A public interest research group, farmers unions, and right to repair advocates have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against John Deere, alleging the tractor manufacturer intentionally makes its products difficult or impossible to repair except at Deere dealerships, making it a monopoly and thus operating in violation of the Sherman antitrust laws.
“While historically Deere has outcompeted rivals to win farmers’ and ranchers’ business, in recent years it has resorted to leveraging its monopoly power in the market for large agricultural equipment to dominate the repair market for its equipment,” the complaint says. “A farmer who purchases Deere equipment today may not realize that Deere, under the guise of technological advancement, has made it impossible for farmers to make important repairs themselves or to go to an independent repair shop. Even where purchasers of Deere equipment are aware that Deere requires important repairs to be performed only by Deere-authorized technicians, Deere’s market dominance leaves these purchasers little to no choice but to submit to Deere’s terms.”
The complaint is asking for formal acknowledgment of what many farmers have been arguing for years: that Deere has cornered the repair market using a mix of digital rights management and its increasingly consolidated dealer network, where most repairs must be done. According to a recent U.S. Public Research Interest Group report—the same group that filed the FTC complaint—more than four out of every five Deere dealers is part of a chain of dealers of seven or more locations. This “mass consolidation,” as USPIRG put it, means that there is one dealership chain for every 12,018 farms and every 5.3 million acres of American farmland. The result is that many farmers have no real choice about where to get their tractors repaired, since all the repair centers near them that can do the repairs are increasingly owned by the same company, which are ultimately part of Deere's larger network.
The complaint is the latest effort by farmers and right to repair advocates to make Deere products repairable. It’s an issue that impacts most farmers, as Deere constitutes more than 50 percent of tractor sales in the U.S. according to the complaint. For years, Deere customers have resorted to hacking their tractors and other black market methods to avoid the exorbitant fees for diagnosing and repairing products they already own. In January, a farming corporation in North Dakota filed a class action lawsuit against Deere, alleging many of the same claims as the FTC complaint. The Biden administration issued an executive order last year attempting to make it easier for people to fix their own stuff. He also directed the FTC to make right-to-repair a part of its mandate.
The complaint further alleges that Deere has engaged in “unfair and deceptive trade practices” by claiming it would change these practices but then never actually doing so. In 2018, an industry group representing tractor manufacturers including John Deere said that by January 1, 2021 the companies would make repair tools, software, and diagnostics available to the masses. But that never happened. When shareholders questioned Deere about that, the company blew them off.
Deere did not immediately respond to a Motherboard request for comment on the complaint.