By Matt Reese
It seems like a simple question with an easier answer: do farmers have a right to repair their own tractors?
We do live in a complicated world, though, as indicated by the answer to this question: maybe, sometimes, it depends. And, in some cases, as it turns out, the answer is no.
This right-to-repair issue becomes particularly challenging for the many farms that have invested heavily in the ability to wrench on equipment on-site to save valuable time and money when inevitable issues arise with farm equipment. Those farm shops, tools and know-how do not come cheap, but have been built by generations to set the stage for necessarily quick and cost-saving equipment repairs, especially during planting and harvest. The increasingly challenging task of on-farm equipment repair in the wake of rapidly advancing proprietary technology has been a growing source of frustration in recent years.
The fantastic Leisa Boley-Hellwarth covered the ins and outs of right-to-repair in a great article last spring. Here is a brief summary from her article:
Equipment manufacturers’ use of proprietary repair tools, software and diagnostics has prevented farmers from repairing their own equipment. This forces them to pay dealer rates for repairs that a farmer or third-party repair shop could have done much cheaper.
The largest farm equipment dealer in the world is John Deere. There have been several similar federal anti-trust class actions pending against John Deere over the right to repair. In January of 2022, for example, Forest River Farms of North Dakota filed suit over the monopolization of the repair services market for John Deere equipment built with onboard central computer engines control units (ECUs). Forest River Farms is the proud owner of five John Deere tractors and two John Deere combines that use ECUs. The complaint asserts that Forest River Farms suffered antitrust injuries because of John Deere’s repair policies. The software locks owners out of making repairs. The case is filed as a class action on behalf of farmers who have repaired John Deere equipment since Jan. 12, 2018. In 2022, five other lawsuits with similar language were pending in Illinois, Alabama, Tennessee and Oklahoma. John Deere filed a motion to transfer all six cases to federal court in Chicago. Opponents to right to repair frequently cite arguments including the following issues: user safety; shrinking technology; efficiency; competition; demand and supply; and no incentive to innovate.
The Biden Administration issued an Executive Order addressing right-to-repair to some degree, but with limited impacts. Additionally, Sen. Jon Tester, a farmer and a senator from Montana, introduced the Ag Right to Repair Act in February of 2022 which would require farm equipment manufacturers to provide diagnostic equipment to farmers and ranchers to make repairs possible. The bill has gone nowhere in the last year, however.
The right-to-repair issue has been part of ongoing American Farm Bureau Federation discussions as well and was brought up again by AFBF president Zippy Duvall at the January Annual Convention in Puerto Rico.
“Our members asked the American Farm Bureau to work with farm equipment manufacturers. They asked us to find a path forward so we can repair our own equipment,” Duvall said. “Margins on the farm are tight, that’s why we fix things ourselves and go to local mechanics for help. I know many of you are forced to travel for hours to the nearest equipment dealer. That’s a challenge when something breaks in the middle of planting, harvest or any time-sensitive job.”
During the convention, Duvall and John Deere signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) seeking to ensure farmers’ right to repair their own farm equipment. The MOU sets parameters and creates a mechanism to address farmers’ concerns. John Deere commits to engaging with farmers and dealers to resolve issues when they arise and agrees to meet with AFBF at least twice per year to evaluate progress.
The agreement formalizes farmers’ access to diagnostic and repair codes, as well as manuals (operator, parts, service) and product guides. It also ensures farmers will be able to purchase diagnostic tools directly from John Deere and receive assistance from the manufacturer when ordering parts and products. The MOU has the potential to serve as a model for other manufacturers and AFBF has already begun those discussions.
“AFBF is pleased to announce this agreement with John Deere. It addresses a long-running issue for farmers and ranchers when it comes to accessing tools, information and resources, while protecting John Deere’s intellectual property rights and ensuring equipment safety,” Duvall said. “A piece of equipment is a major investment. Farmers must have the freedom to choose where equipment is repaired, or to repair it themselves, to help control costs. The MOU commits John Deere to ensuring farmers and independent repair facilities have access to many of the tools and software needed to grow the food, fuel and fiber America’s families rely on.”
While it remains unclear if this MOU means the answer to the above-stated question will be a clear and consistent “yes” moving forward, here’s hoping this issue is heading in the right direction for farmers with a penchant for wrenching.