Thursday, August 4, 2016

Too Hot for Workers in the Vineyards? Need Help Finding Farm Labor? There May Be an App for That

This week, I battled triple digit heat to drive to Fresno, equipped with only an aging air conditioner in  my vintage Mazda Miata (a 1991 Limited Edition in the coveted British racing green color). My one thought was how to escape the heat.

As I whizzed along Highway 99 heading to the Grape Day event at Fresno State, I could see a few people in the fields. Harvest has begun in the great Central Valley.

And at harvest, lots of workers come into the field.

My thoughts returned to an app I heard about a few weeks ago, when I visited the California State Fair July 17 to see the Apps for Ag finals.

The app - called Sense and Protect - was part of the Apps for Ag project, that offered students hackathon support and cash prizes to create mobile apps that help farmers and communities get better results.

The competition was supported by the USDA and California's UCANR.

The 4 judges in the competition gave second place to the app Sense and Protect, which was inspired by computer science student, Alejandro "Alex" Avalos, from Coalinga.

Avalos and his teammates developed the app to protect farmworkers from heatstroke and, in equal measure, to protect growers from claims that they did not take measures to protect workers from heatstroke.

Using the app, when temperatures rise to a certain point (which can be detected on a sensor in the field where workers are working), a farm manager can text all of its workers in the field, and let them know it's time to take a break, where to find water and where shade structures are located.

Avalos started working in the fields when he was in his teens, about the same time that he started to learn how to code. His family migrated here from Guadalajara when he was 10.

Sense and Protect team at California State Fair; Avalos is second from the right

In 2015, in a U.C. Davis hackathon, held at AgStart, Avalos and his team there developed another app - Ag for Hire - that functions like Task Rabbit or LinkedIn, connecting laborers with jobs. Farmers can post jobs and laborers can match their availability to the job times and places.

They won first place in the U.C. Davis competition which led to a trip to Switzerland to compete in the international Thought for Food Global Challenge competition, placing in the top 10 from thousands of entries from around the world.

They didn't win, but their app went live online this week. It will soon be available on smart phones. Avalos says it will mean farmworkers won't just randomly have to appear at a Chevron station, for instance, and wonder if random work will appear. "Most of the farmworkers have smart phones," he said.

ABC30 in Fresno did this piece about the Ag for Hire app. The embed code isn't working for Google's Blogger, so click on the link to see it.

You can learn more about the UCANR and USDA Apps for Ag competition here:

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