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'Right to repair' for ag. equipment takes a small step forward

A driver at the helm of a modern combine harvester harvests grain.
Igor Klyakhin/Getty Images/iStockphoto
A driver at the helm of a modern combine harvester harvests grain.

A recent agreement allowing farmers to repair their own high-tech John Deere agricultural equipment gets mixed reviews from Montana producers. Even the deal’s skeptics say it represents an important milestone for the growing ‘right-to-repair’ movement.

Montana Farm Bureau Federation President, Cyndi Johnson, is the chief combine and sprayer operator on her family’s north-central Montana farm. Johnson says that her husband can fix almost any piece of ag equipment the family owns, but farm equipment manufacturers sometimes limit how that can happen without their involvement.

“He doesn’t always have access to the most current information or the technology that helps him get to the problem. So, you bet – we’re pretty danged enthusiastic about this agreement between John Deere and the American Farm Bureau Federation.”

Modern agricultural equipment relies as much on software as laptop computers, smart TVs and smartphones. When a tractor part fails, it’s not as simple as buying and installing a new part from the dealership. Either a technician travels on site — at the farmer’s expense — to authenticate the part to make it work, or the disabled equipment needs to be hauled to the dealership for repairs.

That takes time and, on a farm, time is money. A growing number of farmers are asking manufacturers to give them the information they need to fix their tractors without outside help.

Manufacturers generally oppose that, citing consumer safety, device integrity and intellectual property rights concerns.

The recent Memorandum of Understanding between the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and John Deere outlines the company's willingness to provide farmers and independent repair shops with manuals, diagnostic tools and training for a cost.

Montana Farmers Union President Walter Schweitzer says that the announcement is a hollow media blitz that doesn’t go far enough in allowing farmers to repair their own equipment.

“Until we have the ability to be able to reprogram any new parts that we purchase from John Deere, so that it can communicate with the mainframe computer it doesn’t give us the right to repair,” Schweitzer said.

John Deere is at the center of a Federal Trade Commission complaint filed by right-to-repair advocates, including the Montana Farmers Union, alleging abusive restrictions on farm equipment repairs.

Democratic state Rep. Tom France from Missoula says that farmers should have the right to fix their own equipment, and not allowing them to do so is an anti-competitive business practice that should not be allowed in Montana. France is one of a handful of Montana legislators drafting right to-repair legislation.

“I think the John Deere agreement with the Farm Bureau shows that the companies can let farmers repair their own equipment. I think the next step now is legislating that, so the farmers and ranchers have certainty in law that they have the right to repair their farm equipment,” he said.

France told MTPR that his legislation is being finalized and should be formally introduced within the next week or two.

After initially generating widespread support, the right-to-repair legislation failed during Montana’s last legislative session two years ago, Republican state Sen. Ryan Osmundson of Buffalo then said that he was initially disappointed that manufacturers were dragging their heels in responding to farmers' complaints about expensive and time-consuming repairs.

“But I will say and I have to give them a little bit of credit that they are trying to solve the problem," Osmundson said. "As a producer, as someone who uses this equipment, as someone who repairs his own equipment, I’m going to actually oppose the bill. I don’t want to have to make this law. I think they’re fixing the problem and I’d like to give them another two years. If they don’t I’ll be back here in two years and I will be carrying the bill,”

Osmudson is no longer in the Legislature and is now the governor’s budget director.

Montana Farm Bureau Federation President Cyndi Johnson says that if invited to participate, her team is prepared to weigh in on this session’s anticipated right-to-repair bills, but there’s a potential hitch. The recent MoU stipulates the American Farm Bureau Federation and its member organizations can neither introduce nor support additional federal or state right-to -repair legislation.

Johnson tells MTPR that she’s not convinced that means the Montana Farm Bureau Federation will be forced to sit on the sidelines as Montana lawmakers debate the issue.

“I’m not always a big promoter of limiting your options, but on the other hand you never know what something looks like until you actually see it. This agreement is the beginning; I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of tweaks as time goes on. I am not uncomfortable with it all,” she said.

While Montana’s agricultural community debates the merits of the agreement between AFBF and John Deere, everyone who spoke to MTPR for this story agrees that, if nothing else, it gives deserved attention to an important issue to farmers in the state.

Montana Farmers Union President Walter Schweitzer says, “This is going to help elevate the right-to-repair issue. The fact that John Deere’s come out with this MOU that we can all talk about — you know, it is a big issue. John Deere recognizes it, I think the other equipment manufacturers recognize it and it’s just time to do the right thing.”

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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