Jan 10, 2023 4:49 PM
Right-to-Repair Advocates Question John Deere’s New Promises
Early this week, tractor maker John Deere said it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Farm Bureau Federation, an agricultural trade group, promising to make it easier for farmers to access tools and software needed to repair their own equipment.
The deal looked like a concession from the agricultural equipment maker, a major target of the right-to-repair movement, which campaigns for better access to documents and tools needed for people to repair their own gear. But right-to-repair advocates say that despite some good points, the agreement changes little, and farmers still face unfair barriers to maintaining equipment they own.
Kevin O’Reilly, a director of the right-to-repair campaign run by the US Public Interest Research Group, a grassroots lobbying organization, says the timing of Deere’s deal suggests the company may be trying to quash recent interest in right-to-repair laws from state legislators. In the past two years, corn belt states including Nebraska and Missouri, and also Montana, have considered giving farmers a legal right to tools needed to repair their own equipment. But no laws have been passed. “The timing of this new agreement is no accident,” O’Reilly says. “This could be part of an effort to take the wind out of the sails of right-to-repair legislation.”
Indeed, one section of the memorandum takes direct aim at proposals to enshrine the right to repair into law. It states that the American Farm Bureau Foundation “agrees to encourage state Farm Bureau organizations to recognize the commitments made in this MOU and refrain from introducing, promoting, or supporting federal or state Right to Repair legislation that imposes obligations beyond the commitments in this MOU.”
Walter Schweitzer, a Montana-based cattle farmer and right-to-repair advocate, calls the new agreement “a Groundhog Day sort of thing”—a repeat of something he has seen before. The memorandum is similar to one signed in 2018 by the California Farm Bureau, the state’s largest organization for farmers’ interests, and the Equipment Dealers Association, which represents Deere, he says. But little changed afterward, in his view.
Jen Hartmann, John Deere's global director of strategic public relations, says the new memorandum of understanding emerged from years of discussions with the American Farm Bureau. It reaffirms the company’s “long-standing commitment to ensure farmers have access to tools and resources they need to diagnose, maintain, and repair their equipment,” she says.
Deere dominates farming in the US, with 60 percent of farmers across 20 states owning at least one of the company’s combine harvesters. It has recently morphed products like tractors into mobile computers, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in robotics and adding AI tools to help farmers boost yields. But those computers on oversize wheels have become increasingly difficult to repair due to closed-off software, many farmers say. Being unable to repair your iPhone may be inconvenient, but a farmer at harvest time with a broken tractor faces potential ruin.
In 2022, three lawsuits alleged that Deere has been monopolizing the repair market, and a group of farming organizations filed a similar complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission. And in 2021, the FTC said it planned to ramp up enforcement against companies that used restrictive measures to prevent consumers from repairing their own electronics.
Deere’s new agreement states that it will ensure that farmers and independent repair shops can subscribe to or buy tools, software, and documentation from the company or its authorized repair facilities “on fair and reasonable terms.” The tractor giant also says it will ensure that any farmer, independent technician, or independent repair facility will have electronic access to Deere’s Customer Service Advisor, a digital database of operator and technical manuals that’s available for a fee.
The memorandum also promises to give farmers the option to “reset equipment that has been immobilized”—something that can happen when a security feature is inadvertently triggered. Farmers could previously only reset their equipment by going to a John Deere dealer or having a John Deere-authorized technician come to them. “That’s been a huge complaint,” says Nathan Proctor, who leads US PIRG’s right-to-repair campaign. “Farmers will be relieved to know there might be a non-dealer option for that.”
Other parts of the new agreement, however, are too vague to offer significant help to farmers, proponents of the right to repair say. Although the memorandum has much to say about access to diagnostic tools, farmers need to fix as well as identify problems, says Schweitzer, who raises cattle on his 3,000-acre farm, Tiber Angus, in central Montana. “Being able to diagnose a problem is great, but when you find out that it’s a sensor or electronic switch that needs to be replaced, typically that new part has to be reprogrammed with the electronic control unit on board,” he said. “And it’s unclear whether farmers will have access to those tools.”
Deere's Hartmann says that “as equipment continues to evolve and technology advances on the farm, Deere continues to be committed to meeting those innovations with enhanced tools and resources." The company this year will launch the ability to download software updates directly into some equipment with a 4G wireless connection, she said. But Hartmann declined to say whether farmers would be able to reprogram equipment parts without the involvement of the company or an authorized dealer.
The new agreement isn’t legally binding. It states that should either party determine that the MOU is no longer viable, all they have to do is provide written notice to the other party of their intent to withdraw. And both US PIRG and Schweitzer note that other influential farmers groups are not party to the agreement, such as the National Farmers Union, where Schweitzer is a board member and runs the Montana chapter.
Schweitzer is also concerned by the way the agreement is sprinkled with promises to offer farmers or independent repair shops “fair and reasonable terms” on access to tools or information. “‘Fair and reasonable’ to a multibillion-dollar company can be a lot different for a farmer who is in debt, trying to make payments on a $200,000 tractor and then has to pay $8,000 to $10,000 to purchase hardware for repairs,” he says.
The agreement signed by Deere this week comes on the heels of New York governor Kathy Hochul signing into law the Digital Fair Repair Act, which requires companies to provide the same tools and information to the public that are given to their own repair technicians.
However, while right-to-repair advocates mostly cheered the law as precedent-setting, it was weakened by last-minute compromises to the bill, such as making it applicable only to devices manufactured and sold in New York on or after July 1, 2023, and by excluding medical devices, automobiles, and home appliances.
Updated 1-12-2023, 5:05 pm EST: This story has been updated to clarify that statements from John Deere were provided by Jen Hartmann, the company's global director of strategic public relations.
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