FROM A LONE MAN IN GENOA, ITALY, to an annual production of three and a half million boxes of tomatoes, 100 years has translated into a whirlwind of growth and an array of special landmarks for Agrícola Santa Teresa of Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico. As one of Mexico’s first woman-run businesses under Vita Podesta and an integral part of creating the Giumarra Companies’ Nogales sales division during its 45-year tenure as a tomato grower-partner, peeling back the curtain on the company’s long history offers a rare look into the ever-changing landscape of Mexico’s produce industry. As Giumarra helps Santa Teresa celebrate its centennial, let’s peer into the very roots of what helped both companies achieve success in this area of our industry that has not been without its share of hardships.
IT ALL STARTED IN A LITTLE PLACE CALLED GENOA. While known for its salami, it was a passion for produce that ended up developing out of this port town in Italy. With the larger political landscape in Italy facing uncertainty and unrest as the 18th century began to transform into the next, Julio Podesta Sambuceti made the decision to immigrate to San Francisco, California, in search of new opportunity. While that opportunity was initially presented in the form of window washing for his uncle, Julio stumbled upon what would eventually become the trade he would dedicate his life to—selling fruits and vegetables.
After experiencing some success selling fruits and vegetables to local restaurants and hotels in San Francisco, Julio heard from family friends in Mexico that the country was a burgeoning hub for the produce industry. With the pulls of copious amounts of land, a gorgeous climate, and a strong labor force, Julio decided to move to the state of Sinaloa, Mexico.
The company that would one day become Santa Teresa finally settled into its roots when Julio rented a small parcel of land from Sinaloa Land Company in 1917. After marrying María Natalia Reyes Medina in 1925 and welcoming four children—Blanca, Vita, Adahilia, and María Teresa—it became clear that Culiacán would become not just the home of his blossoming business aspirations, but also a home for his family legacy.
Soon after his marriage, Julio purchased 150 hectares (around 370 acres) of his own land in 1926, beginning with a crop of tomatoes, bell peppers, cantaloupe, and watermelon. However, those who have been reading up on the history of Mexican land reform might know what’s coming next. As a result of Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas’ increasingly strict land reform restrictions, all but 50 hectares of Julio’s land were expropriated. As a result of efforts by Cárdenas, as many as 45 million acres of land were redistributed from their original owners.
Despite this setback, he continued to grow on those 50 essential hectares until he earned the money to purchase another four lots of 100 hectares, each in the Batauto region. Batauto was a newly-irrigated region of Mexican farmland in the 1950s, and was also one that the Mexican government had a vigilant eye on. Mexican law at the time stated the government could not confiscate anything less than 100 hectares, so, in a stroke of genius, Julio put each of his four lots under the name of one of his daughters.
“It is an honor to continue the legacy my grandfather started,” Enrique Podesta, the company’s current leader shared with me when I asked him how he felt about following his grandfather’s legacy. “He approached change and adversity head on, and his perseverance and commitment to innovation has become the backbone of our company philosophy.”
As Julio’s business began to ramp up, he developed his first label, Las Delicias, or in English, “The Delights.” The prominent Santa Teresa label, that company legend tells was named after Julio’sgrandmother, was not developed until the 1950s or 60s, but quickly garnered enough success to persuade the company to adopt the moniker as its namesake.
SO, YOU MAY BE ASKING YOURSELF, “Where does Giumarra come into play during Santa Teresa’s storied history?” The tale is actually intertwined with that of one of Mexico’s first woman-managed companies, not only in produce, but nationwide. In 1968, Julio’s daughter, Elva “Vita” Carlota Podesta, took Santa Teresa’s reins from her father. A sharp business woman, she organized a meeting with Don Corsaro, then President of the Giumarra Companies, in 1971—right when the company was in the throes of a rapid expansion period for its import program. Don, a pioneer behind many of Giumarra’s key business decisions, saw an excellent opportunity to get in on the ground floor of Mexico’s still growing industry, and created a business partnership with Vita that would rage on for the next 45 years.
“For a woman in Mexico to be the head of a business at that time was unheardof,” sharesDon Corsaro, now Chairman of the Giumarra Companies. “But Vita was tough. She aligned with some very prominent people in Culiacán who really respected her, and she worked on the packing line sorting tomatoes herself until 10 o’clock at night.”
It was assuredly that toughness and sense of work ethic that brought the companies’ mutual success over the years. The partnership between Giumarra and the Podesta family led to the opening of Giumarra’s Nogales sales division in 1971. While Julio Podesta passed away soon after in 1973, Vita’s nephews, Enrique, Sergio, and Jaime Lopez Podesta became involved with the business in the 1980s.
“Vita managed Santa Teresa during a time of rapid growth, and we would not be the company we are today without her leadership,” shared Enrique when I asked him about what it was like working under his aunt’s powerful presence.
And these shifts in leadership have not slowed Santa Teresa’s progress as a growing force within the industry. Enrique seemed to have inherited that industrious gene from his grandfather and aunt. During the 1970s and 80s, tomato producers in the U.S. began to gain market share from ever-growing fast food chains, like McDonald’s andWendy’s, by making the switch from vine-ripe to mature green tomatoes. Our friend Enrique was able to foresee this opportunity as one that fit in perfectly with the company’s strategy.
“Switching to mature greens is probably why Santa Teresa is still in business today,” explains Bill Clausen, Executive Vice President of the Giumarra Companies. “Enrique also facilitated the construction of two gassing facilities—one in Mexico and one in Nogales—to manage ripening and maintain excellent quality at a time when Mexico was competing heavily with U.S.-grown tomatoes.”
Enrique officially took over management of Santa Teresa from Vita in 2006, which he still runs today.
100 YEARS LATER, the passion for produce is still there in the very fiber of Santa Teresa. The company’s present-day production of mature green tomatoes is more than 3.5 million boxes, a staggering jump from its 1980s production of 800,000 boxes annually. Each and every mature green tomato the company sells is then brought to market in the United States, in part through partnerships with not only Giumarra, but also national chains like SUBWAY®.
“We are thrilled to help usher in a new chapter of continued success and quality with our partners and extended family at Santa Teresa,” says John Corsaro, CEO of the Giumarra Companies. Stay tuned for an eye-catching Santa Teresa 100 Year Anniversary seal on each box of product sold during this centennial year.
As Giumarra approaches its own centennial in 2022, what other strengths and surprises will this duo have in store for tomato lovers across the U.S.? I think it’s safe to say the trailblazing won’t stop here.