Nov./Dec. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Larry Turner
Horseradish legacy adds local flavor to Klamath Basin.
Farmer Scott Seus and his father, Monte, stand in their horseradish field near Tulelake in the Klamath Basin.
Horseradish, a condiment known for its pungent kick, can often be found alongside holiday classics such as prime rib and roast beef. A new generation of foodies, however, is taking notice of the root, using horseradish and related products to spice up anything from fish and mashed potatoes to snack foods and cocktails.
"Americans, we love heat. We're eating horseradish on everything and anything," said Zeth Huckabay, a Los Angeles-based private chef and health coach. "Prime rib, of course, is the classic way to eat it, but more contemporary ways are in convenience foods such as horseradish bacon potato chips. But we are going back to basics and redefining classics by focusing more on ingredients and technique; classic dishes are going under the microscope."
Scott and Monte Seus discuss this season's crop, as a machine harvests two rows of horseradish at once.
A renewed interest in the versatile condiment comes as no surprise to third-generation farmer Scott Seus, whose family has been growing horseradish in the scenic Klamath Basin since the 1950s. Straddling the California-Oregon border, the farming region is known for rich, volcanic soils that yield a variety of crops. One of the more unusual crops is horseradish, typically a 6- to 13-inch root whose relatives include mustard, wasabi, broccoli, cabbage and other members of the Brassica family.
Seus' grandparents, Ed and Esther Seus, settled in the Klamath Basin community of Tulelake after World War II as homesteaders through a government program that awarded plots of land, or homesteads, to soldiers as thanks for their military service. (See related story.)
Today, Seus continues the farming tradition with his wife, Sara, who handles human resources and bookkeeping. They also raise three children: Spencer, 7, Emma 3, and Charlotte, 2. Along with horseradish, the family grows alfalfa, grain, onions for drying, garlic and sunflowers for seed, and peppermint and spearmint for tea.
Seus remembers all three generations of his family working together, which helped develop his love of the farm from an early age.
Sisters Guadalupe and Maria Martinez trim and prepare horseradish roots for storage in a cooler.
"After school, I would ride my bike down the road and climb up into the original horseradish shed and work alongside my grandma and grandpa," he said. "I had that same eagerness to be on the farm that Spencer has now. Time marches on and some things stay the same."
Seus said he enjoys the outdoor aspects of farming, as well as the satisfaction of transforming bare ground into a crop he takes to market.
"I'm able to play on my own experiences, and the experiences of my dad and my grandpa and what they've taught me," Seus said. "Whether you are successful is evident at harvest, and you can always learn and better yourself from that."
A short time for growing and harvesting
Seus is one of the few farmers in the Klamath Basin who grow horseradish on a total of about 450 acres. Only half that acreage is harvested during a calendar year; the remaining half is harvested the following year. Farmers in the basin harvest horseradish in the spring and the fall.
"In the Midwest, horseradish is grown as a one-year crop, or an annual. They'll plant it and then harvest it that fall or the following spring," Seus explained. "In Tulelake, we plant the crop and dig it every two years, as a perennial. The crop regenerates itself and grows back from the roots and establishes itself again."
Due to the Klamath Basin's extreme climate—where it can freeze or snow any month of the year—Seus has only a brief opportunity to grow and harvest crops.
"Farming here is intensive. Where other areas have 10 months out of the year to raise a crop, in this part of California we're doing everything in a very short window—about five months," Seus said. "It is just a different climate, so the crops we grow here are resilient to this kind of weather."
Each spring and fall, Seus uses a machine to dig the horseradish roots from the field. Roots are cleaned and sorted by hand in the packinghouse, and stored inside a cooler. They are then transported to Portland to be processed, or ground, by Beaverton Foods Inc., a small, family-owned business that has worked closely with the Seus family for three generations.
Most of the horseradish processed at Beaverton Foods is grown by the Seus family. Beaverton Foods CEO Domonic Biggi, whose grandmother Rose Biggi started the company in 1929 in the cellar of her farmhouse to help weather the Great Depression, began buying horseradish from Scott's grandfather in the early 1950s. The two grandsons agree that, as Biggi said, "it really is two small families doing business together for multiple generations."
Scott Seus gathers for dinner with wife Sara and children Spencer, Emma and Charlotte.
Once the horseradish is processed, Beaverton Foods creates a wide variety of gourmet horseradish and other specialty condiments. The products are packed into squeeze bottles and jars and sold throughout the United States—with peak sales during the holidays and winter months.
Biggi said the top-selling horseradish product is a cream-style horseradish.
"Most lovers of horseradish want it hot, but we've developed a formula that sustains the heat and provides the flavor they are looking for," he said. "It has a texture that people like."
Why is it called horseradish?
Horseradish has been prized for its culinary and medicinal uses for centuries—perhaps as far back as 1500 B.C. While there are many mysteries and tales about the origin of horseradish, Biggi explained that the condiments we know today as horseradish and mustard date back 400 or 500 years, as people were looking for ways to help preserve meat.
This current variation is believed to have originated in Central Europe, the area also linked to the most widely held theory of how horseradish was named, according to the Horseradish Information Council. In German, it's called "meerrettich" (sea radish) because it grew by the sea. Many believe the English mispronounced the German word "meer" and began calling it "mareradish." Eventually it became known as "horseradish."
LA chef Zeth Huckabay says Americans are "eating horseradish on everything and anything."
In California, there's only one place horseradish is grown: the agriculturally rich Klamath Basin, where the Seus family set down its roots more than 60 years ago.
"This is a small farming community where you know everybody," Seus said. "We take a lot of pride in what we do."