When people think of Illinois agriculture, corn and soybeans are likely the first crops that come to mind. But great soil, favorable growing climate, strong family tradition, and good old Illinois ingenuity make the state a top grower of several specialty crops as well.
Pumpkins, melons, horseradish, peaches, popcorn and grapes for wine production are just some of the lesser-known crops grown on 100,000 acres of Illinois farmland each year. In 2010, specialty crops generated more than $390 million in sales.
Frey Farms, which is headquartered in Keenes, is, in fact, the nation’s top producer of everyone’s fall favorite ornamental crop – the pumpkin. Sarah Frey-Talley, president and CEO, developed an interest in the specialty crop industry as a teenager, when she took over her mother’s produce delivery route and began expanding it, building relationships with farmers that eventually led her to buy some of their small farms as they scaled back operations.
Now, 20 years later, Frey Farms has grown from 100 Illinois acres to 7,000 acres across the country. That translates into millions of pumpkins, as well as tons of cantaloupe and watermelon. Frey-Talley’s business acumen, entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to building strong relationships with retailers, combined with a reliable, quality product, have helped Frey Farms achieve success. The company supplies pumpkins and melons to some of the largest retailers in the country, including Walmart, Aldi, Kroger, Whole Foods, Lowe’s and Target.
Like soybean and corn farmers, specialty crop growers must face the challenges of handling the curve balls Mother Nature throws them. “Regardless of the weather, we must always be sure we come through for our retail partners year after year,” Frey-Talley says. “They have to be able to depend on us, and that means we have to always be thinking about risk management. We spread out our risk by growing in a variety of regions across the country and by diversifying our product offerings. We are always assessing the market and exploring niche areas where we can utilize our existing infrastructure in the off-season to offer additional specialty products.”
Rooted in Tradition
Horseradish may be less recognizable than pumpkins, but it’s a “hot” Illinois commodity just the same. In fact, the Collinsville area is the self-proclaimed Horseradish Capital of the World and the home to J.R. Kelly Company, the nation’s largest supplier of horseradish roots.
Dennis Diekemper, manager of J.R. Kelly Company, explains that his company is basically a grain elevator for horseradish roots, shipping 10 to 12 million tons of them across the U.S. and the world. Their buyers include both processors and fresh market businesses.
Among their many suppliers are more than a dozen Collinsville area farmers, most of whom are descendants of the first horseradish growers to come to the area in the late 1800s, and other producers in Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties.
While tradition plays a part in the success of the area’s horseradish crop, Diekemper explains that there’s another important reason as well. “You can’t beat the great river bottom soil in the area,” he says. “High-quality Illinois soil produces high-quality horseradish.”