I grew up in a family of migrant farm workers. Every spring, Dad would take the truck to the mechanic to make sure it was in good condition to make that 2,000-mile trip across the country to pick crops. I’d let my friends know when we were leaving, and when they could expect to see me again in the fall. I remember waking up to Mom yelling at us from downstairs to get up and get ready to go. We’d scramble out of bed, make sure we all went to the bathroom, and sit down for breakfast before heading out just before dawn.
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. 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.
Fast forward to today, and the story hasn’t changed. 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 farm worker family living in the back of a freezer truck because they couldn’t find housing. I’ve also 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 backyards.
The magnitude of this problem really hit me five years ago, as I was watching a documentary by U. Roberto Romano called The Harvest/La Cosecha. It 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 to them is no longer there. When I saw their expressions of desperation, concern, anger, and sadness, a light went off in my head.
I thought to myself, “It’s 2011 and I can download an app that helps me find the coolest coffee shop or the trendiest place to eat dinner. But If I’m a farm worker, traveling around trying to earn enough money to make it through the winter, and trying to find resources to meet my basic needs, word of mouth is the only thing available.” That’s when I made a promise to myself that I would do what I could to change that.
So, what is The Next Idea?
I began work on an app called Animo! – the “Yelp” for farm workers. It helps them find the resources they need as they travel picking crops. “Animo” is a word that used very often in the 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.
I’ve had encouragement and mentoring on this project from Linda Chamberlain, who leads the Technology Commercialization Office at GVSU. She also connected me with people who are working on the prototype and who helped me through the customer discovery phase of the business model. I’ve also met with the Great Lakes Ag-Tech Incubator out of West Olive. They have invited me to be part of their program. And we continue to look for additional funding sources to move the program along. It has been very exciting to see all these different pieces come together to support a population that contributes so much to Michigan’s agricultural industry.
If this app is successful, migrant farm workers will be able to maximize their earning potential. They will know where the nearest farm is when they are without work, or if a farm is experiencing down time. They will feel safer and more secure in new places, knowing that they have access to the health, social, educational, and legal resources they need.
Workers are not the only people to benefit from this app. Farmers will be able to promote their farms, and the available work, to a mobile workforce wherever they are in the country. They’ll be able to notify workers of crop conditions in real time, ensuring that their workforce is there when they need them. Farmers will not have to rely solely on third party recruiters, who usually charge the farmer for every person they recruit and an additional fee for every unit harvested by the worker.
Service providers can also benefit. They will be able to be more strategic with the money they spend on outreach, because farm workers will notify them when they arrive in an area. Other service providers will be able to increase their funding, as a result of an increase in the number of farm workers they’re serving, instead of having to repay unspent funds to the federal government.
It’s important to remember that Michigan’s agricultural industry relies on over 94,000 migrant farm workers to hand-harvest over 44 different crops every year. 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. By bringing the mobile workforce together with farmers who are struggling to fill the jobs, losses in the agricultural industry will be minimized. And more up-stream jobs will be created – specifically three for every farm worker – and farm workers will stay in Michigan longer if they know more jobs are available.
With an app like Animo!, Michigan’s migrant farm worker families will no longer have to rely on word of mouth, flyers, or unscrupulous contractors to locate work and shelter. They will feel safer and more secure traveling to Michigan knowing that they have the resources they need, and be less susceptible to labor trafficking and exploitation. They will be able to maximize the money they earn, and obtain the much-needed supportive services they require throughout the season. They’ll be able to share their experiences with other families and farm workers, so that the farmers who are doing great things for migrant families are never in short supply of help. Bringing all these groups together has never been done before. It’s the democratization of farm work!