Salvador Moreno Jr. says the only business model that comes close to his family’s work in commercial farming is gambling.
We’re speaking in the office of SMM Farm, the 40-acre farm established by Moreno’s father, Salvador Moreno Sr., in Hayesville, North Carolina, in 2004. When we meet it’s a blustery January day with temperatures in the 30s, and our masks feel more like a piece of performance wear than protective gear. The office, though, is comfortable and toasty. Old calendars, pictures of family and friends and several photos of Ronald Reagan are tacked up on the walls.
Lying in the far western corner of the state, Hayesville is just minutes from the Georgia border. To enter the SMM property, which abuts the Hiwasee River on a stretch of prime bottomland, you have to pass a solar farm and a Sons of Confederate Veterans lodge, an arresting juxtaposition of the region’s past and potential future. The farm focuses on growing regional staples: tomatoes, lettuce, squash, peppers, corn, green beans and strawberries.
Despite the wintry feeling, Salvador Jr. explains, it still doesn’t get cold for long enough to have much of an impact on the farm’s most recent scourge: stinkbugs. Because of shorter, warmer winters, they’ve come to replace ladybugs as the farm’s most annoying pest, but they’re much harder to get rid of.
It’s yet another challenge in a seemingly infinite list of them. There’s also the occasional flooding from the Hiwasee, the rising cost of farmland and the exhausting, middle-of-the-night ritual for cultivating strawberry blooms that Salvador Jr. describes by bringing up the Geneva Convention Against Torture.
Still, Salvador Jr., who is 34, says he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “Something kind of keeps calling me back…Either I love it, or it’s just Stockholm Syndrome. This is not a getting rich kind of job.”
That may certainly be true, but SMM arguably has other merits, apart from contributing to the region’s food supply. It’s a testament to the Moreno family’s multigenerational achievement, as well as Salvador Sr.’s decades of hard work.
He grew up farming in Guanajuato, Mexico, two hours northwest of Mexico City, and came to the U.S. in 1977, traveling to Florida to pick oranges. In 1985, he met his wife, Jesus, who had arrived from Michoacán, a state that borders Mexico’s Pacific coast. The following year, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. It made hiring illegal immigrants against the law in the U.S., but also granted amnesty and permanent resident status to undocumented immigrants who had arrived before 1982, like Salvador Sr. and Jesus. The photos of Reagan in the farm office are a tribute to this.
“My dad loves America. [It] absolutely has given him the biggest chance that he’s ever had, more of a chance than he’d ever have down in Mexico,” says Salvador Jr. “If you think about it, there’s a lot of people that work themselves to death out here. But because you’re not born here, they’ll never really have a chance to be anything other than wherever they’re at. I think that’s why he’s got that picture.”
In the early ‘90s, Salvador Sr. started traveling to Western North Carolina from Florida to manage crews of tomato harvesters. In 1994, he, Jesus, Salvador Jr. and his youngest son, Gerardo, settled in Whittier, just outside Bryson City, a popular base for exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Salvador Sr. and Jesus became U.S. citizens in 2002.
Wherever the Morenos lived, Salvador Jr. was always involved in farming in one way or another. “They’ve got pictures of me in tomato boxes,” he says.
Salvador Sr. liked Western North Carolina, but wanted more than managing crews on other people’s farms. So in 2004 when a friend told him that he knew about a plot in Hayesville available to rent, Salvador Sr. immediately contacted the owner, who agreed to lease it. For the first two years, he traveled back and forth between the towns, a three-hour round trip. In 2006, he moved the family to Hayesville.
With his founding of SMM Farm in 2004, Salvador Sr. joined an increasingly rare club in Appalachia: farm owner. That year there were 52,000 farms in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; by 2020, that figure had decreased to 46,000. On top of that, his beginnings as a migrant farm worker made his path that much more notable. According to the nonprofit NC Farmworkers Project, the average annual income of farmworkers in the U.S. is $11,000 a year. For families, it’s $16,000.
In addition to the usual challenges of farming, Salvador Jr. says his father has also occasionally had to contend with stereotyping of varying degrees. One time, his dad and a (white) friend who did some work for him were in the office, “just straightening shelves and stuff like that. And a guy came down there wanting to talk to the owner. So he just bypassed my dad to talk to this country, good old guy.” His friend responded, “Why you asking me? That’s the owner,” and gestured in Salvador Sr.’s direction. The visitor looked at Salvador Sr. and responded, “Where is he, out in the field?”
Because of their comparatively large operation – especially for the mountains, where long, flat patches of land are scarce – SMM is considered a commercial farm, and most of their produce is sold to a single broker. After changing hands several times, their fruits and vegetables eventually end up in restaurants and grocery stores throughout the country. It works for now, says Salvador Jr.’s wife and SMM Farm manager, Alyssa Moreno, but they would like to become a direct supplier for a grocer in the future.
“You always have that dream of hitting that lucky moment and getting a big contract and you’re set. But we’re still waiting for that,” Alyssa says.
Their other core customer base is locals who come by the SMM farm stand, at the entrance to the property. At the peak of strawberry season, says Alyssa, cars often line up two abreast for hundreds of feet. One day last season, there were so many customers Alyssa says she felt like she was taking tickets at a too-crowded deli. “I was like, all right, number one, come pay up!” Between local customers and their wholesaler, they sold 3,000 gallons of strawberries that season — a “garbage” year, according to Salvador Jr.
Selling directly to customers isn’t without its quirks. Like other farmers in the region who do the same, a crucial part of their job involves explaining, patiently and repeatedly, why there are no tomatoes in May and will never be any bananas. “My running joke is the local monkeys ate them,” says Alyssa.
And then there’s the issue of being a commercial farm, a label that causes some to flinch. Though the farm applies many of the practices of certified organic agriculture, such as low-spray, integrated pest management, the term looms large in the minds of modern consumers.
“As soon as you say ‘commercial’ to someone who’s asking about organic, they won’t listen to another word you have to say. And this isn’t me being prejudiced against any of it. I mean, everyone’s welcome to their own beliefs. [But] if you want to grow a truly organic thing you need to grow it in your own backyard. And, you know, understand what that entails,” Alyssa says.
While Salvador Jr. grew up farming, he says he never felt pressured to enter the industry. His parents told him, “‘This is what we do, you do whatever you want to.’” But seven years ago, he decided he wanted to carry on the family business. Farming “is a Mexican family tradition,” he says. “The first son carries the weight of all that.”
Gerardo, the Morenos’ younger son, took a different track, literally and figuratively getting as far away from SMM as one possibly can; he lives in Oregon and works for Intel. “As a father, I feel a little sad, but at the same time, I feel good,” says Salvador Sr. of his youngest son’s decision. “This work is hard and it’s dirty.”
Over the years, each member of the family has had to adapt in various ways to help keep SMM running. Jesus is no longer involved with farming operations, but her new role is no less critical, says Salvador Jr. – watching his and Alyssa’s two sons, ages three and five. “It takes a village — a village of my mom.”
During the six months of the year they’re not actively farming, Alyssa and Salvador Jr. work at the brewery her parents own in nearby Murphy, the Valley River Brewery and Eatery. Alyssa bartends and Salvador Jr. brews. For one of their special-release beers, Ghost Farmer, he added in sweet corn, cucumbers and basil from the farm, topping it off with ghost peppers.
That second job may sound like fun, but it hints at an important reality for Salvador Jr.: In 2021, sustaining a family farm requires flexibility and an extremely diverse skill set.
In the past, “Your typical farmer or whatever, he was just a dude. You know, overalls and the pitchfork,” says Salvador Jr. “Honest truth is, that dude? He’s a hydrological engineer. Heavy machinery worker. He’s a plant pathologist. He’s a chemist. He’s a carpenter. He’s a welder. He has to be an inventor. All of those things.”
Salvador Jr., Salvador Sr. and Alyssa — they’re a little bit of all of those things. And maybe even gamblers, to boot.
Adam Rosen is a freelance writer and nonfiction book editor in Asheville. To learn more about him, visit www.adammrosen.com.
Translation services for this story were provided by Leo Esperanza of the Cenzontle Language Justice Cooperative.