Farmers are pushing back against legislation that prevents them from fixing their own equipment. If successful, it will be a huge victory for consumers.
A farmer cleans his combine. Image: United Soybean Board/Flickr
A major national group has adopted a policy to fight for the right to repair electronics, but it might not be the one you'd expect: farmers.
The right to repair movement is an effort to loosen laws to allow consumers to be able to fix technology without sending it back to the original manufacturer. Right now, replacement parts and diagnostic tools are carefully guarded by the manufacturer, and right to repair supporters believe they should be available to the public. The effort has largely been driven by the consumer tech sector—like people who want to be able to fix their iPhone instead of buying a new one—but the lack of access to repair materials has greatly impacted farmers, too.
Modern farm equipment is high tech and includes onboard computers, but the majority of farming equipment manufacturers refuse to allow access to the software, claiming it's proprietary information. That means farmers are stuck waiting for a John Deere technician to swap a tiny sensor when it misfires and shuts down the entire tractor.
They'd rather just fix it themselves or, at the very least, take it to someone locally who can do the job. But right now, that's not possible.
"John Deere is behaving exactly as Apple is behaving, in a wholly different market: they're selling equipment and then they're not allowing anybody to fix it except them," said Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of Repair.org, a lobbying group that pushes for right the repair legislation.
This has been particularly frustrating for farmers, who have a legacy of fixing and maintaining their own equipment. It can cause havoc during busy seasons like harvest—if a machine goes down and the farmer has to wait days for a repair, it means thousands of dollars in lost revenue. But now the farmers are fighting back.
The American Farm Bureau Federation is a non-profit that uses grassroots input to lobby for better agricultural legislation across the country. It's the largest farmer organization in the country, with affiliates in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, and it just threw its weight behind the right to repair movement by adopting a new policy specifically addressing a farmer's right to fix his or her own damn tractor.
The Farm Bureau is pushing to amend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (behind which companies like Apple and John Deere hide) to require manufacturers to provide access to "the same agricultural equipments diagnostic and repair information made available to the manufacturer's' dealers."
John Deere and other manufacturers have opposed right to repair movements, saying that allowing too much access to the software could make the machinery less effective or less safe.
"John Deere makes print and digital versions of our operational, diagnostic, and technical repair manuals available to the public," the company wrote in a statement to Motherboard. "The embedded code within the controllers and processors on our equipment [...] is designed so that our machines operate as intended, in a safe and reliable manner, and meet all appropriate safety and emissions regulations."
Some state legislatures have considered bills that would open up the right to repair for farmers specifically, while other have looked at a more broad approach that would cover all electronics, from combines to laptops. But the Farm Bureau has found this issue to be of high enough importance to its members that it's taking it to the federal level.
"[Our members] believe they bought the tractor, or the combine, or the sprayer, and they should be able to adjust it," said Mary-Kay Thatcher, the Farm Bureau's senior director of congressional relations. "They don't want to mess up intellectual property rights. They know how much it costs companies to develop that stuff. But they want to be able to get in and fix it themselves."