with the remainder rotated among corn, soybeans, oats, rye, snap beans and alfalfa.
“We used to plant horseradish on the same land year after year, but we found out the hard way that yields were diminishing,” Rygg says. “When we moved to a five- to seven-year rotation, we ended up not losing any yield. That’s why we need so much land to support 1,000 acres of horseradish.”
Demand for the company’s horseradish products has been increasing in recent years for a variety of reasons, Rygg says.
“Bigger companies are discovering it’s a great way to add flavor to food without the sugar, fat or cholesterol,” he says. “And consumers are discovering it’s a great way to add flavor to their food as well. I think there’s a groundswell, and a what’s-old-is-new-again trend. People like spicy food — it’s a matter of more people are discovering it.”
Wet weather the past two growing seasons has challenged the company when it comes to getting its crop into and out of the ground. Horseradish is generally in the ground between 12 and 18 months.
“There is a blade that goes underneath the soil and pulls the horseradish root out,” Rygg says. “If it’s muddy, we can’t move the equipment through there. We also have to worry about an early freeze that doesn’t let us get the crop out in the fall. We don’t have the extra supply going into this winter that we would like to because of [the weather problems].”
The company is considering investing in another horseradish planter so it can get the crop in the ground faster in the spring to “take advantage of those few and far between days when the conditions are just right,” Rygg says.
Silver Spring Foods offers dozens of horseradish, mustard and specialty sauce products to customers across the country and world. The company owns about 40% of the retail market for horseradish.
Rygg recently helped forge a partnership with the Green Bay Packers to make Silver Spring horseradish the official horseradish of Lambeau Field. The hope is to promote horseradish to a younger generation as a tasty accent to Bloody Mary drinks.
Rygg is optimistic that a bigger crowd will come to Eau Claire County for the 2020 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days as compared to the 2019 show in Jefferson County, which was poorly attended.
“We have easy access from Interstate 94 and Eau Claire, and we have some unique aspects to the show that we think will draw a crowd,” he says.
Innovation Square in the center of Tent City will feature interactive horseradish equipment, as well as displays by local apple, kidney bean and cheese producers.
“We’re going to get people out and highlight these companies, and [they can] learn about where their food comes from,” Rygg says. Check out the video promoting Farm Technology Days and the 2020 host farm.
Rygg hopes one of his children will become the fifth generation to run the farm someday, but he and Brittany don’t plan to force the issue.
“We’re going to give them exposure to learn about the business and agriculture,” he says. “Our parents never said, ‘This is what you’re going to do.’ They just gave us an opportunity to get involved and get our hands a little bit dirty. We want to give the same opportunity to our kids.”
Massey writes from his farm in Barneveld, Wis.
MASTER AT A GLANCE
Location: Eau Claire, Eau Claire County
Farming enterprises: horseradish, corn, soybeans, oats, rye, snap beans and alfalfa
Size of farm: 9,000 acres owned and rented, including 2,000 acres in Minnesota
Family: wife Brittany, son Evan, daughters Aria and Sabrina