Farmers & Technology: A Long Fight for the Right to Repair

Farmers are an important voice in the international fight for the “right to repair.” Due to the increased computerization of everything from our microwaves to our cars, there’s a rising tide against “smart” technology that makes it near impossible for consumers to repair their tools without the help of the company that manufactured the product. That help, of course, costs money. John Deere is one of the most strategic companies in controlling how, when, and by whom repairs can be done, and farmers have had enough.

John Deere allows only authorized mechanics to access proprietary software that diagnoses broken tractor parts. Johns Deere can charge a hefty fee for the “service” of diagnosis because no independent repair shops or a farmer alone can access the necessary software. The scarcity of licensed mechanics leads to inflated prices and wasted field time as it can be difficult to get a timely appointment at a certified John Deere dealer.

One argument the tractor company offers for restricting access to the software platform is that it is responsible for keeping consumers from tampering with emissions detection software. Aaron Perzanowski, author of The Right to Repair, calls this a “cynical effort….to weaponize pollution regulations.” Advocates have even turned John Deere’s argument on its head, claiming their inability to access the emission control software is in itself a violation of the Clean Air Act.

No matter their true motivation, John Deere is a central player in a society-wide battle over the idea of ownership in the digital age. There is some federal legislation that protects consumers from monopolistic repair requirements but doesn’t effectively address digital technology’s impact on this issue. In fact, 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) seemingly contradicts earlier consumer protection laws by offering copyright protections to software embedded in products.

The US Copyright Office is responsible for regulating a solution for the conflict created by these competing laws. Since 2015 and most recently renewed last fall, they have granted DMCA exemptions to farmers and other consumer groups, protecting them from any liability for “hacking” software if done only for diagnosis, repairing, or modifying their tractors. These exemptions don’t solve the problem; the battle for real autonomy over equipment rages on.

Exemptions from the DMCA have allowed some farmers to access Ukrainian-developed “jailbreak” software for their tractors. More sustainable resistance strategies have taken the shape of state and federal legislation and lawsuits.

At the Congressional level, long-time farmer and Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced the Agricultural Right to Repair Act on February 2nd. The bill would allow third parties or owners of equipment to circumvent software designed to centralize diagnosis, develop and sell tools to repair, and place patents in the public domain if the original company stopped making parts, software, or tools for any piece of equipment. This bill addresses the main strategies for monopolizing repair and gives farmers direct access to maintaining equipment.

So far, Tester’s Senate bill has been read twice and referred to committee. This isn’t the only movement on federal legislation but the only Right to Repair bill that explicitly addresses farm equipment. The House Small Business Subcommittee on Underserved, Agricultural and Rural Business Development had a hearing on two general Right to Repair House bills in September.

State legislators have also been busy debating this issue. According to the Repair Association, 34 states are working on Right to Repair legislation. A reflection of what is happening in many states, NC’s Senate struck right to repair provisions from a 2022 Farm Act mid-year, sending that portion of the bill to committee. As of the middle of this year, John Deere was also facing thirteen antitrust lawsuits, many of which have been consolidated and will be heard by a federal court in Illinois. The White House has even issued an Executive Order supporting the Right to Repair.

Farmer’s efforts are boosted by the natural affinity with other consumer groups; we all want more control over the tools we own. How exactly the rights between companies and consumers will be apportioned awaits decisions from courts, state legislators, and Congress. In the meantime, John Deere has offered some access to its repair software. After updates in 2023, farmers can determine how effective this access is in solving the problem of costly, delayed tractor repairs.

Further Reading:

Aaron Perzanowski’s comprehensive book on the subject: The Right to Repair: Reclaiming the Things We Own.

For more on the lengths farmers will go to get autonomy over their equipment, read a Civil Eats article on open-source tractors.

Food & Power’s take on John Deere and the Right to Repair.