Horticulture Grad Digs Into Potato Industry

Published online: Sep 26, 2018 Articles Kelly Jedrzejewski
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Source: Penn State News

Curtis Frederick really digs potatoes. And that's a good thing considering that the 2009 graduate of Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences is enjoying a career as a senior agronomist at Sterman Masser Inc., a large, family-owned potato company, in Sacramento, Pa.

"Having grown up on a potato and grain farm in Pennsylvania, I had a long-held interest in a combination of science and agriculture, but my exact career path was not clear," said Frederick, who majored in horticulture with minors in biology and agronomy. "Penn State provided the opportunity to explore options in many ways."

During his time at the University, Frederick worked with Barbara Christ, professor of plant pathology, in her potato pathology lab, where he found a passion for research that would carry him through the rest of his years at Penn State and build the foundation for his future careers.

Christ knew Frederick's parents and grandparents before he started college at Penn State, but she really got to know Frederick when he worked in her lab.

"He was a highly motivated, enthusiastic student who was great to work with," she said. "He was methodical in his research, and his commitment to his work was exemplary. I knew I could always count on his common sense, and I trust Curtis implicitly."

In Christ's lab, Frederick worked under research technician Sara May, who is now the coordinator of Penn State's Plant Disease Clinic. She describes Frederick as a hard-working, conscientious student who was enthusiastic about research.

"Growing up on a potato farm gave Curtis a unique perspective on the industry itself," May said. "He always asked good questions and had ideas about how to focus on research topics that were important to the growers."

Frederick also studied in Ireland for one semester, an experience that he said taught him a lot about agriculture in Europe and ultimately helped him secure a position in the Roots Lab at Penn State, which is under the direction of Jonathan Lynch, distinguished professor in the Department of Plant Science.The research focus of the lab is understanding the genetic, physiological and ecological basis of plant adaptation to drought and low soil fertility.

At the time Frederick worked there, he was responsible for managing staff and setting up projects in the lab and out in the field.

When I applied to the Roots Lab, I had a farm background, as well as some research experience and an interest in both international agriculture and agronomy," Frederick said. "All these things combined made me a good fit for managing the field plots."

The lab was in rural South Africa, where very few people speak English.

"It was quite a learning curve," Frederick said. "Not only did I learn Afrikaans, but I had to learn how to manage the logistics of a large-scale project, from getting groceries for everyone to managing research plots. I learned a lot about the responsibility that comes with being in a managerial position, and for someone just out of college, it was an invaluable experience."

This experience in Lynch's lab solidified Frederick's desire to work in agricultural research and encouraged him to enter graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focused on storage-quality traits of processing potatoes and the underlying associated genetics, and in 2017 he earned a doctoral degree in plant breeding and genetics.

Today, Frederick's job with Sterman Masser Inc. — which is led by Chief Executive Officer Keith Masser, a 1973 Penn State graduate in agricultural engineering and a member of the University's Board of Trustees — relies on many of the things he learned at Penn State. He explained that the day-to-day aspects of his job vary, but his work centers on potato variety development, research and education to aid in the creation of safe, high-quality potato products.

He evaluates hundreds of potato varieties to see which potatoes would be best. Once a variety of potato has been chosen for further research, Frederick develops a plan for the best practices to make sure the potatoes retain high-quality traits and remain free of blemishes during packing and shipping.

Data science and analysis also are important facets of Frederick's work. One of his ongoing projects involves the company's inventory system and trace-back database used by the packing plant. Frederick is utilizing his training in statistics to find the most efficient processes, identify the best growing practices, and create predictions to better plan activities related to growing and harvesting potatoes.

Frederick said the wide breadth of lab and classroom experiences provided by Penn State, as well as his participation in extracurricular activities such as EARTH House and the agronomy club, have given him opportunities that "continue to benefit me today."

Outside of work, Frederick is taking over the management of his family grain and potato farm in Sugarloaf, Pa., with his sister, brother-in-law and wife.