A Lesson In Marketing From Sterman Masser Potato Farms

The family at the helm of Sterman Masser Potato Farms includes (from left) David, Keith, Helen, and Julie. Photo credit: Rosemary Gordon
The family at the helm of Sterman Masser Potato Farms includes (from left) David, Keith, Helen, and Julie.
Photo credit: Rosemary Gordon

This story is a “recipe” detailing how to grow your operation, market your crops and the crops of partner growers, and make sure you have the next generation prepared to take the reins. It also is a story about what steps to take to ensure no produce is wasted. In this case, the produce in question is potatoes.

How do you do that? First, take a look at which potato varieties are good producers in your area of the country, and take the necessary steps to ensure a steady yield.

Next, and in spite of efforts to produce perfect potatoes, you will have some that aren’t considered the best quality, so look into creating a facility that will process those spuds into flakes, fresh-cut, and other products. Team up with other growers to make sure you have a steady supply.

Expanding your marketing reach is the next step, so capitalize on your farm’s location by partnering with other potato growers.

The final step is to make sure those taking over the farm are capable of running the operation and are equip-ped with the tools they need to continue to expand.

The Masser Experience
The farm that has perfected this recipe is Sterman Masser Potato Farms of Sacramento, PA. The farm is now owned by the brother-and-sister team of David Masser and Julie Masser Ballay, eighth generation potato farmers.
David has a bachelor of science degree in Agriculture Systems Management from Penn State University and is entrenched in the sales side of the business.

Julie has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Agriculture and Biological Engineering as well as a Master of Business Administration, all from Penn State University. She handles budget and finance, policy development, insurance, and food safety issues, just to name a few of her tasks.

“The best part of my job is working with people who want to do the best they can for the company,” she says. “It is great to come into that kind of atmosphere.”

David and Julie’s father, Keith Masser, CEO of the company, had the important job of grooming his son and daughter for the various tasks at hand, and he was instrumental in capitalizing on the farm’s Central Pennsylvania location as a prime Eastern spot for packaging and distribution and transforming Sterman Masser into a vertically integrated operation that has access to potatoes and onions from several partners.

Equipped For Expansion
Known for its state-of-the art packing shed at the Sacramento location, in 2013 the Massers prepared for future growth by purchasing a 113,000-square-foot-plus packing facility in Halifax, PA, about a half-hour from the main farm. Although plans for the facility’s use have not been finalized, it will increase climate-controlled storage capacity, Julie says.
Vastly different from Sterman Masser, Inc. of the 1970s that produced about 135 acres of potatoes, the Sterman Masser of today has 4,600 acres in production. About 800 of those acres are dedicated to potatoes, with the remaining acreage devoted to grain and hay. Producing about 10% of the potatoes it sells, the farm now packs and distributes more than 250 million pounds of spuds each year, Keith says.

Growing The Market
To reach the production numbers of today and with the goals of reducing waste and expanding product offerings, in 2003 Keith formed Keystone Potato Products, LLC. Keystone includes a high-tech potato processing plant that delivers year-round supply. Located outside of Harrisburg, PA, Keystone represents more than 40 potato producers and supplies high-quality dehydrated potato flakes, dehydrated potato flour, and fresh-cut potato products, according to the Keystone Potato Products website.

“This is all in an effort to use every potato that comes through our facility,” Keith explains.

To further expand its reach and product offerings, in 2008 the farm started a marketing company: the Fresh Solutions Network. This company consists of eight family owned and operated potato and onion farms that are located across the country. In addition to Sterman Masser, the list includes Michael Family Farms Inc. in Ohio, Basin Gold Cooperative Inc. in Washington and Oregon, Green Thumb Farms Inc. in Maine, Red Isle Potato Growers Ltd. in Canada, Nokota Packers Inc. in North Dakota, Sun-Glo of Idaho Inc., and Mack Farms Inc. in Florida.

“The eight partners have come together to pool knowledge, resources, and experience to make the potato industry better for everyone, including our customers and our own individual businesses,” David says. “This allows us to leverage supply in multiple growing areas across the country to provide retail and foodservice customers the guarantee that we will have year-round consistent supply direct from the grower.”

Product Diversification
Another ingredient critical to this recipe for success is knowing what consumers want. The Massers and those involved in the Fresh Solutions Network saw consumer preferences changing, and they rolled with the changes.

“We were selling three to four SKUs [of potatoes] to a retailer 15 years ago, and now it is as high as 15 to 20 SKUs of all size ranges and types of varieties,” David explains. “Our business has changed from straight trailer loads of 10-pound bags of potatoes to mixed trailer loads of microwavable steamer bags and aluminum roasting trays, and 1-pound bags of baby red, purple, and yellow potatoes. We aren’t selling too many 10-pound bags anymore.”

The smaller bag size isn’t just about smaller household sizes. It also has to do with meal planning, David explains. Today’s consumer makes more frequent trips to the grocery store, is conscious of waste, and is concerned about the time
it takes to prepare food.

“Boiling, baking, frying, and other preparation takes time,” he says. “One of the things we recognized, along with changing consumer preference, is people don’t have time to prepare traditional meals. With that in mind, we set out on a course of making potatoes more convenient and keeping them shelf stable. We had to get into the convenience sector in order to keep potatoes relevant and part of the meal occasion.”

As people seek potatoes in a specific area in the grocery store and look for potatoes in potato sections, David says there is concern that convenience products, such as pre-cut and refrigerated potato products, can get lost when consumers are making the decision on where to buy potatoes in the store.

“What we found is if we can keep [potatoes] convenient and shelf stable, they need to be merchandized with other fresh potatoes,” he says.

Working with their marketing company, Fresh Solutions Network, and using the Side Delights label, the Massers and their partners offer several convenience products to consumers. Which ones are the most popular? David is quick to say Steamables.

The Fresh Solutions Network has a microwavable 1.5-pound bag of potatoes called Steamables that is the No. 1 selling convenience, shelf-stable, ready-to-eat product on the market, he says.

Maintaining A Presence
As the market is constantly changing, what is next for the Massers? According to Julie, the main focus will continue with the farm’s presence in the industry — and grow. Plans for the Halifax facility will be fleshed out, allowing the farm and its partners to offer additional products.

Plus, with the succession plan in place, the stage is set for the future, Keith adds. “We have relevance in our location to the marketplace with food miles so we want to strengthen our relevance and differentiate ourselves in the marketplace. We have to be flexible and be a good citizen to the environment, our customers, our employees, and our community.

“We need to continue to grow as our customers grow and as consolidation takes place,” he adds. “We need to be able to react and maintain our presence in the marketplace. We know that will require us to become more efficient. So our plans for the next year will be to become more efficient and be a more nimble organization.”

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