America’s farm labor shortage is a persistent, long-running problem that most agree has no easy solution. Many operations have turned to the use of migrant farm labor, usually through the H-2A visa program that allows U.S. employers to bring foreign laborers in for temporary work. Since 1986 when the government began allowing for an uncapped number of temporary agricultural workers, use of the program has skyrocketed. California startup SESO aims to streamline the complicated process and help more farms gain access to legal migrant workers.
SESO has developed a service that handles everything from submitting and tracking H-2A applications to helping farmers recruit workers with the skills and experience they need. SESO also provides workplace management software that helps employers stay compliant with complex local and federal laws. The company charges $1,000 per worker and says its fees are usually at least 20% less expensive than an immigration attorney. The company currently has contracts with 12 operations and is negotiating deals with close to 50 others.
Michael Guirgius says he co-founded SESO with Jordan Taylor to address the labor shortage problem in the U.S. and help farms secure their food production. Guirguis has seen firsthand what a lack of farm labor can do to an operation. His cousin, Marsha Habib, is a farmer in Hollister, CA, who struggles every season to find enough workers to help her harvest her crops. It’s a problem that many American farmers face.
One study cited by the American Farm Bureau Federation shows the agricultural labor shortage accounted for $3.3 billion in missed economic growth in 2012. You have to imagine that’s grown even higher in the last 9 years as the number of positions certified by the Department of Labor has risen every year since 2012, reaching 213,394 last year. Florida farmers hired the most H-2A workers in 2020, followed by their counterparts in Georgia, Washington, California, and North Carolina, all of which exceeded 20,000 workers. For agriculture equipment operators alone, the number of H-2A visas increased to nearly 11,000 between October and March, a +49% increase from a year ago according to the Labor Department.
SESO expects to bring in 1,000 workers in 2021. Guirguis says the largest industry player brings in about 6,000 workers per year. SESO eventually wants to offer integrated services for both farm owners and farmworkers. “We are providing a staffing solution for farms and agribusiness and we want to be Gusto for agriculture and upsell farms on a comprehensive human resources solution,” referencing Gusto, a cloud-based payroll startup that has grown into a full-scale human resource management software system.
Guiguis says that for many migrant workers, securing an H-2A visa is like scoring a golden ticket. An estimated 50-70% of farm laborers are undocumented. Guirguis believes by providing an easier onramp for farmers to manage the process, more farms would be willing to use the H-2A visa, cutting down on illegal immigration and boosting the available labor pool for the tough farm jobs that American workers don’t seem to want. H-2A workers could grow to account for as much as half the U.S. ag workforce, according to Guirgius.
SESO just raised $4.5 million in seed funding co-led by Founders’ Fund and NFX. Pete Flint, a founder of Trulia, joined the company’s board of directors. Learn more about SESO Labor HERE.