HitchPin app could change the farm labor game

In late November 2018, at a dinner table in a turn of the century farmhouse in rural Dickinson County, Kansas, a revolution in agricultural labor and economics was born.

With the swipe of a thumb across the screen of a smartphone, a 16-year-old cattleman purchased a load of hay from his 70-something neighbor down the road—all via the new app “HitchPin.” And just like that, the “gig economy” arrived in farm country. 

The idea of HitchPin

HitchPin brings the convenience of a service-sharing app like Uber or Lyft to farming and ranching goods and services. It allows part-time and beginning farmers to find temporary “gigs” for their equipment during planting and harvest season or to source hay and commodities for their farms and ranches. Likewise, farmers can find labor and service providers to meet Mother Nature’s demands at peak seasons.

Trevor McKeeman is a 40-year-old tech industry entrepreneur and is founder and CEO of HitchPin, which is based at the Kansas State University Institute for Commercialization in Manhattan, Kansas. The KSU-IC is an incubator for entrepreneurs with new technology and intellectual properties.

McKeeman’s family has been farming and operating a rural community bank in Dickinson County for generations. His earned his bachelor’s in business from K-State and master’s from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While networking through his other technology company, Hidden Genius, the idea for HitchPin started formulating.

For three years, McKeeman and a staff of technology experts worked on the app’s design. His computer coders and designers visited the farm so they could see how the app would work in real life with real users to improve the platform.

“Our goal was something that was easy to use and really provided value to the farmers,” McKeeman said.

Anyone who’s used a smartphone app to search for hotel rooms or airlines or even purchase parts online can navigate HitchPin, McKeeman said. The HitchPin app is a free download in the iTunes App Store and an Android version is planned in the future. Desktop users can access it at www.hitchpin.com.

When the app opens, you see a listing of services and products for sale. With this initial release of HitchPin, the listings are limited to include: Hay for Sale, Wheat Harvest; Corn Harvest; Soybean Harvest; and Sorghum Harvest. This initial rollout may seem basic right now, but McKeeman said it has room to grow in both listings and capabilities as users begin to request them.

The app sorts listings using your location, the type of service or product, the price per unit, delivery fees and radius and more. There’s a map function that allows users to define their fields that need serviced using GPS, reducing confusion about what field is being serviced.

Users connect in real time, giving them an advantage when adverse weather and other challenges arise. HitchPin also provides an escrow service similar to PayPal that allows providers to get paid promptly.

“The financial protection piece is core to what we built into HitchPin,” McKeeman emphasized. “Custom harvesters, for example, have costs in fuel, people, equipment, travel and all of that. And if you aren’t paid promptly you have to float that cost.” That’s a cash flow problem for many just trying to get a foot in the farm gate.

“But HitchPin pulls money from the buyer, holds it in escrow, and transfers the money as soon as the machinery rolls off the field and the service is verified,” he said. “No invoices. No hoping you get a check in the mail.”

The reputation ratings system allows users to leave reputation scores for buyers or sellers that they have done business with, much like those on Uber or eBay. These reputation scores advise users on who doesn’t provide what they said they would provide, McKeeman said. This ranking system of buyers and sellers is backed up by data in the app, so sellers and buyers with higher ratings will sort to the top, building their reputations, while bad actors get weeded out.

A foot in the gate

The first official transaction over HitchPin was what McKeeman envisioned for his app. Sixteen-year-old Will Stroda used it to purchase hay from McKeeman’s father, Kevin, while sitting as his family dinner table.

It was fitting to see the next generation of farmers using technology to connect to the previous generation, McKeeman said.

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The McKeemans are neighbors of the Strodas and fit the profile of the farm family McKeeman was trying to reach.

Will’s father, Jakob Stroda, is a single father in his late 30s, working full-time for Great Plains Manufacturing in Abilene, Kansas, and trying to build a farm for his children. Like others his age, he farms in the evenings and weekends and picks up farming jobs for neighbors on the side. That dedication to a dream has rubbed off onto Will and his brother and sister.

Will’s days are filled with FFA and wrestling practice and his nights and weekends are spent farming. He wants to return to the farm after college, and, with a little help from his dad and Farm Service Agency loans, has put together a small herd of black Angus and SimAngus cows and a bull. He purchased a John Deere 3020 diesel tractor with a front-end loader and hires himself out for farm jobs by word-of-mouth.

That is until he spoke with Kevin McKeeman, and learned about this new app his son was developing. The teenager understood right away how much HitchPin would change the game for building his farming business with his own dad.

“It’s just so much easier to find people on the app than calling around,” Will said. “I had to find some hay for my cows, and with the app I can go on and find it, buy it and have it delivered.” He can even order hay or find after-school farm jobs between classes and wrestling practice.

Jakob sees the potential for younger and beginning farmers like himself to compete for jobs over the app and juggle careers in town and farming.

“This gives the little guy an opportunity to compete,” Jakob explained. He can set his available dates in his listing on HitchPin, set the area he is willing to travel for the job, and with the escrow service, he knows he’ll get paid right away rather than spending valuable time off the clock hunting down slow pays.

Offering a more even playing field is what McKeeman is most excited about.

“Early on in the research for this I visited with a fifth generation farm kid who had lost the farm and went to town and got a job,” McKeeman said. “He hated it. He wanted to start farming again, but how? It’s incredibly capital intensive to just jump into farming. But this guy had bought a steam baler that allows him to bale hay when others can’t get into the field. He figured if he could keep that baler running he could make more money than just owning the rest of the equipment and putting up his own hay.”

McKeeman said picking up farm gigs is how many are able to pay for newer equipment, pick up acres and make ends meet.

“I could hear rumblings back home about how the farm economy was heading down. We saw the big boom in agriculture where people were making money. But then with the collapse of commodity prices, the writing was on the wall. There’s this general sense that something big is going to happen in agriculture, a change that will be sweeping, like mass consolidation.” 

Utilizing excess capacity

As farms consolidate and grow, there’s more ground to cover and a greater need for reliable skilled labor, McKeeman explained. It’s also tough to retain that labor in a competitive job market and many are forced to hire part-time labor or contractors on a task-by-task basis. HitchPin can help larger farms better manage their labor and equipment costs by utilizing the excess capacity of the labor and equipment sitting idle on other farms, McKeeman said.

 “Some guys are trying to pick up more revenue,” McKeeman said. “Others are trying to save on costs by not having to buy every piece of expensive equipment.” It’s the same principal behind a ride-share or room-share service and the fastest growing companies in the country like Uber and Airbnb are monetizing this today.

“Airbnb has more rooms listed on its site than even the largest hotel chains, and yet it owns none,” McKeeman said. HitchPin is poised to do just that for farming and ranching.

“There’s a real benefit in the discovery capability of HitchPin,” McKeeman explained. “Say I always use Bob to put up my hay because I know Bob, but Jim is available right now and I don’t have to wait and potentially get rained out and he may be cheaper.”

This app can also help farmers of the future pare down equipment they have to own and maintain, reducing capital costs and improving efficiency at peak periods on the farm. 

“Young producers or just producers looking to expand their operations can’t see it being viable (to buy their own equipment),” he continued. “There’s a generation that isn’t interested in buying $500,000 combines because there’s a great deal of risk.”

Picking up odd gigs has always been a way for people to bridge employment gaps in rural America. Entrepreneurs like McKeeman are bringing a technological solution to the situation.

“We’re enabling a change in how farmers find labor and inputs,” McKeeman said. And it all started not in a garage in Silicon Valley, but at a family dining room table in rural Kansas. 

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].