WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Harvust, smart phone and computer software designed to help farms with their human resource needs, allows users to effectively manage field workers in light of state and federal COVID-19 distancing requirements.
Co-owner James Hall said that with Harvust workers can remotely attend a safety meeting by using an app on their phone in the field as opposed to meeting in a group with dozens of others.
“Farms using Harvust were already doing safety meetings remotely when essential workers were told it wasn’t good to gather in a group, ironically, for a safety meeting,” Hall said.
Within 48 hours of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 13 executive orders that expanded statewide closures of schools and limited large gatherings, Hall and business partner Riley Clubb uploaded COVID-19 safety information from OSHA and CDC to the Harvust platform.
Not only did Harvust have the information to their customers over the course of a weekend, it was in their hands before Inslee requested a federal major disaster declaration on March 20 and more than a month before the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries came out with its COVID-19 safety guidelines on April 16.
“We like to think we are doing our part in keeping people healthy,” Hall said. “So much relies on education and altering behavior as a society. The employer can demonstrate he is taking it seriously while looking into the future and the safety of future workers. We want to help employers, in the long run, maintain a good workforce.”
Hall said the app is a human resource tool like Quickbooks is for accountants — an easy-to-use program that allows farmworkers to fill out their hiring paperwork, read and sign-off on policies and procedures and attend training, all from their phones.
“It’s a big help when a farm is onboarding new hires, like 200 cherry pickers all at once,” Hall said.
Harvust distributes training information in several ways — via verbiage in the worker’s preferred language or as an audio translation so those who struggle with literacy are not left behind.
Hall said, “Imagine trying to get 20 to 30 people to stop what they are doing, come into the shop, wait for the late stragglers to come in, and then conduct a safety meeting in English and Spanish. Instead, we give them the information in a way that’s accessible and the workers will actually do it.”
As a college student who had become enamored with capital markets Hall said he started writing computer code to trade stocks that ingested market data and strategies. When he discovered what he built didn’t work as he wanted, he looked around for someone who had done it better. He found Quantopian in Boston, a quantitative finance firm, and emailed, requesting an internship.
Hall said he spent two summers with the firm, laying groundwork to start his own company. With what he called his rigorous background in technology and markets and having grown up in Walla Walla, Wash., and Wallowa County, Ore., he said he wanted to apply these skills to farms to help them be as productive as possible.
“I talked to growers I knew to tease out the main labor management issues they were struggling with,” Hall said.
While mulling over his business idea he met up with Clubb, a recent graduate with a master’s degree in business administration graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose family owns a vineyard.
“He recognized what I was talking about immediately — it was a great match,” Hall said.
They struck out on Harvust together and quickly delved into deeper research to determine how to help farms manage itinerant employees, improve and sustain productivity while providing a good workplace.
Farmworkers are a notoriously underserved population, Hall said, so the app also gives them an opportunity to provide suggestions and feedback to the farms about the status of their workplace. In one instance a worker commented there was no hand sanitizer at the clock station and the farm addressed it immediately.
Hall said he and Clubb would like to get Harvust into the hands of as many dairies, orchards, vineyards and farms as possible and said he sees it as a valuable tool, especially now.
“Our big focus is to do our part to help our growers and the economy keep going, and to do it in a safe and responsible way.”