Farmers Will Soon Have the Right to Repair their Tractors | Civil Eats

Farmers Will Soon Have the Right to Repair their Tractors

A new federal executive order seeks to break up ag monopolies by making it easier for farmers to fix their own equipment without facing legal repercussions.

farmer driving his john deere tractor around the farm, hoping it doesn't break because at the time of this photo he didn't have right to repair his farm equipment

Last summer, Walter Schweitzer had set out to bale his field of dry hay, and was moving quickly to beat the rain when his tractor broke down. The Montana farmer couldn’t figure out what had malfunctioned, so he called his local dealer to ask if he could borrow, rent, or buy the diagnostic software necessary to pinpoint the issue. The dealer told him that none of these options were authorized by the manufacturer, which Schweitzer didn’t want to name in an interview out of fear of retaliation. Instead, he was told that a technician would need to drive the tractor around the dealership parking lot, searching for a signal to diagnose the problem.

“Are you kidding me?” said Schweitzer, recalling the incident. “I can’t even troubleshoot my own tractor.”

It ended up taking the dealer over a month to repair the tractor. Fortunately, Schweitzer kept a backup and could finish baling his field. As the president of the Montana Farmers Union, Schweitzer has long argued that farmers need access to the tools, software, and parts needed to fix their own equipment. But it caused him panic to experience the problem first-hand: in the middle of haying season, without a functioning tractor, dependent on a dealer to fix what turned out to be a simple issue with the fuel sensor.

This lack of agency on the part of today’s farmers costs them time and money, and it has enabled equipment manufacturers to monopolize the repair industry.

But it all may be about to change as the Biden Administration moves to weaken the consolidated power of agribusiness, including the three major corporations—Deere & Company, CNH Industrial, and AGCO—that manufacture farm equipment in North America. Last Friday, the administration signed a comprehensive executive order designed to “promote competition in the American economy” that includes 72 actions across 12 agencies. This includes asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to curtail the “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment.”

“What we’ve seen over the past few decades, there’s less competition and more concentration that holds our economy back. We’ve seen it in Big Agriculture, Big Tech, and Big Pharma. The list goes on,” said President Biden in remarks prior to signing the executive order. “Rather than competing for consumers, they are consuming their competitors.” The executive order includes other measures to reduce agribusiness consolidation, including giving livestock farmers more power to negotiate price discrimination and improving small food processors’ and farmers’ access to retail markets.

Safeguarding consumers’ right to repair the products they buy will apply to many different electronic industries, but could especially be beneficial to the nation’s over 2.2 million farms. Advocates and farmers say that this will also improve food security, preventing delays in repair that threaten to disrupt a farm’s operations, and boost the thin margins on many smaller-scale farms.

“It’s a very critical problem for the production of food. You can lose a whole crop if you can’t plant or fertilize because some stupid sensor or part of your machine just went down and you can’t fix it,” said Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of the Repair Association, which is part of a coalition fighting for consumers’ right to repair electronics. “It’s really a fundamental problem.”

A Momentous Year for the ‘Right To Repair’

This announcement follows a momentous year for the “right to repair” movement, which has been steadily gathering steam amidst heavy pushback and lobbying from digital equipment manufacturers for the past decade. Over half of U.S. states introduced right to repair legislation in 2021. On June 17, 2021, Representative Joseph Morelle (D-New York) introduced federal right to repair legislation, shortly after New York became the first state to pass right to repair legislation in the Senate. The executive order builds on this earlier momentum.

“With the executive order signed, this is a huge sign that the farmers who have been calling for the right to repair their own equipment and be heard at the highest levels of government,” said Kevin O’Reilly, the director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s (PIRG) Right to Repair campaign. However, the fight for the right to repair isn’t yet over. O’Reilly says that they will still be pushing for federal and state-level legislation, which could prove to be a more expedient route than the FTC’s rule-making process.

The right to repair has broad support from farmer groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Montana Farmers Union, which made it a top legislative priority this year. The National Farmers Union hailed the Biden Administration’s executive order as a “monumental step,” specifically noting the right to repair.

“It’s essential that farmers have the ability to make timely, affordable repairs to the equipment, namely tractors and other farm equipment that are essential to doing their jobs,” Aaron Shier, a senior government relations representative of the National Farmers Union, told Civil Eats.

In May, the FTC released a report in favor of the right to repair. It also found flaws in claims manufacturers use to justify the restrictions, such as the protection of intellectual property rights. Gordon-Byrne summarized the report more bluntly: “Everything that manufacturers told us about why people can’t fix their stuff is bullshit.”

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Common restrictions include complicated product designs that hinder repair or make it less safe, software locks that prevent a device from being repaired outside of the manufacturer’s repair network, and parts that can only be replaced through the manufacturer.

Gordon-Byrne traces the right to repair movement’s origins to 2012, when Massachusetts put a measure on the ballot requiring that diagnostic and repair information be available to independent car repair shops. It passed with 86 percent of the vote. In 2014, the legislation became a national standard through a memorandum of understanding between groups representing repair shops and automobile associations. “We read it and said, ‘Holy cow. It’s perfect except for one thing: it only says automobiles,’” said Gordon-Byrne.

Representative Morelle, who introduced the federal legislation and drafted New York’s legislation, views these restrictions as a way to benefit manufacturers’ bottom lines, while costing farmers and other electronic consumers. “The cynic in me thinks it’s a way for them to control the economics of the situation, whether it’s planned obsolescence, or making sure that you have to pay a pretty significant premium to get your devices fixed,” he said. The congressperson sees this issue best addressed on a federal level to avoid a “patchwork of 50 different rules and regulations.”

This highly restrictive “repair monopoly,” as advocates call it, has become associated with Apple, which was investigated in 2019 by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee for restricting third-party repairs. Yet companies like Deere & Company employ similar practices that prevent non-authorized dealers and farmers from making many of their own repairs. These practices also hurt independent mechanics who lack access to the necessary tools and diagnostic equipment for many repairs, making it harder for them to compete with authorized dealerships.

While the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) and the Equipment Dealers Association (EDA), trade associations representing the major manufactures, vowed in 2018 that tools and parts would be available for farmers to repair their equipment after January 2021, this promise remains unfilled. Critically, the agreement didn’t include all of the software that is typically available to the dealer. “It amounted to a stalling tactic,” said O’Reilly. “It was a way to push off the legislation.”

O’Reilly says that regulations on the right to repair should include all of the following: “the right to diagnose a problem, the right to purchase parts, and then the right to install those parts yourself, or to go to an independent technician.” He anticipates that the FTC will address these solutions, though this is not explicitly stated in the executive order.

The Computerization of Tractors

Tractors, combines, and other farm equipment have become increasingly software-dependent and computerized in the past several decades. Farmers cannot simply swap out parts because many are serialized, and therefore must be “paired” or “activated” once installed. Only the dealership has the software to enable the pairing. Similarly, if a tractor signals an error—as in Schweitzer’s case in Montana—it often shuts down.

The modern combine can require up to 125 software connected-sensors, connected to a larger controller network, according to a report by O’Reilly at U.S. PIRG. Any problem with this controller network requires diagnostic software. Considering sensors are the most likely part of modern-day farm equipment to fail, this creates a situation where farmers are locked into a costly relationship with the manufacturer for the product’s lifetime.

Tommy Nagle, a beef and vegetable farmer and a board director on the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, recalls how 20 years ago farm equipment was “mainly mechanical—switches, levers, cables, that type of thing.” While Nagle finds the modern equipment easy to operate, he estimates that the repairs have consistently cost him twice the price of the parts. It’s for this reason, as well as the saving in time, that he supports the right to repair.

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When the joystick on his New Holland skid loader broke, the dealer had to come to the field and sync the new joystick with computer software unavailable to farmers. “That $600 part ended up being a total of an $1,800 bill,” said Nagle. While he was fortunate enough to have a backup, Nagle notes that this wouldn’t be financially feasible for many farmers: a large skid loader can cost up to $60,000.

Some farmers have opted to forgo modern equipment altogether, or to buy older equipment for backup. Auction sales for older equipment have recently seen record highs. On May 29, for instance, a 1992 John Deere tractor, which originally sold for $60,000, went for $73,000 at an auction.

Arden Schrader, an auctioneer at Schrader Real Estate & Auction Co, attributes the high sales prices to the fact that older equipment is easier to fix, along with rising commodity prices that encourage more spending among farmers. “If something happens to one of those older tractors, 90 percent of the farmers who are farming today can get in running and back to the barn, at least,” said Schrader. “So, that helps dictate the price.”

The Right to Data

Modern-day farming equipment is not just meant to function out in fields, but it’s also harvesting data about the conditions of the environment and farming practices. Companies like Deere & Company are therefore collecting an incredibly valuable resource from farmers, without their explicit permission, or knowledge of how it’s being used.

On July 1, Walter Schweitzer and Kevin O’Reilly, who have worked together in support of the right to repair, wrote a joint letter to Deere & Company stating that “farmers are not aware that they can stop transmission of data to John Deere.” In the letter, provided to Civil Eats, they requested that the company provide instructions, such as a video demo, on how to turn off the data sharing.

As Biden moves to give farmers more tools to address the practices of businesses like Deere & Company, it could signal the beginning of a larger fight for more autonomy over the machinery and resources farmers need to produce the food that makes it to our dinner tables. If it is anything like the fight for the right to repair, manufacturers will not easily cede control to farmers.

Greta Moran is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats based in Queens, New York. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Greta writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. Read more >

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