The Rygg family says Huntsinger Farms' success is in its roots

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer

The Rygg family, which operates Huntsinger Farms, was meant to host Farm Technology Days back in 2020. But luckily, they were offered a second chance to do it in 2021.

Eric Rygg, family patriarch, said he was heartbroken to have to cancel the 2020 show, but he also saw a silver lining that showed him opportunities to make the 2021 show even better than ever. However, he said it "wasn't just as simple as a' yes'" to make it happen for the Ryggs again.

"(Farm) Technology Days had already cancelled the show for this year that was slated slated for Jefferson County. It's very rare – in any other year ... that slot would have already been filled by another host farm," Rygg said. "We'd already done 80% of the planning. I used the analogy we were on the 20 yard line. We just needed to get into the end zone, and we didn't want all that planning to go to waste."

Huntsinger Farms had to put off a whole extra year of field and crop planning in order to stay the hosts of the 2021 show, Rygg said. But he said he believed it was worth it to keep the show in the community, where it could not only generate tons of revenue for local businesses, but also keep the community supported and together.

Rygg said planning for FTD 2021 has allowed him to discover all the other farms and ag businesses that are located in Eau Claire and the surrounding area, adding that many did some "cutting-edge stuff." While he'd already been in contact with businesses to discuss best practices, sustainability and other farming topics, he said this was a whole new experience and opportunity to form long-lasting connections.

MORE: World's largest horseradish producer is near Eau Claire, on a family farm started by a German immigrant

"I got a chance to meet some incredible people that are running some mind-blowing businesses," Rygg said. "The more time I spend here, the more I'm amazed, and I didn't know the extent to which these companies did what they do. I was taken aback by that and I wanted to share the spotlight with them."

Eric Rygg, Nancy Bartusch and Ryan Rygg, co-owners of Huntsinger Farms.

While Huntsinger Farms is the largest horseradish grower and processor in the world at 9,000 acres (growing 700-900 acres of the crop per year), it hasn't been an easy journey. Rygg said that the farm started with his great-grandfather Ellis Huntsinger in 1929, being passed down to his son-in-law – Rygg's grandfather – in the 1970s, which caused a rift in the family. But then, a plane crash killed his grandfather and the farm became his mother's, Nancy Bartusch, when she was just 22 years old. She ended up hiring a family friend to help her run the company rather than sell it to an investor.

Nancy is still CEO of the operation, but since 2018, Eric has taken over as the primary owner and operator of the farm along with his brother Ryan. Now, their horseradish brand Silver Spring is the top choice for Americans and has also been distributed in Europe, Japan and Australia.

"Bill Nelson, who was the VP of Sales and Marketing at Kraft at the time, knew our family well ... and agreed to help my mother manage and run the company for the next 10 years," Rygg said. "Then his son ran the company for the next 20 years. And it wasn't until I came along to take over the reins in 2018 that I was the first family member to have the role of president since my mother had it in 1973."

Rygg said horseradish was the crop of choice for his great-grandfather because it could be kept in cold storage and processed throughout the winter, unlike many other crops. Plus, he added that the Wisconsin-Minnesota soil is a great growing environment for horseradish, which is only one of the reasons why Huntsinger Farms has become so successful on the domestic front.

The COVID-19 pandemic played a huge role in company expansion and flexibility, Rygg said. Since restaurants closed down and people began eating at the dining room table, he said Silver Spring horseradish became more of an at-home condiment than ever, especially popular on sandwiches. And with people going grocery shopping more and trying new things, he said retail sales went up 20-30% just last year – which was sometimes a challenge due to bottlenecks in packaging availability.

"Labor's a challenge, but we were able to send some people to work from home. But the majority of our employees have to come into the factory to make products," Rygg said. "That was a challenge to kind of figure that out, but our team did really well and they showed some resilience."

Huntsinger Farms grows horseradish on at least 9,000 acres, making it the largest producer in the world.

Besides producing horseradish sauces, Rygg said recent processing and distribution expansions have also allowed his company to foray into other markets, like wasabi (much of which is made with horseradish), cocktail sauces and mustards.

Rygg said that being a family-owned farm for 90 years has made the company think long-term, not short-term, with regard to sustainability and environmental policy. He said Huntsinger Farms is always looking for ways to improve water and energy consumption, and they already do crop rotation patterns that allow fields to rest for 5-7 years. Rygg explained that when his predecessors grew horseradish in the same fields without rotating, yields dropped every year and diseases only became harder to fight off.

Solar power has been something the company has significantly invested in, Rygg said. Their on-farm solar panels have provided 18% of their total energy costs since last year, and it also helps keep the horseradish cool, which helps to preserve its spiciness and tang.

"Some of the energy that we use and generate via solar is helping keep our products fresh cold. We're always looking for ways to reduce our energy usage, water usage and be more efficient with what we're doing," Rygg said. "These (provide) a longer return on investment."