Farmers Fight for the Right to Repair

An old red tractor. Photo by Cassandra Uchida.

The right to information to repair agricultural equipment without a specialized technician is a major problem farmers face as authorized mechanics become more expensive and less accessible. 

Recently, multiple bills have been introduced regarding the freedom of information and farmers’ rights to repair the equipment they own and use. Farmers throughout the country support this move, while many agricultural equipment manufacturers are pushing back. 

The agricultural equipment market has become increasingly less diverse as major companies gain bigger shares. Concerns have been raised that John Deere has moved to control the market for equipment repair by preventing farmers and independent mechanics from diagnosing malfunctions or making repairs.  

“This highly restrictive ‘repair monopoly,’ as advocates call it, has become associated with Apple, which was investigated in 2019 by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee for restricting third-party repairs. Yet companies like Deere & Company employ similar practices that prevent non-authorized dealers and farmers from making many of their own repairs. These practices also hurt independent mechanics who lack access to the necessary tools and diagnostic equipment for many repairs, making it harder for them to compete with authorized dealerships,” asserts an article from Civil Eats. 

These restrictions have driven many independent mechanics out of business because farmers cannot go to them for repairs. Farmers have no choice but to go to a Deere and Company authorized mechanic, which for many is not available in their region.  

According to surveys by the US PIRG Education Fund and the National Farmers Union, 65% of farmers reported having fewer accessible dealerships than five years ago. This creates immense strain, especially during harvesting. 

Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of the Repair Association, has experienced these problems firsthand. In the middle of harvesting hay one season, his tractor became inoperable due to a problem he couldn’t identify because he didn’t have access to the manuals and codes. This stressful situation turned out to be a simple problem with his tractor’s fuel sensor. 

“It’s a very critical problem for the production of food. You can lose a whole crop if you can’t plant or fertilize because some stupid sensor or part of your machine just went down and you can’t fix it,” Gordon-Byrne commented in an article on Civil Eats. 

In response to these concerns, John Deere signed an agreement with the American Farm Bureau Association in January to expand farmers’ right to repair equipment. However, many are raising alarm at this move, asserting that it was an attempt to undermine the movement and prevent Right to Repair becoming formal legislation. 

“Equipment and device manufacturers have made limited commitments to expand repair access in the past, including a 2018 statement of principles that stated that farmers would be able to use certain diagnostic tools by 2021. An investigation conducted by PIRG and VICE found that such tools were not available on the timeline prescribed by tractor-makers,” explains an article by the Public Interest Research Group. 

Despite appearing to give customers’ further access to repair their equipment, PIRG cites previous moves by John Deere that didn’t truly expand access to repair: “Willie Cade, a regional director for and a member of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, acquired the Diagnosis and Tests Service Manual for John Deere’s 8130, 82390, 8330, 8430, and 8530 machines. Of the roughly 700 error codes the Manual lists, 89% state that the farmer should contact their John Deere Dealer with little to no other guidance on how the farmer can fix their equipment.” 

In response to this, agricultural equipment dealers and those associated argue back that farmers do not need access to equipment codes to make repairs.  

Stephanie See, Association of Agricultural Manufacturers director of government regulations, comments in an article on Successful Farming that access to codes would result in injury, impacts on machinery’s warranty, violations of federal emission laws, and increased engine wear. 

This pushback is seen as a false alarm by many in the Right to Repair movement, as farmers have an interest in maintaining their own equipment properly to save money and time. 

Farmers may soon have formal laws to protect their right to repair. As of February, 11 states have considered Right to Repair legislation, and Colorado became the first to pass a bill in April. 

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