Growing a legacy on the vine
Greg Pruett leads one of the nation’s largest tomato processors, continuing a family legacy passed down for generations.
Stretching from the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles to Sacramento, the soil and climate of California’s San Joaquin Valley make it the perfect location for growing tomatoes. And that’s exactly what Greg Pruett and family have been doing for almost 50 years.
As president of Vaquero Farms and CEO of Ingomar Packing, the processing company owned by Vaquero Farms, Pruett oversees companies supplying more than 100 business customers worldwide with the tomato products they use to make everything from pastas and sauces to ketchup, soups, and drinks for consumers.
“If it’s got a tomato in it, chances are it came from us,” said Pruett.
Pruett’s family legacy dates back to 1920.
That’s when Francisco and Anna Sousa (the family name became Souza in the U.S.) put their 15-year-old son, Louis (Pruett’s grandfather), on the SS Britannia bound from the Azores to America and for what they hoped would be a better life.
Souza made his way west to California from the Rhode Island port where the ship docked. He started with nothing, milking cows and butchering and selling meat to get by, until he met Pruett’s grandmother, Josephine Pimentel, whose family raised sheep in the East Bay coastal range. After they married, Souza and his wife Josephine, along with his mother-in-law Annie Pimentel, bought 2,950 acres of ranchland, switched from raising sheep to cattle, and the Vaquero Farms legacy was born.
Pruett’s father and uncle kept the business going, eventually shifting focus from cattle ranching into farming and tomatoes in the late 1960s — establishing Vaquero Farms as a tomato grower in 1967. The creation of Ingomar Packing in 1983 in Los Banos, California, enabled the business to grow more tomatoes and begin processing the harvested fruit and packing and selling the diced tomatoes and tomato paste to customers.
When a government reclamation project forced the sale of much of the land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in 1973, Lou Souza, Pruett’s uncle, put his financial life on the line and took out a loan from Crocker Bank, now Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., to buy an additional 3,000 acres.
“He borrowed every dime he could,” Pruett said. “He knew the land was very fertile and the price extremely attractive. It’s proven to be an incredible investment for our family.”
Today, Vaquero Farms operates two ranches in Dos Palos, California, and Firebaugh, California. They planted a total of about 3,600 acres of tomatoes in 2018 — the average tomato grower in California planted just over 1,000 acres.
Short season, long relationship
The tomato season is short — from July through October each year — which makes fall Pruett’s favorite time of the year. He loves devising military battle-like plans for how best to plant, grow, harvest, and process tomatoes in such a short window of time.
“We have 90 days to get it right,” said Pruett, who loves tomatoes for their taste and adaptability to various foods, forms, and recipes. “The energy that goes into the 90 days is incredible. Fortunately, we have a lot of very good people working for us with the same attitude about getting it right. Every day is critical, and every hour is critical since you only get one shot.”
With the stakes so high, Pruett is glad to have the support of Wells Fargo, and particularly banker Dana Swanson of Wells Fargo Middle Market Banking and wealth advisor Denise Alexander of Wells Fargo Wealth Management.
“Wells Fargo has helped us be successful in many ways,” Greg Pruett said. “They’ve stayed with us in the good times and bad times.”
In addition to providing services like a flexible line of credit, foreign currency trading, interest rate hedging, equipment leasing, and insurance, Wells Fargo has helped Pruett establish a plan for passing the family business to the next generation. A wealth plan, family history, and financial education will help Pruett’s son, R. Greg Pruett, and nephew, Patrick Taddeucci, one day assume the reins, grow the business, preserve its assets, and continue the family legacy.
“Our approach will always remain the same,” Swanson said, “and that is to be a proactive provider of financial solutions to our customers.”
Added Alexander, “What we’ve brought to the table is the ability to address the full spectrum of needs Ingomar and Vaquero have as businesses, and that the Pruett and Souza descendants have as a family.”
R. Greg Pruett said the family business was always in his blood. He recently earned an MBA in agribusiness from Santa Clara University, and now works alongside his dad as Ingomar’s customer account supervisor.
“I remember touring the farms and plant as a little kid always kind of mystified at all my dad did,” he said. “I could always see that it just wasn’t another job for him. My purpose in this life is to carry it forward and hopefully extend and broaden my family’s legacy.”
For Greg Pruett, the family’s business is its heritage.
“My grandfather and uncle were risk takers in a good way,” Pruett said. “They worked very hard, were extremely dedicated, and were willing to put what they had on the line to grow the business and set an example for us to follow.
“I’ve been blessed to inherit the foundation upon which to grow our business, and, with our employees and Wells Fargo’s help, successfully pass it on to the next generation.”
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