Eight generations of Pennsylvania potato farming

Left, Keith Masser holding a bag of Blue Denim potatoes in SMI’s cold storage warehouse in Sacramento, Pa.
Top Right, SMI’s russet potatoes packed under the Guaranteed Value label.
Bottom Right, Yellow potatoes in SMI’s ready-to-eat Blue Denim Steamables.
Photos courtesy of Sterman Masser, Inc.

In Pennsylvania, people think of Schuylkill County as the hub for the anthracite coal region, the Molly Macquires and Yuengling, the oldest brewery in the U.S. But for the Masser family, Schuylkill County means potato farming.

The Massers have been farming potatoes for eight generations. In 1959, Sterman and Geraldine Masser rented farmland in Sacramento, Pa., from Ralph Masser, who was Sterman’s uncle. By 1967, the Massers were producing potatoes on 100 acres of land, which they later bought from Ralph, and where they formed the Sterman Masser, Inc. (SMI) facility that exists today. Keith Masser says, “Sterman Masser, Inc. is a third-generation potato growing and shipping company.”

Throughout the years, SMI (www.masserspuds.com) continued to grow with the addition of packing lines and storage units. Additional land was bought for farming potatoes. The Massers incorporated their business in 1970 ,with the focus on farming and distribution of Pennsylvania-grown potatoes. Their son, Keith, joined the company in 1976 and took over the family business as president in 1984. Their grandson, David, became president in 2010, and is the eighth generation to grow potatoes in western Schuylkill County.

An irrigation pivot in a potato field about 10 feet away from SMI’s facilities in Sacramento, Pa.

According to their Web site, by 1999, the farm and its facilities grew to 4,000 acres between three states. One thousand acres are dedicated to potato farming, while the additional 3,000 acres are devoted to cash grain. Masser explains how their farming enterprises expanded across state lines. He says, “Sterman Masser, Inc. today only operates farms in Pennsylvania, where we grow potatoes, hay, corn, soybeans and small grains. SMI does contract potatoes with growers in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey and Michigan. We contract with growers in other states to offer our customers a year-round supply of all types and varieties of potatoes.”

The business of potato farming

“SMI sells 75 percent of its produce to the retail and food service industry. The other 25 percent, we sell through third-party sales organizations. We own part of a marketing company, Fresh Solutions Marketing Network, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, that assists our sales team at SMI with its retail and food service accounts,” Masser says.

According to Masser, the company sells all types, varieties and packages of fresh potatoes, including refrigerated fresh-cut and dehydrated potatoes within the mid-Atlantic region. SMI also sells their potatoes to mid-western and southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia. “We pack in our Blue Denim and Heartland Farms brand; co-pack in national Green Giant and Foxy labels; and package most of our products in supermarket, private label brands,” Masser says.

SMI grows round whites (Superior and Reba varieties) and round yellows(Yukon Gold and Keuka Gold varieties). They also grow fingerlings as a specialty potato. The Web site says, “Masser Potato Farms [SMI] has the ability to pack and distribute over 70 million pounds of potatoes each year.”

Red potatoes at SMI.
Keith Masser and David Masser in front of the SMI building in Sacramento, Pa.

Additionally, the soil in that region has extra minerals that add to successful potato farming. Masser says, “We’re fortunate to have red shale silt loam soils in the Appalachian Mountain valleys in western Schuylkill and northern Dauphin counties of Pennsylvania [where SMI farming operations are located] that produce potatoes with a high-quality potato flavor. These soils have a high mineral content, are well-drained and grow great-tasting potatoes. Our Leck Kill silt loam mineral soils are high in phosphorus, sulfur, iron and other trace minerals. We need to add potash and nitrogen, as do all other potato-growing regions.”

In addition to their edge in potato growing and sustainable farming practices, SMI is also known as having the fastest response time in delivering their potatoes to their customers, including same-day service. SMI owns a truck fleet and also utilizes the local rail service to quickly deliver their orders. “Shipping potatoes at SMI consists of shipping potatoes grown on our farms, as well as potatoes grown by other farmers,” Masser says.

Sustainable farming practices

The Massers improved their farming practices as each generation grew in their potato-growing knowledge and as new technology developed. Today, they use computer-controlled sprayers and planters, center pivot irrigation and a bruise reduction program to enhance their potatoes’ quality. They also utilize pesticide risk reduction that includes integrated pest management (IPM) and scouting as tools for growing healthy potatoes.

Sorting and grading of potatoes at SMI.

SMI employs IPM practices and works with approved soil conservation plans at all of their farms. “We use [IPM] practices on all of our crops. For potatoes, we are controlling weeds with herbicides and use rotation crops to reduce our pesticide usage. We control the late blight fungus and use Penn State’s Blightcast System to project the severity of late blight during the growing season, thereby limiting the amount of fungicide usage. We use insect traps to scout for corn borer and wireworm, and we scout fields multiple times per week during the growing season to evaluate the stages of infestation of the Colorado potato beetle, one of our most devastating pests. We also control flea beetles, aphids, leafhoppers and cutworms by scouting methods. We rotate with legumes to add nitrogen to our soils to reduce the amount that must be applied,” Masser adds.

Other sustainable practices include recycling methane gas and treating acid mine water for use in their steam supply. The methane gas is used to operate their boiler in the potato processing facility. SMI gets the methane from a landfill, located near Keystone Potato Products in Hegins, Pa., which SMI is a majority owner. SMI also won a grant for using solar energy. “We recently received a $1 million state grant to install a $5.4 million, 6-acre solar voltaic system to supply 1 megawatt of energy to our potato storage and packaging facility,” Masser explains.

Additionally, SMI uses the following sustainable practices to protect the environment and control costs:

  • Center pivot irrigation systems to aid in water conservation and effective irrigation of crops.
  • Employs a four-year potato crop rotation with other crops to prevent soil erosion and disease.
  • Active potato crops are grown on land that is several miles away from land that is out of rotation to avoid insect pressure.
  • A computer-controlled potato planter is used to pinpoint seed potato placement.
  • To decrease pesticide usage, SMI scouts for diseases and pests before applying any pesticides on their crops.
  • Three computer-controlled ground sprayers are used to control costs and protect the environment.

The family side of business

Unexpected challenges often force a company to reorganize their operation. Masser says, “Our biggest challenge came in 1980, with the accidental death of Kim L. Masser, a partner at SMI and [my] brother. Kim was in charge of our farming operations. Our family business came under extreme stress to reorganize as a result of Kim’s death. Several scholarships are in place in the department of Ag and Bioengineering at Penn State University in honor of [him].”

Masser also acknowledges the rewarding aspects of running the family business. He’s proud that SMI is in its third generation and is “poised to take the company to the next level.”

If he could change anything, he wishes that 15 years ago they could’ve projected SMI’s current growth, and he advises other family produce companies to encourage the next generation to get real-world working experience before taking over the company’s reins. Masser says, “I would insure that the next generation complete their education and find jobs in other industries before coming back to the family business. To gain the job search experience, to gain confidence that they can be gainfully employed other than the family business and to give the existing family business employees confidence that the heir, coming back [into] the business, is coming back with skills and have proven themselves on the outside.”

Instead of coal-mining, the Masser family invested their talents and business acumen in potato farming. Eight generations later, SMI succeeds in the potato industry with their smart business practices, modern sustainable farming methods and longevity as a family-owned business.

A member of the North American Agricultural Journalist association, Wendy Komancheck writes about agriculture and the green industry from her home near Ephrata, Pa.