By Michele F. Mihaljevich
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A bill introduced in February by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) seeks to make it easier for farmers to repair their own machinery and to end restrictions on the repair market. The legislation is one of several bills at the federal and state levels designed to allow consumers to fix their own equipment; some include farm machinery while others don’t.
“The basic concept of right to repair is if you bought it, you own it, you should have a right to fix it,” explained Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association. “Big companies say they support the right to fix equipment but not the right to modify. They say you can repair but they won’t go the last mile. They won’t help with the digital stuff. Manufacturers are willing to let them fix 98 percent of their farm equipment, but what about that last 2 percent? That’s the digital component.
“It’s the damn chip. Since about 2000, manufacturers have been using it as an excuse to not provide parts and tools to fix it.”
The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) supports farmers’ rights to repair their equipment, said Stephanie See, the organization’s director of state government relations.
“Our industry has a long history of working with farmers to support their repair, their maintenance of their equipment,” she said. “Farmers tend to be remote, they’re handy, they’re self-sufficient, and they have always had the attitude of doing it yourself and repairing their own equipment. Our industry has long supported that.”
As farm equipment has become more technologically advanced over the past couple of decades, those advancements have improved productivity and sustainability on the farm, See noted. They have helped the industry comply with emissions restrictions, as well as streamline the uses of water and nutrient resources, she added.
“The challenge has arisen in that farmers are used to taking a wrench and cranking on something,” See noted. “That’s what we did 40 years ago. Now, just like a lot of industries, a lot of the tractor is driven by a computer, or an embedded code, which isn’t fixable with a wrench.”
Gordon-Byrne said digital chips are everywhere from toasters to laptop computers to garage door openers. If a product has a chip, chances are the manufacturer is trying to make it difficult to fix, she said.
“Mechanical parts are still repairable. The problem is with products that are digital – parts, tools and software. It’s all about the money. They can make a lot more money if they can monopolize the repair. They can charge whatever they want. Or, they will tell the farmer ‘we can’t fix it, you can’t fix it, you need to purchase a new piece of equipment.’ It’s never practical to suggest people replace a piece of equipment.”
Under Tester’s bill, equipment manufacturers would be required to make available any documentation, part, software or tool required to diagnose, maintain or repair their equipment. The measure would ensure parts are replaceable using commonly available tools without causing damage to the equipment, or provide specialized tools to owners or independent providers on fair and reasonable terms.
AEM said it opposes Tester’s legislation, calling it “a solution in search of a problem.” The association agrees with the senator that supporting farmers should be a national priority. “We are committed to helping farmers reduce downtime and maximize productivity, but this bill undermines important regulations that keep farmers safe and protect our environment,” an AEM statement said.
In mid-March, Gordon-Byrne sent a letter to U.S. House leaders asking for a hearing on another bill, the Freedom to Repair Act (House Bill 6566). She requested the legislators examine the consumer’s right to repair software-enabled devices such as farm equipment, smartphones and home appliances.
“Companies that make products from tablets to tractors are using an oversight in copyright law to deny us the right to repair our own devices or take them to local small businesses,” she wrote. “(The law) is designed to protect copyrighted works from piracy and makes it a crime to bypass a digital lock set up to protect copyrighted content like music, video games or movies. But some manufacturers have exploited that provision to lock consumers into their own expensive, inaccessible repair services by locking repair functions, too.”
As of press time, 41 states had some form of right to repair legislation under consideration, she said.
In a statement of principles that went into effect in January 2021, AEM and the Equipment Dealers Association (EDA) said they are committed to providing end users with the information and tools needed to maintain, diagnose and repair their equipment.
The statement said the ability to diagnose and repair does not mean the right to modify. For safety, durability, environmental and liability reasons, diagnostic and repair information and tools will not permit consumers to do such things as reset an immobilizer system or security-related electronic modules, or change any equipment or engine settings negatively affecting emissions or safety compliance.
Kim Rominger, EDA president and CEO, said dealers support the right of farmers to repair their own equipment, but oppose the right to modify that equipment.
“When you modify equipment, it often affects the performance of the machine,” he stated. “Modifying creates potential liability for dealers. If someone gets hurt, dealers and manufacturers get sued. A lot of the time, it comes back to the dealer somehow and they haven’t done anything.”
Under federal regulations, Rominger said if a modified piece of equipment goes into a dealer for repair, and a technician discovers the modification, the dealer is obligated to refuse service or put it back into its original condition. “This puts the dealer in a really bad spot. You can risk alienating a really good customer. We don’t need to create an environment where customers and dealers are at odds. It makes the dealer into the police.”
Last month, John Deere announced its Customer Service Advisor would be available for purchase from the company. It will continue to be available through Deere dealers. Customer Service Advisor enables customers to diagnose, troubleshoot and repair their equipment, the company said. By 2023, customers will have the ability to remotely download secure software updates to embedded controllers.
Gordon-Byrne said farmers she’s talked with are primarily concerned about their ability to fix equipment, more so than the cost of a program such as Deere’s Customer Service Advisor. “It’s not so much about the price, but they need to have control,” she said. “They have all of the same problems as a big computer but outdoors. They’re subject to the weather. Farmers can spend all that money, they’re told what’s broken somewhat, but at the end of the day, you still can’t fix it. You’re still over the barrel on the dealer’s timeline.”