Since the late 1990s, farm tractors, once purely mechanical devices that were easily understood and repaired by anyone with some basic tools or a machine shop have gone high-tech. The electronics of farm equipment have been integrated into every aspect of these tools. But the company that manufactures the largest proportion of farm equipment in North America, John Deere, has not been forthcoming with details about its electronics. This has led to anxiety among farmers who feel that their equipment is locked out of their ability to control or operate, and, they allege, locks them into an indentured relationship with John Deere. Their ability to work their farms is only accessible through expensive John Deere repair representatives.
In 2001, the first Right to Repair bill was filed in Congress, S.2617 as part of the 107th Congress. Although the 2001 bill was abandoned in Congress and died without ever having a hearing, the basic right was being described, and a new movement took shape, promising to fight for farm equipment repair rights in the capitols of several states and the US Capitol in Washington, DC. It was a new shape of the fight against the increasing encroachment of corporate ownership in everybody’s lives and policymakers began to take notice. The first major victory for the right to repair came in 2012 when Question 1 passed by an overwhelming 86-14 margin on the Massachusetts ballot and became law in the state. It created a situation where for the first time, companies that manufactured heavy equipment were required to make their diagnostic and repair information available to vehicle owners and independent repair shops.
Right to Repair and Computers
Computers were one of the first places where the right to repair became an issue. Computer parts were originally only available to repair from official outlets of their manufacturers, which served as an effective constraint on independent repairs. IBM was a particular culprit in this, having zealously guarded their exact machine language configuration and their computer parts’ precise specifications, to keep competitors from reverse-engineering their computers.
IBM was sued in 1956 by the Department of Justice for anticompetitive behavior by allowing their clients not to own but only lease their products. IBM’s near-monopoly on the computer market allowed the Justice Department the ability to gain a consent decree forcing IBM to sell products at a condition equivalent to leasing them. It also forced IBM to spin off its service division into a second company, creating the “IBM Compatible” market which eventually became today’s Windows computer environment.
The basic form of a diesel engine has been the same for over a century. Diesel engines are a form of internal combustion that uses the heat of compression rather than a spark plug to ignite its fuel. Diesel engines are more reliable and mechanically and electronically simpler than gasoline engines, only requiring an electrical motor to start up.
Diesel engine repair has been a hot topic for the right-to-repair movement. Farm equipment repair rights advocates argue that because the diesel engine is well-known, basic technology that has been out of patent for decades, the only reason to hold up their right to repair their diesel engines is to lock equipment owners into using only the company’s mechanic shop rather than being able to build their repair parts and fix their engines or take them to an independent shop. A diesel engine mechanic should be able to fix these machines’ engines with little or no help from the manufacturer
On January 10, 2023, in a press release, the American Farm Bureau Federation and John Deere announced an agreement to make John Deere parts as well as the farm equipment giant’s software and diagnostic tools available for owners and small shops to affect their repairs to farm and yard equipment. This makes available repairs to the iconic green and yellow tractors which have been a part of American farm life for decades.
Critics, however, stated that they believed that the move was just an attempt by John Deere to stave off inevitable legislation and court cases by looking as though they were engaging the complaints of its critics when it was going to drag its feet on the subject. However, Deere and Farm Bureau representatives made clear that they would be meeting twice a year to ensure the company was meeting its commitments.
Deere’s commitments as expressed through the new MOU would permit Deere, however, to keep safety and emissions controls and protocols from being modified to maintain its commitments to the government regarding environmental safety and equipment protection.
Skeptics Remain Tenacious
While John Deere and the American Farm Bureau Federation maintain that this situation is a win for farmers, skeptics of the company’s long history of maintaining a tight grip on the specifications and processes of its equipment remain. These activists point to the MOU’s intent to prevent the Farm Bureau Federation from “introducing, promoting, or supporting federal or state ‘right to repair’ legislation that imposes obligations beyond the commitments in this MOU.” Deere additionally retains the right to protect its trade secrets and to prevent users from overriding safety and environmental features in its equipment.
The right-to-repair campaign’s advocates acknowledge that this is an idea long in the making. They have also noted that companies like John Deere have made similar promises in the past and failed to follow up on them. NPR reports that many problems can still be blocked from diagnosing or fixing problems with their heavy farm equipment and can be forced to wait for a John Deere technician to be available. With a wide area to cover and a lot of farmers to service, Deere technicians can have tractors out of service for weeks, a difficult chunk of time for a farmer when the weather can come through and destroy a crop in a matter of just minutes.
Future Frontiers in Right to Repair
Right to repair remains contentious with equipment manufacturers, as the manufacturers insist that their ability to make high-quality equipment available is contingent on their ability to create hardware and software that exactly meets their equipment needs, and to operate hardware repair teams such that they will be able to control their supply ecosystems. But farmers believe that this is a cover for the desire to control farm and yard equipment repair, which will generate a situation where all equipment purchases are effectively equipment rentals, which the company can walk back if it sees a way to make more profit.
Heavy equipment rentals are another place where the right to repair remains contentious, where companies operating fleets of heavy equipment, like Home Depot and Lowes, are seeking the right to repair the equipment that they’ve purchased, rather than wait for corporate repair teams that have a lot of territories to cover and relatively little time to do it in. With these corporate partners for the farm community, however, comes some hope that the alliance between heavy equipment rental companies and farmers could bear some fruit in the debate as it passes from business negotiations into the halls of government.
Right to Repair and Financial Security for Farmers
Many farmers have argued that the right to repair is needed for them to stay in business. With wait times on corporate repair teams that often extend to weeks long, repairing equipment without the corporations is vital for farms that rely on planting schedules being reliable to the day. When a farmer can’t plant on the optimal schedule for their crops, the yield suffers. Farming then becomes a game of catch-up with a declining yield if the planting window is missed. For repairs to happen on time reduces the dependence on funding assistance for farmers that is included in each year’s version of the farm bill that passes in Congress.
US Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced a Right to Repair bill in the 117th Congress. Senator Tester’s argument is the familiar refrain. The bill, he says, will guarantee that by allowing farmers to fix their machinery and contract with independent shops for machinery repairs to keep within the narrow window allowed by weather and seasonality to plant in the most optimal times for their crops, fighting manufacturers’ profit-gathering on repairs and other “long-tail” services. These issues cover everything from pintle hooks to cylinder repairs and every other part of a tractor or other piece of farm machinery. This bill was mirrored in the House of Representatives with the Fair Repair Act, which handled protections for repairing small electronics and other devices, but neither bill passed during the 117th Congress, as a result, they will need to be reintroduced in the 118th, as all bills still pending on January 3rd when Congress is sworn in are dead and must be reintroduced. More than half of all U.S. States are considering right-to-repair laws as of 2023, which is likely to continue to increase.
Executive Branch Actions
In July 2021, President Biden gave an executive order that encouraged rule-making by the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on manufacturer-imposed limits on user and third-party repairs. Shortly afterward, the FTC said that it would do so. The FTC has also devoted more resources to combating unlawful restrictions on repairs under President Biden than it did in the previous four years, following up on President Biden’s pledges to improve the rights of consumers and citizens under his Administration.
New York Right to Repair Law Signed in 2022
In 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the first electronics right-to-repair bill ever passed into law by a state governor, for the first time recognizing that home electronics such as iPhones and personal computers represent the same comprehensive right to repair as farm equipment. The bill is not perfect, however – techcrunch.com reports that it has major carve-outs for manufacturers.
The bill’s language is said to be intended to lessen risks of security issues and physical harm, however, some of the carve-outs only apply to devices built after July 1, 2023. It also does not require manufacturers to volunteer security unlocking codes and decline to deliver components that might heighten the risk of injury. This creates arguments by advocates that this bill is not a right-to-repair bill at all but a sop that mostly protects industry at the expense of the customer. Advocates for the right to repair organizations argue that this bill does nothing to protect the right to repair.
Safeguarding the Right to Repair
Corporations currently use cylinder accountability to control propane and other fuel cylinders that go out and come back. Cylinder accountability and other similar tracking systems serve to ensure that hardware that belongs to the companies can be sent out and recovered. Corporate accounts claim that these systems prevent cylinders from being discarded with gas still in them, protecting the public from potentially dangerous explosions and permitting the cylinders to be discarded in an environmentally responsible way.
Right to repair advocates argue that this is simply another part of the corporate intention to control people’s equipment and businesses from outside, as farms and other businesses depend on steady supplies of various gases including helium, LP, and LNG, to operate and it can be more efficient for a farm to acquire the largest possible tanks of these gases and dispense them into smaller containers for use rather than to purchase individual, smaller tanks for single and small uses.
Right to repair is going to remain a hot topic for some time to come. Corporations continue to argue that company-owned assets have to be involved to offer the highest quality repairs to the customer at reasonable prices. Small business advocates maintain that the best way to provide low prices to the customer for repairs to damaged or worn equipment is to continue to use both licensed and unlicensed machinists and technicians to provide fully responsive service, from single-day repair or replacement of individual parts to full machine maintenance. The debate over farm equipment and yard equipment repairs is going to continue for the next several years.