By the East Oregonian
Harvust, a Walla Walla agriculture-focused tech company, and its owners were recognized as the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 2021 Entrepreneur of the Year — an honor that came with a $50,000 prize.
The annual Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge is a business competition that identifies startups creating the most meaningful impact on the ag industry, said Riley Clubb, Harvust co-owner.
“We were not looking for competitions when this came across our inbox,” he said, “but we have a good working relationship with the Washington Bureau and applying helped us tell our story.”
Harvust is a smartphone safety and communications software application designed for farms. Clubb, who also is a Walla Walla City Council member, said the pandemic accelerated the need for their app that can be used by farm workers remotely. From their phone, they can watch training videos or receive messages and communicate with supervisors from a safe distance.
His partner, James Hall, said the Harvust app was a good fit for a competition that looked for startups helping the agriculture industry deal with COVID-19.
“We got to thinking about the competition and it seemed we were a natural fit,” Hall said.
The partners are using their cash prize to reach out to farmers beyond the Walla Walla Valley and market their app.
“We are looking to build real relationships with each state and introduce ourselves to farm bureaus across the country,” Hall said.
The networking has already begun — Clubb said California farmers have already reached out and they have shared their technology with Oregonians as well.
Hall said he and Clubb want to grow their burgeoning business, but they expect the growth will be slow as they bone up on each state’s individual laws.
“We want to make sure we are conducting business that is compliant and in line with rules and regs of each state,” Hall said.
Clubb said to qualify for the competition applicants could not have previously raised capital through professional investors.
“We are growing out of a rural place,” he said. “We aren’t a Silicon Valley startup.”
Hall said the prize money will allow Harvust to hire staff to help them reach out to farmers across the country, making an impact on rural economies.
“There are certain categories of employers who find Harvust useful,” he said, “Typically, farms with 50 or so employees who are hiring their first human resources staffer or their current human resource staff (are) overwhelmed.”
Hall described the Harvust app as a force multiplier.
“It allows one person to do the work of two,” he said.
Harvust handles all new on-farm rules, regulations and paperwork requirements. It allows managers to communicate, share information and provide safety training through messages and videos viewable on a handheld device.
The distance-learning and communication tool is especially useful when workers are under COVID-19 restrictions that Hall said aren’t going away. He said the app was also useful to employers in helping them alert workers to the hazards of poor air quality during last summer’s wildfires.
“There was a whole new set of rules regarding smoke and air quality,” Hall said. “Farmers will be able to comply and make sure their workforce is safe.”
Hall said the app is a human resource tool like Quickbooks is for accountants — an easy-to-use program that allows farm workers to fill out their hiring paperwork, read and sign off on policies and procedures, and attend training — all from their phone.
Harvust distributes training information in several ways — via messages in the worker’s preferred language, or as an audio translation so those who struggle with literacy are not left behind.