Jessica Fu
Proprietary tools and restrictive user agreements keep farmers from fixing their own machines. A vocal faction of producers, legislators, and advocates wants to change that.

Access Farm Issues Policy Tech

In an age of planned obsolescence, there’s no satisfaction quite like fixing your own stuff. It’s not exactly churning butter, but repairing your eyeglasses, your bike, or your Volkswagen Beetle can convey a hardy sense of self-sufficiency. “If you can’t repair it, you don’t own it!” trumpets the manifesto of iFixit.org, a website for tinkerers.

But for farmers who rely heavily on tractors and other automated machinery, the right to repair is more than a novel DIY challenge—it can be an economic necessity. That’s why Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has made the right to repair farm equipment a central plank in her agricultural proposal for America.

“Farmers should be able to repair their own equipment or choose between multiple repair shops,” Warren wrote in a detailed summation of her proposal two weeks ago. “That’s why I strongly support a national right-to-repair law that empowers farmers to repair their equipment without going to an authorized agent.”

Warren is taking aim at corporations like John Deere, which expressly forbids owners of its tractors from performing their own repairs, or allowing anyone else to work on them besides authorized repair agents. In practice, this isn’t so different from rules that prevent you from unlocking your iPhones, or hacking your CPAP machine, or a host of other digital-powered devices with onerous manufacturer prohibitions.

Farm advocates have found unlikely allies in other tech-reliant consumer sectors.
“When we started out, we didn’t realize how connected all these issues were,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of Repair.org, an organization that advocates for legislation protecting consumers’ right to repair. “Then people started talking to us and we realized that what’s happening with nice Rolex watches is the same thing happening with welding repair equipment, which is the same thing happening with tractors.”

It’s a problem relatively unique to the digital age: Consumer goods that once were semi-repairable with a manual and a set of tools now come stocked with proprietary digital software. This specific issue first started popping up in the early 1990s, after cars were mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to contain emissions-related software; many auto mechanics were ill-equipped to deal with computer glitches, or had to upgrade their digital equipment at significant expense. “Car companies saw an opportunity to increase their control of the marketplace. Suddenly mechanics were highly constrained,” says Gordon-Byrne.

But in today’s agribusiness marketplace, it’s not just complex software that keeps farmers from fixing their own machines. Some brands of equipment allow repairs only by official manufacturer outlets, or mandate the use of proprietary software to evaluate a machine’s issues. Then there’s the fact that many manufacturers don’t sell parts or manuals that could assist in DIY repairs—while unauthorized tinkering can void a warranty (though plenty of folks do it anyway). Keep in mind that new John Deere tractors can run upwards of $300,000— “Farmers can’t just replace a tractor whenever something breaks,” says Gordon-Byrne.

“It’s got the feeling of a big-guy-versus-the-little-struggling-farmer situation.”
But farm advocates have found unlikely allies in other tech-reliant consumer sectors, leading to legislation like Nebraska’s now-stalled “Fair Repair” bill, LB67. When the bill was first up for debate in 2017, The Guardian reported a case of strange bedfellows: Farmers were teaming up with electronic repair shops (the kind that fix laptops and smartphones) to advance the cause.

Guy Mills, Jr., a Nebraska farmer with 4,400 acres of soybeans, corn, and alfalfa, worked hard to ensure that LB67 would pass, writing op-eds and conducting other advocacy work. According to Mills, John Deere’s lawyers got in the way. “These huge companies pumped in millions of dollars to defeat this,” he says. John Deere has sent a version of this letter to all the state legislatures considering right to repair legislation.

Nebraska was the first state to consider farm-specific right to repair legislation, but at least 22 others have since advanced similar bills. Mills says these states are facing similar struggles against corporate pushback and lobbying. “It’s got the feeling of a big-guy-versus-the-little-struggling-farmer situation,” he says.

Still, Gordon-Byrne says the movement has momentum, and is feeling upbeat about the months ahead. She notes that right to repair has the support of the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union. “I’m excited that so many states are considering these laws,” she says, “and the public awareness of this issue is unprecedented.”

Warren’s agriculture proposal certainly will give the issue an even bigger spotlight. Warren hails from Massachusetts, where a car-specific right-to-repair law passed in 2012; she’s also a known consumer advocate.

While Mills says he is “not the biggest Warren fan,” he concedes her proposal could prove popular to farmers. “I think she’s really onto something,” he says.

Jesse Hirsch

Before joining The New Food Economy as managing editor, Jesse Hirsch was an investigative food editor at Consumer Reports, where he tackled stories on food safety, health, and nutrition. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, The Guardian and more. He can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jesse_hirsch.

Sign up for our Newsletter

Get a weekly dish of features, commentary and insight from the food movement’s front lines.