AGRICULTURE

John Deere, American Farmers sign 'right to repair' memorandum in 'good faith,' South Dakota farmers say

Dominik Dausch
Farm Forum

John Deere, the largest agricultural equipment manufacturer in the world, has agreed to lax its right to repair restrictions, enabling U.S. farmers to seek services outside of the ag company's umbrella.

On Sunday, Deere & Company signed a memorandum of understanding with American Farm Bureau Federation. The written agreement allows farmers in the U.S. and Puerto Rico to service John Deere equipment at any independent repair facility, and the company must also make any equipment-specific tools, software and documentation available for purchase. Technicians unaffiliated with the tractor company will also be able to access equipment manuals and on-board diagnostic interfaces.

The right to repair agreement is a big win for U.S. farmers, whom Deere & Co. had previously restricted from allowing equipment to be serviced through any third-party company. AFBF vice president Scott VanderWal told Farm Forum on Monday farmers will have a better opportunity to save money by working with more affordable repair shops or by replacing the broken parts themselves.

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VanderWal said modern agriculture equipment, such as John Deere tractors, is being made with increasingly complex technological systems. While today's tractors and combines are more efficient and are often fitted with computer dashboards that can collect data in real time, the interconnected nature of this tech means a small glitch can suddenly force-stop equipment mid-harvest.

"If there's a bad sensor or something in the computer thinks there's a problem, it'll disable it," said VanderWal, who is also president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau. "It could take three or four days for a technician to get there … And now that we have access to the information in the data codes to figure that out ourselves, that, in a lot of cases, could be fixed within an hour."

The weekend win in the ag space follows years of advocacy in the "right to repair" movement. Lobbyist groups like The Repair Association argue "repair monopolies" largely centered in the automotive and tech industries force consumers to have their equipment serviced through approved technicians, often at a higher price.

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On July 9, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a broad executive order that, in part, tasked the Federal Trade Commission to address anticompetitive restrictions within the repair industry, including "restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment."

On June 2, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed the nation's first right to repair bill, which gave powered wheelchair owners the right to have their equipment serviced through an independent repairer. And on Dec. 29, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed the "Digital Fair Repair Act," making New York the first state to pass a digital right to repair bill, according to Bloomberg Law.

Better hope no fingers were crossed, one farm group says

The memorandum, though apparently beneficial to the bottom-line of farmers, is not without some concessions on their part.

In a statement to Farm Forum, Wayne Soren, vice president of South Dakota Farmers Union, criticized the memorandum for its lack of legal substance.

"The AFBF/JD agreement includes a provision that discourages formal right to repair legislation. Without formal legislation how can a farmers/ranchers right to repair be enforced?" Soren said.

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As part of the memorandum, AFBF must agree to encourage state Farm Bureau organizations to refrain from interacting with any proposed federal or state legislation that would impose obligations on John Deere that fall beyond the scope of the original agreement. Owners and technicians are also barred from overriding safety features and emissions controls and cannot adjust the power settings on John Deere equipment.

Asked if he felt farmers in agreement would lose access to important features in their equipment, VanderWal said, "Not really" and "There is a way around that stuff sometimes."

But the memorandum is largely based on "good faith," VanderWal admitted, and while both sides have a vested interest in working together, neither party is legally bound to adhere to the memorandum.

In a statement to Farm Forum, National Farmers Union president Rob Larew expressed hope the memorandum could lead to greater repair access for farmers, but he had his doubts.

"We need to know more. Past agreements have led to little progress," he said. "We’ll continue work with our members and partners to evaluate how this MOU is implemented and we will keep fighting to ensure farmers have complete ability to repair their equipment."

If the agreement is voided and there's a falling out with, then farmers are back where they started, VanderWal said.

"And that's not good for anybody," VanderWal said.

Dominik Dausch is the agriculture and environment reporter for the Argus Leader and editor of Farm Forum. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @DomDNP and send news tips to ddausch@gannett.com.