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Guest view: Support Right to Repair legislation for farmers

Guest view: Support Right to Repair legislation for farmers

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Walter Schwietzer had a problem with his tractor in the middle of last year’s haying season. It wasn’t a complicated issue, but because software was involved, Walter had to haul his tractor into the dealership, and wait a month. It would cost  $5,000 — but that was just the price tag The cost of lost productivity — and the realization that he didn’t have control over the tractor he owns — was much higher.  

With the right tools for the job, Walter says he could have had his tractor back with a day of work and roughly $800 in parts. Instead, he spent more than six times that and weeks waiting when he should have been loading hay. He lost time that he couldn’t get back. 

Farmers like Walter in Helena and across the state just want to fix their stuff. But as manufacturers have built more software into farming equipment, they have restricted access to the digital tools needed to fix the equipment when it breaks. Deere in the Headlights, a new report from U.S. PIRG Education Fund, found that a single combine harvester can have as many as 125 software-connected sensors. That’s 125 different things that could go wrong, none of which a farmer can repair on their own. 

These days, something as simple as changing the oil in your car may mean interacting with its  computer. It’s the same with farm equipment. Even repairing a tractor’s turn signal requires a software fix.

Thanks to automotive Right to Repair legislation, car owners can buy diagnostic tools themselves or go to an independent mechanic with the right setup. But as Walter will tell you, that’s not the case for farm equipment. We should all be able to do what we want with the things that we own — especially when those things cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That’s why farmers are calling for the Right to Repair. They want access to the same software tools, replacement parts and repair manuals that the dealer has at a fair and reasonable price.  

Farmers have been advocating for Right to Repair since 2017. The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) and the Equipment Dealers Association (EDA), trade groups that include industry-leader John Deere, took notice of these frustrated customers’ efforts and offered a compromise. AEM and EDA touted “R2R solutions” and promised to give farmers what they need to fix their equipment by the beginning  of 2021.

Here we are. And farmers aren’t very happy with what manufacturers have rolled out. Instead of actual solutions, the tools manufacturers are offering are either non-comprehensive, bundled into expensive service packages, or little more than a remote “call the dealer” button that requires internet access. Ultimately, farmers are still reliant on the dealership — not to mention a reliable Wi-Fi signal in the middle of a hayfield — to fix their equipment.

You either have an open repair market or you don’t. Right now, it’s hard to argue that farmers have any choice but to knock on a closed door and ask the manufacturer for help. 

EDA, AEM and other industry groups say manufacturers have good reasons to limit the Right to Repair. But their arguments that Right to Repair enables illegal modification and source code theft are misleading at best. Investigation has shown that neither is true.

What isn’t misleading is the numbers: recent John Deere filings show that service and repair were as much as three to six times as profitable as new equipment sales. Limiting independent repair is good for manufacturers’ bottom line.

Montana Rep. Katie Sullivan and Sen. Mark Sweeney have introduced Right to Repair bills, HB390 and SB273, which would challenge manufacturers’ repair monopoly. It’s time that we put the needs of farmers — the people who grow the food on our dinner tables — above the needs of large corporations. It’s time that we stand up against consolidation and give choice back to the consumer. It’s time we give farmers back their freedom to fix their own equipment. 

Kevin O’Reilly is a Right to Repair advocate with U.S. PIRG. Follow him on twitter: @kevin_oreilly7

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