Just 15 miles from St. Louis, farmers are about to kick off busy season in the heart Collinsville's horseradish country, as they begin to harvest acres of the plentiful, pungent root.

In the midst of it all, one man, Dennis Diekemper, manager of J.R. Kelly Company, the Horseradish House, will be doing whatever necessary to keep horseradish moving from the fields to processors to tables.

The largest supplier of horseradish roots in the United States, J.R. Kelly Company markets 10 to 12 million pounds of horseradish roots per year not only domestically but also to all corners of the globe. Diekemper, who has a hand in the grading, storage and brokering, supervises seven workers at the sprawling compound of climate-controlled warehouses, sorting sheds and offices.

Since joining J.R. Kelly Company in 1991, Diekemper has supervised plant expansions that have tripled the workspace. Two sheds, three coolers and three office expansions later, the plant looks long, lean and neat from Highway 157.

A degree in agriculture business from Western Illinois University and previous experience working on farms have helped Diekemper move effortlessly from the fields to the office.

Not a suit-and-tie-kind-of guy, Diekemper is more of a hands-on manager who relishes in the variety his job brings, especially this time of year. 

Before farmers bring in harvested roots, crews rough grade in the fields. "They trim roots, then run them on a conveyor where they separate the bigger roots," he says. "They box by grade, but we check it when it comes into the sheds."

"Grading roots is pretty straightforward," he says. Big, knobby and club-like, a Grade 1 root is at least 6-inches long and one inch in diameter. Grade 2 roots are slightly smaller.

J.R. Kelly also sells Grade 1 roots with green tops. "We ship 4 tons of green tops to a produce broker in New York City for Passsover," Diekemper says.

Commercial processors use three additional grades: field grade, wild root and trimmings. The J. R. Kelly crew packs wild root and trimmings into 1,200 pound cubes that sit tall on pallets, ready for shipping or pick up.

This time of year, Diekemper heads to work early to make sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible. "Early October, I'll be at work by 7, before the workers get in at 7:30," he says.

In all he does, he's no-nonsense, bracing, just like the roots he handles.