There is a legislative movement afoot in states like Wyoming
, New York
and North Carolina
, in which farmers are pushing for the right to repair their equipment. This is similar to the fight already waged and won by independent repair shops and individuals wanting to repair their own automobiles. If you are unfamiliar with the situation, let me explain.
What is right-to-repair?
The right-to-repair movement affects a wide range of products, from cars
to tractors. The underlying principle is that manufacturers should provide the information necessary to repair or supply parts to independent repair shops, or even owners.
Today’s farm equipment manufacturers are no longer sharing schematics and designs with independent repair shops or even the farmers who are their direct customers. Many manufacturers even require buyers to sign agreements saying they cannot access certain sections of the machine without violating their purchase agreements.
Manufacturers say they are protecting both the farmers (from accident or injury incurred while attempting repairs) and their proprietary information (from getting into the hands of unauthorized parties, which would put manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage). Without the right to repair, however, farmers are now forced to go directly to the manufacturer for repairs and system updates, which can waste valuable time as well as cost a pretty penny.
I grew up watching my grandfather and my uncle making their own repairs on the tractors and equipment they used to plant and harvest crops on their Eastern Oregon farms. They had a strong working relationship with the Deere dealer they swore by, and he shared information that helped them to make their own repairs. This symbiotic relationship kept costs down for my grandfather and uncle and made them loyal patrons of the dealer’s shop for decades. They repaired and maintained their own equipment and, when needed, they called their trusted local dealer for help.
Forcing farmers to call the dealer for all repairs is a sea change in the relationship between equipment manufacturer and farmer—a change that is driving many farmers to the edge of already thin profit margins as they keep generational traditions and family farms going.
The other side
The manufacturers argue that their staunch opposition to right-to-repair legislation is based on concerns about safety and emissions controls. A letter from Deere
says that they are protecting farmers against unauthorized changes to the software that runs their machinery by third-party repair shops or hackers. The letter also contends that they are safeguarding emissions standards by having only Deere technicians handle the repairs.
I get it. Deere (a company with a strong reputation and solidly built equipment) wants to ensure that the equipment they sell is the best and that it does exactly what they say it will do. As a company that has a history of looking out for customers, they are following a natural path. But they have crossed a line. Deere cannot realistically expect to control the entire life cycle of a harvester from cradle to grave. Once they sell it, its fate is in the hands of the owner.
An unintended consequence
Unfortunately for manufacturers like Deere, their current approach—locking their systems from customers and independent shops—has actually given rise to the very industry they claim they want to avoid. Hackers have decompiled their software
and are selling tools to connect to their products in the open market. The hackers offer unlicensed tools that allow end users to diagnose, update, adjust and reset the onboard computers.
"What you've got is technicians running around here with cracked Ukrainian John Deere software that they bought off the black market."
- Kevin Kenney, a farmer and right-to-repair advocate in Nebraska told Jason Koebler of Vice's Motherboard
This does increase the risk of injury due to improper computer updates or even higher emissions. But the hackers have hit on a key point: by delivering control and independence back to the farmer, they have addressed the realities of today’s competitive farm economy.
If the transmission goes out on a machine during a harvest, weather, pests and time can degrade the crop, costing the farmer thousands of dollars or even an entire harvest. The ability to make a repair in the field at 1 A.M.—instead of waiting around for a dealer-authorized repair technician who may be several counties away, and whose fees will likely be a significant hit to profits—is essential for today’s farmers. If it comes down to a choice between losing their crops or using unauthorized computer tools, most farmers will risk the hacker-sourced technology.
Lydia Brasch, who represents Nebraska's rural eastern 16th Legislative District, told Popular Mechanics, "The primary impetus is that we are an agricultural state. One out of every four jobs is connected to agriculture. When you are work in farming, you are tied to weather restrictions—planting, harvesting, all have to take place when the weather is holding. When we have an equipment breakdown, sometimes there's a waiting period to get repairs down. At the same time, you're chasing daylight, and you're helpless during that period of time to diagnose, to maintain, or to repair your own equipment as you had in the past. Farmers are falling behind waiting in the queue for someone to work on their equipment."
Farmers who choose to make their own repairs take inherent risks and liability upon themselves, and this should not be shifted to a manufacturer simply because an untrained person changes how a machine operates and hurts or kills themselves or another person. Rather, farmers who choose to repair their own equipment should have access to the necessary tools and information, with the full understanding that they are solely responsible for any risk or damages incurred.
Today’s farmer is practical, resourceful and often well educated, like his predecessors who homesteaded our country. They are long-term planners and thinkers who are working today for a harvest tomorrow, and are highly capable of making necessary repairs to their equipment—equipment which they own, after all.
If the trend of forcing farmers to rely on high-cost dealer technicians continues, farmers will do the math and see that although today’s modern machines can outperform the older models, the costs of repairs and maintenance, including down time during planting season or harvest, are too great. Farmers will avoid the newer models as long as possible and opt instead to repair and retrofit older models that they can service on their own to ensure they maintain control of their own farms and their own destinies.
The future of right-to-repair
In the end, I think it comes down to the relationship between farmer and dealer. Creating legislation that forces manufacturers to share tools at the market price would not be necessary if the relationship still existed like it did when I grew up.
The trust I remember from my childhood still exists in many places. It is up to the manufacturers to decide if they want to continue the legacy of pride, craftsmanship, reliability and generational equipment sales that built their brands. I think they do.
I know many of the dealer principals and managers. I even know many of the corporate managers at the manufacturers. They are good people, much like the farmers I grew up with: solid, reliable and honest. They will make the right decision in the end, regardless of legislation.