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Why farmers should have the right to repair their tractors

A blog post from the National Farmers Union's Hannah Packman explains why farmers should not be penalised for repairing essential farm equipment.

27 May 2021, at 7:00am

Thanks in large part to the introduction of machinery like tractors and combines, farms today are far more efficient and productive than they were a handful of generations ago. Though these time- and labor-saving technologies can run tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, farmers often aren’t able to fix their machinery themselves – which has significant implications for their finances, privacy, and security.

A few decades ago, any given farmer often had the skills and tools needed to quickly make repairs if their machinery broke down. These days, however, it’s not so straightforward. Most modern farm equipment is technologically advanced, containing computers and sensors that collect and transmit data. As a result, specific software tools are typically necessary to address mechanical failures and other issues.

However, most companies refuse to make those tools available to farmers, making it exceptionally difficult to fix broken machinery on their own. They can’t even go an independent mechanic, since manufacturers won’t sell them parts or diagnostic tools either. This leaves farmers essentially no choice but to take their broken equipment to a licensed dealership.

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This isn’t cheap. A farmer might spend thousands of dollars on a simple adjustment they could have done themselves with the appropriate resources. On the other hand, this arrangement has proven wildly lucrative for manufacturers; for Deere, as an example, parts and repairs are up to six times more profitable than selling the equipment itself.

But money isn’t the only problem – it’s also a matter of time. Oftentimes on a farm, tasks like planting and harvesting have to be done within a window of just a few days when the moisture content, ripeness, or weather conditions are just right. If, god forbid, machinery breaks during that window and a dealership can’t make an appointment immediately, the wait can cut severely into the farmers’ annual yields and income.

There’s also the issue of privacy. Equipment manufacturers collect lots and lots of data about soil, weather, yields, and other factors, which they can then share with or sell to “affiliates and suppliers.” This intentional data sharing in and of itself is worrying for farmers’ privacy, but even worse is the possibility of hackers accessing that information. Just last month, a security expert found vulnerabilities in John Deere’s apps that would have allowed outsiders to download the company’s data on farm equipment and vehicle owners.

In addition to data breaches, there are other potential security risks. Because most modern tractors can be operated and shut off remotely, some farmers and experts worry that hackers could disable thousands of tractors at a time. Such a widespread disruption could affect the entire country’s agricultural production, threatening livelihoods and food security.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of alternatives for farmers who want to buy equipment they can fix. About 95 percent of large farm tractors are made by just three companies: Deere, CNH Industrial, and AgCo, all three of which engage in the kind of resource restriction that prevents on-farm repairs. Instead, some farmers have resorted to buying decades-old tractors that don’t require copyrighted software to repair.

Farmers shouldn’t have to choose between outdated equipment or the inability to fix their own tools. That’s why National Farmers Union will continue to fight for Right to Repair legislation that allows farmers and independent mechanics access to diagnostic software, information, and other tools necessary to repair modern equipment.

Words: Hannah Packman