Agriculture

Valley student’s hackathon project becomes LinkedIn for ag

App connects farmers, farmworkers

Students from West Hills College's Farm for the Future program have developed an employment app that will help link farmers with available workers.
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Students from West Hills College's Farm for the Future program have developed an employment app that will help link farmers with available workers.

Alejandro “Alex” Avalos started working in the fields of western Fresno County around the same time he was learning to code.

So when Avalos, a computer science student at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, joined a team of like-minded students at a “hackathon” competition last December at UC Davis, it seemed only natural to merge the worlds of coding and harvesting.

Avalos’ team decided to build a platform for growers and laborers to communicate and connect, especially during busy harvesting seasons. They called their app Ag For Hire, describing it as the “LinkedIn for the ag labor market.”

They won first place.

As part of the prize, the group went to the Thought For Food Global Challenge summit in Zurich, Switzerland, and was honored as one of 10 finalists. The summit invited hundreds of people from around the world to share their ideas on how to efficiently feed more than 9 billion people by 2050. Although they did not take top honors in Zurich, they did return home with high hopes.

Now, they’re trying to turn their app into a profitable business to help the agriculture industry meet its labor needs by bringing farmers and workers together.

Since starting on the project, the group has opened an office near UC Davis in Woodland, provided by AgStart – an incubator for startups like Ag For Hire. And, they’re planning to launch the online service on July 15.

Like Tinder or Uber, Ag For Hire connects users with their perfect matches – except instead of getting a date or a ride, those who sign up are looking for job opportunities in agriculture.

Put simply, it works like a labor contractor or temp agency by providing an online platform for farmers and laborers to create profiles, post and search for jobs and, ultimately, fulfill the needs of the agricultural community.

“I’ve seen people struggle to find jobs,” Avalos said. “And small farms, especially, rely on their family and friends to work the land.”

The 18-year-old discovered an interest in combining tech and ag at a young age, and took his first web design class during his sophomore year of high school. Avalos emigrated with his family from Guadalajara, Mexico, when he was 10, and has firsthand experience working in the central San Joaquin Valley’s agriculture industry. He said he started working in fields in his early teens, which gave him valuable insight into what the market was lacking.

Avalos’ curiosity and perspectives helped him to take on Ag For Hire as a welcome challenge. For him, the value of bringing this technology to the industry is giving more people the opportunity to find work and run efficient businesses.

Avalos and his teammates aspired to make it easier for those in need of a job to connect with growers looking for help. During large harvests or labor shortages, food can often go unpicked, which not only hurts farmers, but the community in general.

Growers and laborers can start using the service online at AgForHire.com in about a week, but the mobile app will be available for download from the iTunes and Google Play stores later in the summer. The team is working on supporting multilingual communication in order to appeal to a more diverse background of users.

“Its a win-win for both sides,” Avalos said. “We’re trying to make everything easier for them.”

It’s free to sign up and create an account for both growers and laborers, but the developers hope to eventually offer premium features for a price. Eventually, the app is expected to allow farmers to find, hire, manage and pay workers, CEO and co-founder Joshua Brown said. The goal is to roll out updates every two weeks after the launch in order to work out bugs, make changes based on feedback and offer new features, he said.

Clint Cowden, Farm of the Future director at West Hills College, was the professor who encouraged Avalos to attend the hackathon that begot Ag For Hire. He said he saw Avalos’ curiosity and experience as unique and recognized the potential awaiting his student at the intersection of tech and farming.

“He was able to come in with a very different perspective,” Cowden said. “He can sit and talk to the growers and then go sit and talk to the coders.”

He’s a young guy who’s bilingual, not just in English and Spanish but also in agriculture and technology.

Clint Cowden, director of Farm of the Future at West Hills College Coalinga

Cowden’s excitement for Ag For Hire is twofold: Although he is proud of Avalos’ success so far, he also sees the app as a positive way to revolutionize the labor market.

“It could change the market,” he said. “It’s Uber-esque. That’s Americana at work – looking at things with a different lens. Where we see frustration, these kids see solutions.”

As taxi companies have done with Uber, farm labor contractors may push back against the service because it cuts out the middle man, Cowden said. The ability to leave reviews of specific experiences and people is beneficial for everyone, he said, and having skills and certifications listed upfront would maximize efficiency.

At Farm of the Future, he said, using labor contractors has posed challenges when fewer workers show up than are expected or lack the skills needed to complete crop-specific tasks. In Cowden’s opinion, the app’s ability to highlight specific skills could be a solution.

The Ag For Hire developers said they plan to update the app to automate and simplify hiring and compliance work. Brown explained that many of Ag For Hire’s services will be the same as those offered by labor contractors.

Joe Del Bosque, who farms melons, asparagus and almonds on the Valley’s west side and acts as a labor contractor, agreed the app could be beneficial to the region. He said it can be difficult to reach workers, and he often used word of mouth to find laborers. But he doubted farm labor contractors would become obsolete.

“Usually when a farmer needs a crew, he needs them in a hurry, and he needs to make sure he’s got the right number of people for it,” Del Bosque said. “The contractor has the knowledge of labor laws, and a lot of small farmers don’t have that.”

For on-demand work, Del Bosque sees contractors as the sure way to get the labor required for a job, without the uncertainty of whether a worker will respond to posts. However, he said he thought the idea was smart, especially with the large number of workers he sees using smartphones.

“A lot of workers are pretty mobile-friendly,” he said. “They do texting and use social media. As smartphones are becoming more affordable, a lot of these folks are embracing that, especially young people.”

At some point, Ag For Hire hopes to form partnerships to provide more workers with smartphones in order to use the app and find work, Brown said. However, for now, the group is targeting laborers who already own a smartphone and can use social networking apps, such as Facebook.

The Ag For Hire team has done more than 100 interviews, as well as several unofficial polls to gauge interest and take suggestions, and has found many laborers do have access to devices where Ag For Hire could be used, Brown said.

For a small farmer who needs a tractor driver, this could be really helpful.

Joe Del Bosque, owner of Empresas Del Bosque

Avalos has been focusing on getting the app into the community. His hope is that he can continue growing the app while he finishes his associate’s degree in 2017 and then transfer to UC Davis to keep studying computer science.

“All the people that I talk to on both sides think it’s something unique,” Avalos said. “And here we are, after meeting at the hackathon and 36 hours of building an idea, we’re able to finally get it out there and into these people’s lives.”

Sydney Maki: 559-441-6141, @symmaki

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