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How to think about farm labor: an app

Last week I set out some of the basic requirements for a solution to the farm labor issue. This week I will look at one possible solution.

We live in the Age of the App, so anyone looking for an answer to a problem of any kind is going to imagine an app for it. You can use Uber and Lyft to connect with someone who can give you a ride (for pay, of course). Why couldn’t the same thing work for farm labor?

A grower could post the kind of work available, dates and hours needed, and pay and benefits. A worker could list skills, availability, referrals, and (of course) residency status. A PayPal-like feature could even handle payments.

As it happens, I’m not the first one to have thought of this idea. There actually are farm labor apps. How about FarmHand? You sign up either as “Farm Owner” or “Farmhand,” and you can post or look up jobs that suit your requirements either as worker or employer.

The AgButler site says, “Similar to ‘ride-sharing’ technology, our system allows farmers, ranchers and/or agribusinesses to connect with available laborers filtered by location, ratings, work experience and availability. All done within a secure payment structure organized in the app.”

According to Successful Farming, the app should be operating by late summer or early fall 2020.

Then there’s HitchPin, which, says High Plains Journal, “could change the farm labor game.” But the site suggests that the app is geared more toward farm equipment rental and hay sales.

In fact, all of the apps listed above are geared toward the biggest agricultural sectors: big commodities such as corn, soybeans, and hay, and regionally toward the Midwest. Produce growers don’t feature on these apps’ websites.

Even so, there is no reason in principle that a comprehensive, well designed app couldn’t attain the wide reach of the ride sharing services.

Do enough farm laborers own smartphones to make this possible? Although it’s hard to find statistics for farm workers specifically, probably the vast majority of them do. A 2019 study showed rates of smartphone ownership of 79 percent among Hispanics, 71 percent among the rural population, and 71 percent among those earning $30,000 a year or less (). We can assume that at least a majority of farmworkers own a smartphone. If it became a major tool for finding employment, the rate would no doubt increase.

So, in principle a smartphone could make the farm labor market far more efficient and productive for all concerned.

Of course, there’s one problem. An app like this would be a treasure trove of information for immigration officials (who would make it their business to get access to it), meaning that no illegal worker with any sense would want to touch it.

Now we enter extremely touchy territory. Of course, an enormous amount of illegal labor is used in the produce sector.

Today, in the age of the coronavirus, these workers have the paradoxical state of being officially deemed both illegal and essential. In March, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency announced that it would focus on “enforcement on public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.”

For everybody else, it will “exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions.”

It seems that, for farm labor as for so many other issues, the virus is forcing the nation to make choices and decisions that it has avoided for generations.

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 11 books.