Posted: October 24, 2017

Agribusiness management students are working with Sterman Masser Potato Farms to help Pennsylvania’s largest potato producer reach beyond the bag with new, convenient potato products.

Agribusiness students studied Sterman Masser's supply chain to help the company create new products, in a real-world case study. (Photo by Sarah Giegerich)

Agribusiness students studied Sterman Masser's supply chain to help the company create new products, in a real-world case study. (Photo by Sarah Giegerich)

Sterman Masser, Pennsylvania's largest potato producer, knows consumers aren't reaching for 5- and 10-pound bags of raw potatoes like they used to.

Growing its business means adding more new and convenient products, so it's eyeing a new spot in the grocery store's produce department: the ready-to-eat, pre-cut fruits and vegetable section.

The national supplier is building upon its history of innovation to solve several problems. For one, cut potato flesh browns in 10 days -- a fraction of the shelf-life of a raw, whole potato.

Students at Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences are working on finding solutions to that problem, plus the challenge of winning consumers over to a new product.

About 75 Penn State agribusiness students visited the company's potato distribution facility near Sacramento, Pa., and Keystone Potato Products, in Hegins. Sterman Masser processes potatoes into ready-to-use products like its Side Delights® Steamables™ line of triple-washed and pre-cut potatoes, available in seven varieties and sold in 1.5 pound, microwaveable pouches.

'Real-World Case Study'

Sterman Masser VP and CFO Julie Masser Ballay, who leads Sterman Masser Potato Farms with David Masser, tours students through the processing facility as student Aaron Wolfe looks on. (Photo by Sarah Giegerich)

After the tour, student Kayli Kumanchik, a senior agribusiness management major, was thinking about trendy flavor profiles for new products and the healthy profit margins that could be made from convenience-based food products.

Jared Rice, a senior agribusiness management major, was impressed that the business was family-owned and by the sheer size of the operation and each facility. "Seeing that in person was pretty cool," said Rice. The Keystone facility can produce 8,000 pounds of finished product per hour.

"Getting students out on a real-world case study allows them to see how companies execute against their goals and strategies to stay relevant in a constantly changing consumer environment," said Dr. Dan Azzara, director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program at the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"The students saw examples of how Sterman Masser is innovating to bring new, more convenient products to market and to protect the environment and save on energy use."

The Keystone processing facility is a zero-waste enterprise. It, for example, converts methane from a nearby landfill to produce its own power and operates its own water treatment facility.

Keystone General Manager Glenn Wiest briefs students on the various products made at the Keystone Potato Processing Facility. (Photo by Sarah Giegerich)

Field to Plate: Crash Course in Potatoes

For their agribusiness management assignment, students gathered information on potato growing and storage, Sterman Masser's supply chain, and the company's existing lineup of value-added potato products, including A Cut Above® fresh-cut, low-water potatoes sold ready-to-bake into potato wedges, oven fries and chips.

Students were surprised to learn Sterman Masser sources potatoes from outside of Pennsylvania, and that it handles 20 different varieties of potatoes. The company grows 10 percent of its potatoes, and sources from East Coast states from Florida to Maine, Michigan, plus Oregon and Washington.

Sterman Masser farms 6,000 acres. Its potato packaging and warehouse operations pack and distribute more than 350 million pounds of potatoes each year.

Innovation Throughout a Traditional Business

For Dr. Richard Roush, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, the day-trip was a goal realized. He has been eager to demonstrate to students how a traditional business can innovate to be a leader in its category.

Innovation doesn't always mean a "home run" or "gee whiz" invention, said Roush. "Innovation can be an integration of many things," said Roush. "Everything there has been used somewhere else, but the Masser family spotted it, put it to use and put many innovative things together in one facility, in one very traditional business."

Keith Masser, (right) Sterman Masser chairman and CEO, and College of Agricultural Sciences Dean Dr. Richard Roush (left) show students a 12-row potato harvester called Spudnik. (Photo by Sarah Giegerich)

Focusing on innovation is one of the college's strategic goals, along with helping students to think like and consider becoming entrepreneurs -- regardless of whether they own the company. Students can take entrepreneurship and agribusiness classes and tap other resources like pitch competitions and mentoring through the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program.

Aboard the "spud bus," students learned about growing and handling potatoes from Dr. Barb Christ, an expert in potato breeding and disease management known informally as the "spud lady" and officially as the college's special assistant to the deans and as former interim dean of the college and former head of the Department of Plant Pathology.

Potatoes were grown throughout Pennsylvania in 1910. Potato production in other states expanded as producers added irrigation systems. Now, Pennsylvania is within the top 15 potato-producing states. The state is number one in processing potatoes for snack food and chip processing. Sterman Masser was one of the first growers to use pivot irrigation on potato crops.

Sterman Masser Chairman and CEO and Penn State Trustee Keith Masser, explains the innovative Spudnik machine that can gently harvest 12 rows at a time. (Photo by Sarah Giegerich)

Explaining this in a classroom wouldn't be nearly as valuable as showing students in person, said Roush, adding: "Let's get them out."

Out they went, starting in a potato field.

Students also saw a machine called "Spudnik" that could gently dig potatoes from the field 12 rows at a time, and met Keith Masser, company chairman and CEO.

Sterman Masser workers trail Spudnik, the company's innovative potato harvester that can gently dig 12 rows of potatoes at a time. (Photo by Sarah Giegerich)

Students asked many questions throughout the day of company principals and owners, members of the Masser Family.

Masser, the former president, is the son of founder Sterman Masser. Keith Masser, a member of Penn State's Board of Trustees, and the board's former chairman, graduated Penn State in 1973 with a B.S. in Agricultural Engineering.

Helen Masser served as chief financial officer. Their children now lead the company. David Masser is president and Julie Masser Ballay is VP and Chief Financial Officer.

The Masser family hosted students for a lunch buffet that included two tasty dishes that use fresh-cut potatoes -- a potato salad with bacon and cranberries, and clam chowder.

"We're trying to take potatoes to that next level and stay relevant," said Dave Masser, also a College of Ag Sciences alumnus. The ten-pound bag of potatoes is fading fast as people gravitate to smaller amounts, a shift confirmed by the students who think of 10-pound bags as something their parents buy. Wal-Mart is also moving from 10-pound to five-pound bags, said Masser.

Suppliers are trying to appeal to Millennials and the next generation behind them, said Masser, with quick, easy-to-prepare products. The goal is to take the knife out of the equation, so the purchased potato can go from the refrigerator to the skillet, said Masser.

Attracting and retaining good talent and employees is key for the company, too, said Masser, who encouraged students to visit the company during the College of Agricultural Sciences' upcoming career fair. "The good thing about a PSU degree in ag is that you will have a job when you leave there," he said.

Facing a real challenge is key to preparing students for career success, said Dr. Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneurship and Innovation Faculty Scholar and Entrepreneurship Coordinator at the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"This mirrors the work students are going to do," said Gagnon.

Stay tuned as students tackle the problems Sterman Masser faces as it works to bring new, innovative products to market. Follow the students' work on Facebook (@psuaginnovation), the Entrepreneurship and Innovation website or email to join the program mailing list and receive regular updates.