America's Farmers Are Becoming Prisoners to Agriculture's Technological Revolution
Big data, proprietary systems, and restrictive EULA agreements threaten farmers, but the right to repair movement shows they are fighting back.
Image: Jason Koebler
Rian Wanstreet (@rianeliza) is a PhD Student at the University of Washington and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Media and Data Studies.
Farmers should be able to fix their tractors. This seems so obvious, that the very idea that corporations like John Deere are telling farmers that they can’t resonates as a gross violation of fair play. Indeed, the right of anyone to fix, tinker, modify, or even just access their own stuff—their phones, cars, washing machines—seems basic, yet it’s something that has been quietly eroded by corporations trying to corner the lucrative repair market.
Americans are starting to realize just how important these rights are, which is why we’ve seen a boom of state legislative initiatives tackling the issue in recent years.
This delights me as a long-time supporter of the Fair Repair movement. But as an academic, I think it’s important to highlight the other issues the technological revolution is surfacing for farmers and the US food chain in general.
I am a former employee of Access Now (a global digital rights organization), and while there I developed an understanding about how technologies can have liberatory impacts on communities; but often, technological advances in fact restrict them. My scholarship applies these lessons to the agricultural sector, where I investigate the impact of new technologies on farmers and communities.
What I’m learning is that the more farming equipment goes high-tech, the greater the potential implications for farmer independence, financial agency, and even national security. Prohibiting farmers from repairing their machines is simply a manifestation of a larger systemic tightening of control.
BIG DATA CONTROL
Agriculture has entered the era of Big Data and “Precision Agriculture.” Some estimates say this industry will grow to $43.4 billion by 2025. All of the BigAg companies are on board, and most (if not all) of the new machinery being released incorporates sensors. This means any new farming equipment is built to be interconnective and to scoop up data wherever it can, which is then combined with historical information like weather reports. The company can then provide “prescriptions” on where, when, and how much to plant, fertilize, and chemicalize.
But while all these pieces of equipment are simultaneously creating and uploading this data, large questions have not been answered: Who owns the data? Who is controlling it? How is it being shared? These are issues being raised with some trepidation by the farmers themselves, who recognize the utility of their data. They want to know how the data is being exploited, if and how it can be used against them, and the ways it is being monetized without their knowledge or consent.
The American Farm Bureau helped construct the “Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data,” which addresses issues of data ownership, portability, use, and sharing. Companies like Deere and Monsanto were early signers, but questions remain about how much these principes protect in practice. According to University of Missouri professor Michael Sykuta, these (non-binding) guidelines may obscure more than preserve rights; protections are hidden in hard-to-follow (or “turn key to agree”) End User License Agreements (EULA), and, if you read the fine-print in those agreements, providers can easily export or sell data to third party contractors if those institutions mimic the original the language in their own EULAs. The obfuscation simply gets copied ad nauseum as farmers’ data gets sold to company after company.
The John Deere EULA, which a farmer automatically agrees to by turning a key on their equipment, not only forbids repair and modification, but also protects the company against lawsuits for “crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software.”
Farmers’ top concerns in this arena seem to be market manipulation, lost leases, monetization without compensation, and government enforcement of new environmental regulations. None of these are out of the realm of possibility.
Equipment manufacturers know their customers will find it almost impossible to leave their precision agriculture data platforms once they’ve joined, and almost as hard to stay away. The discourse trumpeting the usefulness of precision agriculture tools has so much momentum, adoption is being described as inevitable. Promises in efficiencies and production is touted to outweigh any potential problems.
The general belief is that those who buy-in to a precision data platform will have no choice but to stay in, and as more come onboard, the more it will seem that everyone has to join. Think about it like Facebook, but for agricultural equipment. Farmers can choose not to buy into big data tools, but their friends might think they’re crazy.
If these farmers can hack their devices, who else can?
Scholars have noticed this phenomenon manifested in a specific, (but increasingly common), “treadmill-like” discourse that prevails in industry. The Sociology of Food author and Colorado State University researcher Michael Carolan writes of exchanges wherein a representative—perhaps believing they’re illustrating their product’s viability, will make statements that can easily read as threats: “if [farmers] want to remain profitable they’ll keep coming back.”
But these dependencies aren’t just about software adoption. Deere’s large precision ag machines can cost upwards of $500,000; very few farmers own them outright. The leaseholder is often Deere itself, as the company has become the fifth largest agricultural lender in the sector, loaning money not only for machinery but seed, fertilizer, chemicals, and fuel (some of which also happens to be sold by Deere.) It’s a “cyclical industry” or a “vicious cycle,” depending on who you’re asking. And the farmers themselves are already questioning if it’s worth buying into the cycle at all.
In the era of planned obsolescence, it is not only a possibility that these high-tech tractors will stop running in a few years, but if we’ve learned anything from the iPhone, it could become the goal. Even if they do still run, the company can simply stop updating the software, forcing the farmer to sign a new lease on a new piece of equipment, perpetuating a never-ending cycle of financial dependency.
Anyone remotely familiar with the Internet of Things knows that once something is connected to the internet, we should immediately be concerned that someone may hack it.
Farmers involved in the right to repair fight have consistently voiced concerns that their tractors could be remotely shut down (or “bricked.”) This is a valid concern. Not only have software updates in other industries bricked devices, but Deere has made it clear that it considers any tampering a violation of contract—meaning at any time, the company could send a kill signal to tractors they believe to be violating the EULA.
The thought of their tools being rendered useless at an inopportune time must be terrifying for farmers. Indeed, it’s a reason the right to repair issue has become such a hot issue, and one of the worries driving farmers to utilize illegal Ukrainian software to hack their tractors, as Motherboard illustrated in a recent documentary.
But if these farmers can hack their devices, who else can? As mentioned, farms now are full of interconnected devices, meaning there are many points of entry for a remote attack. Can a bad actor hack a tractor, a sensor, or a combine and hold a farmer’s crop hostage? Will our farmers become the next big victims of ransomware? Could someone—maybe even a state actor—bring a whole network of tractors down, or force a script to dump 10 percent more chemicals or fertilizer, effectively salting the earth? These examples wouldn't just be an attack on farmers, but on the United States' food security and economy.
If the right to repair fight is showing us anything, it’s that farmers epitomize resiliency and ingenuity
This last example might seem dramatic, but these concerns aren’t hyperbolic. In March of 2016, The FBI sent out a bulletin warning farmers about potential security risks, comparing the potential issues to those already being experienced in the health sector.
The fact that farmers are willing to hack their own machines makes it evident that they are eager to find ways to implement new technologies in a manner that allows them to maintain agency over their tools and finances. But even if they want to avoid vendor lock-in, there currently aren’t many alternatives to these proprietary networks.
Promising initiatives like Open Source Ecology and Farm Hack exist, and open-source software is being developed, but they have yet to become commercially viable. Many of these tools rely on the ingenuity and resiliency of individual farmers to build and implement.
But if the right to repair fight is showing us anything, it’s that farmers epitomize resiliency and ingenuity. If any community can implement new technologies and innovate upon them, it’s them.
This is an opportunity to highlight some of the critical issues related to repair in the agricultural sector, lest we leave farmers and the food supply vulnerable to devastating exploits and exploitation. Corporations like Deere are trying to redefine the concept of ownership in a much broader sense than just the prohibition of repair. With increased utility of data manipulation and the tightening of dependencies, they’re essentially taking control of the entire farming process, leaving very little room for agency, innovation, or choice.
But they are more than happy to pass off all the risk to the farmer should anything go wrong.