Apr 28, 2017
App to help migrant laborers connect with jobs

Finding and retaining laborers has become a top challenge for specialty crop growers throughout the country.

A west Michigan man hopes to streamline the recruiting process for growers – as well as provide farmworkers with information about local and regional resources once they do find work.

Feliciano Paredes of Belding, Michigan, is creating an app that is being called the “Yelp” of farmworkers.

Campesino SOS, which translates to Farmworker SOS, helps migrant and seasonal farmworkers connect with farmerswho need help, as well as clinics, legal aid and other services in the area. Paredes is calling the app “Animo!” It’s a word used often in farm fields.

“Workers will yell this at each other throughout the day as an encouragement to find the strength, will and energy to finish off the day’s work,” he said.

While a student in 2011 at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), Paredes began working on a prototype that “came about after I grew up as a farmworker myself.”

“I grew up in a family of migrant workers,” said Paredes, who frequently took 2,000-mile trips across the country to pick crops. “No matter how prepared we were, we faced many challenges as we went from state to state. We’d break down on the road, and because we weren’t familiar with what resources were available, we would end up spending a few nights in the truck until Dad could find help.

“It was common to arrive at farms only to find out that we didn’t have work, or that the labor camp was full,” Paredes said. “Basic health care and educational resources were also scarce. The transient nature of our work, our language and income, and the insecurity of not knowing the local area worked against us.

Paredes, who previously worked for the state of Michigan in talent recruitment and now is employed by Spectrum Health (his father is still employed on a farm in the Belding area), said little has changed for farmworkers over the years.

“I’ve talked to families who have searched up to three months to find local health services, only to learn that the help they needed was 10 minutes away. Or the farmworker family was living in the back of a freezer truck because they couldn’t find housing. I talked to workers who got injured on the job and simply left the work, because they thought they had no other alternatives. These scenarios are being played out year after year, right in our own back yards.”

Paredes said the magnitude of the problem became more evident after he viewed a documentary by U. Roberto Romano called “The Harvest/La Cosecha.” The film documents the plight of child migrant farm workers and their families.

“I was watching a scene where one of the families arrives at a rundown motel, only to find out that the work that was promised them is no longer there. When I saw their expressions of desperation, concern, anger and sadness, a light went off in my head.”

With the ability to download mobile apps to find a myriad of information at a user’s fingertips, Paredes was convinced an app could be developed to help farmworkers trying to travel around to make enough money to meet their basic needs, instead of word of mouth being the only thing available.

“That’s when I made a promise to myself that I would do what I could to change that,” he said.

Feliciano Paredes, creator of the Campesino SOS app, grew in a family of migrant workers. Photos: Feliciano Paredes

Student input

Linda Chamberlain, who leads the Technology Commercialization office at GVSU, has encouraged and mentored Paredes in pursuit of his project. She also connected him with computer science students and others who are working on the prototype, as well as leading him through the customer discovery phase of the business model.

“It’s a great opportunity for students and is a win-win,” she said. “We’ve coached him a little on product development and entrepreneurship, providing guidance of where to go in the community.

“I’m excited about the app,” Chamberlain said. “It bridges the gap in the market between unmet needs of growers who have crops that need to be taken from the field at the right time, and people who are looking for work. It becomes a communication model that provides the best method of direct contact.”

She said the app “provides the opportunity to find resources they need need right at their fingertips. This is a very high-value population that comes into our region, and we’re happy to have them here. They’re providing an invaluable service to be sure to conduct our local food harvest properly. It becomes a democratization of that industry – allowing the grower to be able to access people, and people to access growers.”

Chamberlain said development of the Campesino app is progressing. She anticipated Paredes would be able to take the app into the market this spring to gain feedback, with the possibility of a launch this crop season.

She said customer discovery work included discussions about security for the text-based model, in order to protect the information of users.

Paredes is working with ACRE AgTech, formerly Great Lakes AgTech Incubator in West Olive, Michigan, and is securing additional funding sources to move the program along.

“The most difficult part, once we’ve established that the need is there, is to get some funding support – monetizing it,” Paredes said. “Through the (GVSU) program, we’ve interviewed close to 60 potential users, farmworkers, service providers and a couple of growers. Across the board from the service providers, we’ve received an overwhelming response.”

“The Campesino app is a groundbreaking tool capable of improving communications between growers looking for workers and migrants looking for jobs,” said Teresa Hendricks, director/senior litigator for Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance.

Migrant families have to do a lot of logistical planning, scheduling and budgeting for their travel times between jobs and states.

“So long as the terms and conditions are properly disclosed and growers follow applicable laws, the addition of the app is a win-win for matching workers with jobs,” Hendricks said. “I can envision that the app has potential to include information and map services to clinics, schools and Michigan Works! offices closest to the migrants as they travel.”

Growers to benefit

Steve Klackle, owner of Klackle Orchards in Greenville, worked with Paredes through the state’s worker/picker recruitment program, and said he was “always impressed by his willingness to listen and then do what he could to help. He mentioned two or three years ago that he was working on an app.

A prototype page of the Campesino SOS app.

Although I haven’t seen it, the app seems like a good idea to me. Workers use their phones a lot. Sometimes, workers don’t have the time or transportation to get to some of the state agencies that might help them find work, contact growers, evaluate potential jobs, etc. And if (workers) are out of state, it’s sort of hard for them to think about coming here unless they call friends here and inquire. It seems like it would work for employers as well, posting up positions available and everything associated with the job.”

Paredes said his intent is for the bilingual app to have national applications.

“Part of the H-2A process is a requirement for growers to try to recruit U.S. and domestic workers,” Paredes said. “This would be another tool to use as part of their recruitment.

“Michigan’s agricultural industry relies on over 94,000 migrant farm workers to handharvest over 44 different crops every year,” Paredes said. “In 2014, we lost over $9 million in revenue due to a shortage in labor in the fruit industry alone. And millions of pounds of asparagus are being mowed every year due to this shortage.

“With Animo!, Michigan’s farmworker families will no longer have to rely on word of mouth, fliers or unscrupulous contractors to locate work and shelter,” Paredes said. “They will be able to maximize the money they earn, and obtain the much-needed supportive services they require throughout the season. Bringing these groups together has never been done before. It’s the democratization of farm work.”

For more information, email Paredes at [email protected].

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