Still At It

Sterman Masser Farms of Sacramento, Pa.

Published online: Jul 12, 2014 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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Dave Masser always knew he’d come back to the family farm. That sort of assurance comes pretty naturally when your family has been doing the same thing in the same place for well over 200 years.

“We’re potato farmers here in central Pennsylvania,” says Dave, putting it as succinctly as possible. That statement provides the two bits of information, inextricably linked, that you need to know about the family. The Massers aren’t just potato growers, and they’re not just central Pennsylvanians; they’re “potato farmers in central Pennsylvania.”

“My ancestors came to this country in the late 1700s and settled near Reading, Pa.,” says Dave. “They grew potatoes in that area, then the second generation of Massers moved up close to where we farm today. We’ve been farming in Pennsylvania for eight generations.”

The company over which Dave currently serves as president, Sterman Masser Potato Farms, was officially incorporated by Dave’s grandfather, Sterman Masser himself, in 1970. The farm itself is run by Dave Masser’s sister Julie Masser Ballay, who serves as chief technical officer. The farm operates 4,500 acres of potatoes, corn, wheat, alfalfa and timothy hay. Roughly 600 to 700 of those acres grow potatoes each year, all of them table-stock varieties: round whites and round yellows, as well as specialty fingerling and petite varieties. “A few reds are usually in there, too,” says Dave.

Besides the farm, Sterman Masser Farms also consists of a fresh-packing shed and a dehydration facility. “The fresh pack started back in 1970 with my dad and grandfather,” says Dave. “It started with a one-line washer and carousel, and it’s expanded throughout the years.” In 2000 the company underwent a major expansion, and the facility is now home to six weighers, a larger washer and a specialty line. All these contribute to the company’s shipping out around 2.5 million pounds of fresh potatoes a year, comprising everything grown on the family’s farm along with product from several other growers across Pennsylvania and the entire country.

Keith Masser had a hard and fast rule that his children work in the industry away from home before coming back to the farm. So after growing up drinking in all he could about how to manage a potato farm, After growing up a farm boy drinking in all of the information he could about potato farm management, Dave continued his education at Penn State. There his studied Agricultural Systems Management.  Dave went to Penn State, where he received a degree in agricultural systems management. He worked for John Deere Industrial Equipment and New Holland North America for a few years before he returned home in 2000 to help with the company’s massive expansion.

Dave Masser says that one of the biggest challenges they face in Pennsylvania is topography that may not be familiar to growers in areas thought of as being more traditional potato-producing country. The never-ending rolling hills present a somewhat unique challenge. “The farms back East were developed very early in this country’s history, so what you’re dealing with is 20-, 50-, 100-acre farms,” he says. “So you’ve got these blocks of land that have small strips. So our average strip of potatoes is four or five acres. So it’s a very equipment-intense business to be in back here.”

Combined with the contours of the land, Pennsylvania’s weather also has potential to cause trouble for a potato grower. Long, brutal winters and summers that remain hot both day and night provide challenges growers in the Pacific Northwest don’t have to face. But the Massers have found the varieties that work for their environment, and they’re riding them. They’ve been growing potatoes in Pennsylvania for, literally, centuries, and they plan to continue that proud tradition in the place they call home.

Dave says the family’s goal is to “marry the technology … to what some folks might call non-traditional areas of growing potatoes. Pennsylvania, back in the 1950s, had 100,000 acres of potato production. Right now, it’s less than 10,000 acres. Our biggest focus is trying to mitigate risk and finding ways to do it successfully here.”

“Trying” might not be a strong enough word. I think we can agree the Massers are doing it successfully, and they certainly aren’t going anywhere.