My cousin, Marsha Habib, is a farmer in Hollister, CA. Her farm, Oya Organics, is unique in many ways--it is owned by a young, female, minority farmer--Marsha is of Egyptian-Japanese descent and started the farm in her late 20s; it focuses on sustainability and small batch farming; and it’s entirely organic. However, Oya deals with the same fundamental issue facing farms both small and large across America--access to labor. Each year billions of dollars worth of crops rot in fields across the country because there is no labor to pick them. This is the biggest problem facing American farmers today.
I started Seso with my cofounder, Jordan Taylor, the first product hire at Farmers’ Business Network, to address the labor shortage in agriculture and help farms like Marsha’s secure their food production. Seso is addressing the labor shortage by streamlining the H-2A visa, an uncapped visa for farmworkers that is meant to supplement domestic farm labor.
Despite having excellent produce--Oya’s fruits and veggies have been used at iconic restaurants such as CheeseBoard, Chez Panisse, Nopa, and Salt & Straw--Oya struggles to make a profit. I spent Thanksgiving in 2018 with Marsha and her partner, Modesto, to go through their books and “get creative.” After a few hours it became obvious that the cost and availability of local labor prevented them from expanding. At one point, Modesto mentioned he wanted to try bringing in skilled workers from Mexico on a 'farm visa.' He said farmworkers in Oaxaca treat this visa like gold, but he knew little about it except “it would be difficult and complicated to get.” This caught my attention and I started researching the visa the next day. I learned that the H-2A visa is a guest worker visa exclusively focused on farm labor, and that the program has grown more than 300% over the last decade. I started reaching out farmers in Marsha’s community and learned that many farmers were too intimidated by the application process to participate. Similarly, many workers interested in earning U.S. wages, which are often 10x higher than wages in their home countries, don’t know how to navigate the program or how to reach American farms who are desperately in need of their help.
Farmers and ranchers in every state tell me that the shortage of labor is the greatest limiting factor on their farms. They try to hire American workers, but there are not many takers—and those who do take farm jobs often quit before the season is over.
<author-position_rich-text>President, American Farm Bureau Federation<author-position_rich-text>
Economists and farmers alike believe H-2A is the future of farm labor in America. Although this program has bipartisan support in Congress, there are still many issues with it. Workers are often exploited by predatory labor recruiters who illegally charge workers to apply for an H-2A job, and employers often struggle to understand and comply with labor laws, which change frequently and can vary at the county, state, and federal level.
Our goal at Seso is to help secure America’s food production system by streamlining the H-2A program. We are helping farms better navigate the program, recruit H-2A workers, and comply with labor laws, while also helping farmworkers find safe and meaningful employment and keep more of their paycheck through financial services (e.g., using a banking card instead of going to a payday lender). We are starting with a labor marketplace to address the biggest problem in agriculture, however, our long term goal is to be the “Gusto for Agriculture.”
We’re pretty advanced in the fields these days with drones and sensor technology, but when it comes to the rest of farming, we’re still behind the times, doing everything manually. As an industry, we're in need of a change.
<author-position_rich-text>Seso Advisor. Labor Compliance Attorney<author-position_rich-text>
Seso will provide more than 1,000 agricultural workers with H-2A visas in 2021, making us one of the largest H-2A agents in America. We are supporting farms across the country, from the largest lettuce, berry and avocado producers in the country, to one of the oldest vineyards in the Napa Valley, to a small bee farmer in North Dakota. On a personal note, I’m most proud of the impact we will have on Oya Organics, which is now using the program to bring in much needed seasonal workers for the spring harvest.
Seso has raised $4.5M in seed funding co-led by Founders’ Fund and NFX, with Pete Flint joining Seso’s board of directors. Angel investors include Xuan Yong (CEO, RigUp), Sam Teller (Elon Musk’s former Chief of Staff), Nat Turner and Zach Weinberg (Cofounders, FlatIron Health) J.D Ross (Cofounder, OpenDoor), John Shulkin (Partner, Valor Equity Partners), Alex Clayton (Partner, Meritech), and Alberto S. Zambrano (Board member, Citrofrut). If you’re interested in improving the lives of farm workers and securing America's food production system please reach out at email@example.com or check out our available positions!