Comment: How a farmer’s tractor relates to fixing your iPhone

Companies keep a tight rein on who can repair their products, complicating fixes. That may be changing.

  • By Wire Service
  • Tuesday, March 28, 2023 8:43am
  • Opinion

By Adam Minter / Bloomberg Opinion

The average Tesla-driving, iPhone-using suburbanite isn’t spending a lot of time worrying about tractor software payloads. They should, though.

Fixing a broken-down farm tractor used to take just a wrench set and some elbow grease. Now repairs might require a mobile-device interface, online diagnostic tools and secure software updates, too. And that stuff isn’t just sitting around in the barn. It’s mostly held at a shrinking number of manufacturer-authorized dealerships. As a result, simple breakdowns that in the past might have been repaired in hours can now take days or weeks. During busy times, such as spring planting, long delays can harm a farm’s crops and profitability.

This spring, at least 11 states are trying to fix this problem. At least one — Colorado — will likely succeed. The solution, known as a right-to-repair law, guarantees that farmers and independent repair shops will have access to the same tools, software and manuals as “authorized” service centers. (A bill in Washington state’s Senate this session regarding right-to-repair for electronic devices receieved a public hearing but did not advance out of commitee before a key deadline.)

The impact won’t be confined to farm equipment sheds. Devices ranging from smartphones to Teslas are often subject to similar repair restrictions, raising costs, inconvenience and waste well beyond farm country. Guaranteeing a farmer’s right to repair is an important step toward guaranteeing everyone’s right to a fix.

For centuries, the American self-image was infused with self-sufficiency, and with good reason. When a prairie homesteader found a hole in his socks, he sewed it up. When the roof leaked, he mended it. There was no alternative. That necessary, enterprising approach extended to farm equipment, which by World War II was becoming highly mechanized. Farmers who bought a tractor took it for granted that they could obtain the parts, tools and manuals needed to fix it themselves. And if they couldn’t, there was always a self-taught mechanic in town who could.

That fix-it-yourself culture in rural America eroded over the last 30 years. Today’s tractors are packed with technology, including GPS guidance systems, automation, emissions controls and luxury driver’s cabins outfitted with high-definition screens.

Farmers and independent repair professionals have the skills to switch out much of this technology on their own. But manufacturers often restrict the use of diagnostic equipment to authorized technicians, thereby effectively locking farmers out of the equipment they purchased. Even when a farmer can obtain and install a part, manufacturers will require software “payloads” and verifications that can only be authorized by the manufacturer, thereby forcing farmers to find and pay authorized technicians to complete what should have been a quick repair.

What makes this system particularly egregious is that manufacturers and the dealerships they rely on for sales have both consolidated sharply over the last several decades. In Montana, a state roughly the size of Germany, there are currently only three dealerships selling equipment made by John Deere — the leading agriculture manufacturer — compared to around 30 just 20 years ago. A late 2021 survey found that 65 precent of farmers, nationwide, had access to fewer dealerships than five years earlier.

No data exist on just how much farmers — and American consumers — lose because of repair restrictions and scarce service options, but the complaints and anecdotes date back years and have inspired a wave of farm activism. Today, it’s rare for a farm organization not to have a position on right-to-repair and associated legislation that’s been introduced at the state and federal level since 2014. Meanwhile, President Biden has offered strong support for a farmer’s right to repair, and his Department of Justice has backed a recent farmer-driven class-action suit against Deere, noting that when “repair markets function poorly, agriculture suffers. Crops waste. Land lies fallow.”

Over the years, both Apple and Tesla have been accused of restricting repair in much the same way as farm-implement manufacturers. Both companies have resisted efforts to pass right-to-repair laws, citing a range of reasons, from intellectual property concerns to the absurd suggestion that right to repair could inspire a wave of criminal hacking. More likely, both companies are simply defending highly profitable service businesses that unfairly harm consumers, small businesses and farmers.

Fortunately, help is on the way. Last summer, Colorado passed legislation guaranteeing the right to repair powered wheelchairs. Before it went into effect, powered-wheelchair users sometimes had to wait weeks for repairs; now, the process is faster. Manufacturers of other goods, including farm equipment, seem to be getting the message. Last year Apple introduced a self-repair program, and in January John Deere and the American Farm Bureau signed an agreement designed to expand farmers’ access to repair tools and documentation.

Unfortunately, there is little means to enforce that agreement. But few farmers — or legislators — are ready to let John Deere or other manufacturers off the hook.

Earlier this month, Colorado’s lawmakers passed right-to-repair legislation that codifies much of what’s in the agreement with Deere. Support for the bill among farmers was strong. Dealerships, which showed up in force at committee hearings, opposed it. Regardless, Gov. Jared Polis signed the wheelchair right-to-repair bill, and there is optimism that he’ll sign this one, too. If he does, it will open up more repair options for Coloradans and farmers across the country.

It would be a victory that should resonate well beyond rural America. Anyone who owns something that requires expensive maintenance, from a car to a dishwasher, benefits when government commits itself to opening up the repair market. In that sense, a farmer’s right to repair is everyone’s right.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology and the environment. He is author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”

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