by Steve Wagner
Recently the 2017 winners were announced for the Conservation Legacy Awards. One of them was Keith Masser of Sacramento, PA. The alert came from the American Soybean Association. The irony here is, though the congratulations came from ASA, Sterman-Masser is probably recognized more for their role in the potato industry. Keith Masser is traveling throughout various states, and so we chatted with Julie Masser Ballay, his daughter, who manages Sterman-Masser with her brother David Masser. “The company itself was incorporated in 1970,” she says, “by my grandfather (Sterman). We consider ourselves eighth generation farmers because once we immigrated to the United States, we were always involved in farming.”
The Masser family began farming in Pennsylvania when their family came from Germany in 1754. Today Sterman-Masser Inc. is the East Coast’s largest potato grower, packer, processor and shipper, handling more than 300 million pounds of potatoes a year. In addition to 1,000 acres of potatoes, the family grows 2,500 acres of corn and 1,000 acres of soybeans. Ballay says there is no division between farming and conservation; rather it is “all inclusive. If we are not observing sustainability of our farming and the conservation of our land, we wouldn’t be able to continue to farm.”
Keith implements a variety of practices on his farm to maintain soil health, including cover crops, no-till, and farming in contour strips, which is very important in the Appalachian region. The Masser family also protects the water quality of nearby mountain streams by adding buffers, waterways and filter strips as needed. “In the next 40 years, we have to feed twice as many people as we currently are feeding while our land base is going to remain unchanged,” Keith Masser stated to ASA. “We have to get more productive with the resources that we currently have in order to feed the people of the world.”
Addressing typical farm threats, which include the “what’s that smell?” mentality, whistle-blower journalists, and real estate encroachment, Julie Balley says those threats are not major. “We try to communicate as best we can with our neighbors. Because we’re doing crops we don’t often have to deal with the issues that plague livestock producers. But certainly when it comes to spraying or having to use a shared easement… we try to be as up front and as approachable as we can to maintain good relationships with neighbors.”
The Conservation Legacy Awards Program is a national program designed to recognize the outstanding environmental and conservation achievement of soybean farmers, which helps produce more sustainable U.S. soybeans. A national selection committee, composed of soybean farmers, conservationists, agronomists and natural resource professionals evaluated nominations based on each farmer’s environmental and economic program. The achievements of these farmers serve as a positive example for other farmers and helps produce a more sustainable U.S. soybean crop. This program is sponsored by ASA, BASF, Monsanto, Corn & Soybean Digest, the United Soybean Board/Soybean Checkoff, and Valent. Did the selection committee cite anything specific when selecting Sterman-Masser? “We think that some of the things that we’re doing in terms of our conservation efforts that made us stand out as a candidate were things like having a solar farm on our property. We also take our potatoes, the main crop, to be sold as table stock, with the off-grate going to our sister company which is a dehydration and fresh cut potato processing plant (Keystone Potato Products) where all but the peel in most cases is used. The peel waste of the potato is then sent for cattle feed,” in an all-out effort at waste minimalization. Balley says she is convinced this was a large component of what made the company stand out. The company tries to remain state-of-the-art with technology and farming practices such as using up-to-date conservation techniques, following their conservation plans, managing their balance sheets of nutrient management for those areas where they spread manure, taking regular soil samples to ensure soil stays in good health, following proper crop rotations and trialing new rotation crops. “This will be the first year we’ll be doing some canola rate seed to see how they do in disease reduction and soil health,” she added. This year they have also hired an agronomist on the staff to assist.
With the new Trump administration looking at what has been termed regulatory overreach by the Environmental Protection Agency, like Waters of the United Stated (WOTUS), has Sterman-Masser experienced any problems along those lines? “We haven’t had anything specific,” Balley says. “We try to maintain a good relationship with the local agencies to make sure we are in good standing with them. We did have concerns about WOTUS because of the rulings that could come out of it and what the implications might be for us. In conversations with the Farm Bureau and other groups we are a part of, we tried to make sure that they knew we were not supportive of whatever was being proposed. There seemed to be an amazing amount of lack of clarity about it.”
In 2013, Sterman-Masser Inc. purchased a 113,480 square foot facility in Halifax, PA to support their continued growth. This new facility will allow them to move receiving, storage, washing and packing operations all under one roof, increase climate controlled storage capacity, and provide expanded space for clean room operations in support of their fast-growing convenience product line. Today Sterman-Masser employs approximately 300 people in agricultural, packaging, logistics, sales, and customer service positions. The farming operations have expanded to a total of 4,600 acres, with potatoes, cash grain and hay being produced.