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Farmers’ Rights: Ag industry eyes federal action on right-to-repair issue

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That combine harvesting grain in a Missouri field is a timeless picture of rural America, but if it breaks down, it may as well be a space shuttle for the average shade-tree mechanic.

That’s partly because tractor manufacturers have equipped new machinery with advanced electronics that require digital diagnostic tools and corresponding service manuals to decode. And it’s partly because tractors have become highly sophisticated pieces of equipment, according to Joel Hardy, general manager of S&H Farm Supply Inc. in Rogersville.

“In some of these machines, especially some of the more complicated machines like a combine, they don’t just have one computer – they have a series of computers that drive different systems in the machines,” Hardy said.

It’s not quite the same as replacing a worn-out brake system, according to Hardy.

Last month, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that urged the Federal Trade Commission to ensure consumers’ rights to fix their own equipment, a concept known as right to repair. The FTC unanimously voted July 21 to ramp up law enforcement against repair restrictions that prevent consumers from fixing their own products, according to a news release from the agency.

Hardy thinks tractor companies have gotten a bad rap.

“Manufacturers aren’t trying to screw people out of their hard-earned money by getting it repaired by one of their shops,” Hardy said. “They’re trying to design and manufacture a piece of machinery that does things faster and more efficiently with less fuel than it used to.”

Hardy thinks the issue has been oversimplified in news reports, and manufacturers have been cast in a negative light.

According to Hardy, manufacturers invest in the electronic diagnostic tool, or EDT, and the shop manuals to go along with each tractor model. That might cost up to $5,000 for the EDT itself, plus $700-$800 for the vehicle manual.

“If you can’t read codes, you can’t assess a tractor,” Hardy says. “Even if you do have the expensive piece of equipment, if you don’t have the service manual to go along with it, you can’t understand the results that you’re getting.”

Complication aside, there are those who would like a crack at fixing their own machines. Gary Don Letterman, president of the Webster County Farm Bureau, is one of them.

“When I buy the tractor, it’s my tractor, so whatever is on it is mine,” Letterman said. “I should be able to access all of the components of that unit and be able to fix it.”

Not being able to fix broken farm equipment can have dire consequences for small farmers, said Letterman, who notes that it could take weeks to set up a repair with a dealer.

Planting and harvesting activities often come down to a very tight window of activity for farmers, Letterman explained.

“It would be different if it was just a piece of equipment that you could do without, but that tractor has to operate,” he said. “If that’s the only tractor that you have, you’re going to lose a crop or you’re not going to be able to get it up.”

Conversely, Letterman said, if he could check out the diagnostics and find out what’s wrong, he could make the repair.

Letterman said there is a big market for used tractors that predate the emissions systems and diagnostic secrecy of the new models. Additionally, there’s a black market for diagnostic tools.

“The Russians have copied it for us,” he said. “I know there’s three places in southwest Missouri that are independent that have them, but they don’t let it be known very much.”

Letterman points out that farmers are going to have to get their replacement parts from the manufacturer, who does make some money from repairs.

Farmer Lane Baxter of Rogersville also works on tractors – mostly his own, but he does repairs for others, too, on a limited basis.

Like Letterman, he also uses older machinery, in part because of the EDT issue.

“If you can’t buy the software or the special hardware to do a diagnosis, you’re left with the alternative to park it, which isn’t an alternative at all, or take it to the dealer,” he said.

And going through a dealer can lead to some added expense. “It may be a bad sensor or a bad microswitch, a $5 part, but you spend $500 looking for what it is,” he said. “When you have a tractor with several years of age on it, it’s not hard to get close to the value of the tractor when you get into major repair – or minor repair if you can’t find out what it is.”

Baxter added right to repair is an issue that goes beyond farm equipment. “This has far-reaching ramifications beyond the farm,” he said.

Indeed, right to repair applies to myriad industries, particularly those centered on technology, such as automobiles, computers and phones. According to the advocacy group The Repair Association, goals include requiring manufacturers to make manuals, schematics and software updates available to consumers, and also to provide access to parts and tools, including diagnostic tools. Unlocking devices should be legal, and design of devices should allow consumers to make repairs.

There’s always a danger that emission standards could be made retroactive, Baxter noted.

“That would be devastating to agriculture. There’s no way we can clean up these older tractors,” he said.

Tractor manufacturer John Deere, famous for its green tractors, is often singled out for restricting access to repair information, though Hardy said all manufacturers are about the same.

John Deere responded to Biden’s executive order in a statement to Farm Journal: “Deere supports a customer’s right to safely maintain, diagnose and repair their equipment. When customers buy from John Deere, they own the equipment and can choose to personally maintain or repair the product.”

The statement added that the company leads the industry in providing tools, parts and information to work on its machines, and also in providing remote access to technicians for long-distance help. “John Deere does not support the right to modify embedded software due to risks associated with the safe operation of the equipment, emissions compliance and engine performance,” the company said.

In a column for the Missouri Times, rancher and former Missouri state Rep. Warren Love expressed his opposition to right-to-repair legislation.

Love writes, “Modern tractors include better safety and emission features, in accordance with the law, to keep farmers and the public safe. But right to repair legislation would allow third-party bad actors to steal, modify, or disable safety features that could put farmers at risk.”

According to Hardy, things are only going to get more complex when it comes to farm machinery.

“One day very soon, not only are we going to have a complex piece of machinery that is hard to assess and fix – we’re going to have an autonomous piece of machinery that doesn’t have a farmer in the seat,” he said, adding this technology should arrive in stores in the next decade.

Farmers will punch in a particular program and map, and the machine is going to drive into the field, where it will till the land, plant the seed, and spray herbicide, pesticide or fertilizer. “When it’s done, it’s going to send a ping to the farmer/operator to say, ‘I’m done,’ and the farmer is going to get on his handheld device or computer and reprogram that machine to go to the next field and do the same thing,” Hardy said.

The FTC’s newly passed policy offers support for dozens of states that are considering right-to-repair bills. The agency’s announcement states that it will begin to investigate repair restrictions from a consumer protection angle and for possible antitrust violations.

According to the Missouri Secretary of State’s website, a petition for which signatures are now being gathered for the Nov. 8, 2022, ballot would amend Missouri law to guarantee owners of digital electronic equipment have access to documents, parts and tools for any embedded software that does not divulge a trade secret.

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