Farmers across the country are fighting John Deere's repair monopoly—and winning.
Image: Jason Koebler
Kyle Schwarting is a farmer by trade, and a hacker by necessity. His farm, about 20 minutes outside the city limits of Lincoln, Nebraska, is full of tractors and agricultural equipment, which he picks up in various states of repair from fellow farmers, fixes up, and resells.
“I would say what I’m doing is hacking,” Schwarting tells me, gesturing to a Windows laptop and a USB-to-tractor cable he Frankensteined himself.
The plan is to hook the laptop up to a gigantic John Deere combine, which, like all farm equipment, has become increasingly difficult to repair as companies have introduced new sensors and software into nearly every component. Schwarting has found a hacked version of John Deere’s Service Advisor software on a torrent site, which he can use to diagnose problems with the equipment and ultimately repair it. Without this software, even minor repairs will cost him thousands of dollars from a licensed John Deere repair person and more importantly, time.
“To get it on a truck is $1,000, and by the time you get it hauled somewhere and hauled back, you’re $2,000 into getting something minor fixed,” he said. “You have a real small window to get [a harvest] done in the year, and the tractor broke down. I had to find the software to be able to repair my tractor and make my customer happy and make a living.”
John Deere, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, AT&T, Tesla, and the vast majority of big tech firms have spent the last decade monopolizing repair: “Authorized service providers” who pay money to these companies and the companies themselves are the only ones who have access to replacement parts, tools, and service manuals to fix broken machines; they are also the only ones who have software that can circumvent encryption locks that artificially prevent people like Schwarting from working on equipment. So people like Schwarting find enterprising ways around these locks by finding unauthorized versions of software or by hacking through firmware altogether.
But what started as hacking out of necessity has quickly transformed into a bonafide political movement.
Schwarting and other farmers across the country have found themselves on the front lines of the right to repair movement, the biggest people-versus-big-tech revolt in in recent memory. The goal of this movement is to ultimately get a law passed that will allow farmers, independent repair people, and average consumers to take back ownership of their tractors, their tablets, their cell phones, their air conditioners.
I met with farmers in Nebraska who are leading this movement, and the push is showing considerable momentum: 18 states are currently considering “fair repair” bills, which would require manufacturers to sell repair parts and tools to the masses, would require them to make repair manuals available to the public, and would require them to provide circumvention tools for software locks that are specifically designed to prevent third party repair.
“The Fair Repair act gives an individual the ability—you’ve always had the right—to purchase the diagnostic tools or to take their equipment somewhere local, or to try and repair the equipment yourself,” Lydia Brasch, a state senator who is sponsoring the bill in Nebraska, told me.
An exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act specifically makes it legal to hack tractors for the purposes of repair. But John Deere makes farmers sign licensing agreements that limit the amount of tinkering they are supposed to do one their equipment; violating it could be considered breach of contract and farmers who do are liable to be sued.
In Nebraska, the legislation is borne out of sheer frustration and a feeling of loss of agency from farmers whose families have spent decades repairing their own equipment and have suddenly found themselves beholden to and reliant on multinational corporations with dealerships that may be located many hours from their farms and have hours- or days-long repair backlogs.
“The seat in my tractor is more complicated than the entire tractor [I grew up with],” Tom Schwarz, a fifth-generation farmer old me. “As tractors have become more high-tech, we do not have the ability to hook up a tractor to diagnose it, to repair it, or even to activate parts that we’ve already bought. There are used parts that are available, but if I put them on, the tractor won’t run” because of software activation locks.
People in other states feel the same frustrations—whether it’s an independent smartphone repair person who can’t source iPhone screens, a customer who has been forced to wait weeks to get their battery replaced by Apple, or a hospital forced to pay top-dollar for medical equipment service that’s only available through the manufacturer.
Big tech is legitimately scared that a state may pass a fair repair bill. Lobbyists from every major big tech trade organization have shown up at state hearings on the issue and have written PDF info sheets for lawmakers designed to incite fear; lobbyists from individual companies like Apple have shown up in the offices of lawmakers who support and introduce these bills, but rarely show up at the hearings themselves because they know the legislation is popular with the masses.
“The more obviously they’re arguing for their vested financial interests versus something people care about, the harder that lobbying becomes,” Nathan Proctor, director of the US PIRG’s right to repair campaign told me, referring to individual company lobbying tactics. “It’s basic strategy to send a trade group instead. They don’t want to hurt their brand so they want their way without having to pay the consequences of doing something that hurts consumers.”
The agriculture industry, as least is feeling the pressure. Earlier this month, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and the Equipment Dealers Association—two farming industry trade groups that represent John Deere and other giants in the space—announced that its manufacturers and dealers support “commonsense repair solutions” and will voluntarily provide some of the requirements outlined in fair repair legislation.
"If you own something, you can do what you want with it"
The groups say manufacturers will provide or sell manuals and product guides and diagnostic software by model year 2021 (full details embedded below); the group continues to push hard against legislation that would allow farmers to modify their equipment, which has become popular as tech-savvy farmers and mechanics have learned to make tractors more powerful while learning to repair them.
“We said to manufacturers—if your top goal is to strike a balance that gives consumers, farmers, and ranchers the tools they’re asking for while guarding against legislation that we feel would essentially raid software and undercut a lot of intellectual property on it, you’ve got to be willing to follow through on this commitment,” Mike O’Brien, public affairs director for AEM told me. He noted that the industry does not want to see a law that includes specific regulations or requirements for manufacturers or anything that protects a farmer’s right to modify software to change tractor performance. “We’re making a good-faith effort to respond to the consumer, why is that not adequate?”
It may be too late, though. Repairing, modifying, and, yes, improving, cars, tractors, and the stuff we nominally own is an American tradition, one that a large cross section of people feel strongly about.
“It’s fundamental,” Proctor said. “If you own something, you can do what you want with it.”