John Deere Promised Farmers It Would Make Tractors Easy to Repair. It Lied.

Three years ago, tractor manufacturers told farmers that starting in 2021, tractor repair information would be easily accessible. It's not.

Feb 18 2021, 6:17pm

In September 2018, a trade group that represents John Deere and a series of other tractor and agricultural equipment manufacturers made a promise intended to stave off increasing pressure from their customers and to prevent lawmakers from passing what they said would be onerous repair regulations. They vowed that, starting January 1, 2021, Deere and other tractor manufacturers would make repair tools, software, and diagnostics available to the masses.

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This "statement of principles," as it was called at the time, was nominally designed to address concerns from farmers that their tractors were becoming increasingly unrepairable due to pervasive software-based locks that artificially prevented them from fixing their equipment. As Motherboard repeatedly reported at the time, farmers were being forced to go to "authorized" John Deere dealerships and service centers to perform otherwise simple repairs that they could no longer do because they were locked out of their equipment and needed special software to unlock it. To get around this, some farmers had begun hacking their tractors with cracked software from Ukraine.

A host of states were considering "right to repair" legislation that would have compelled Deere and other manufacturers to abandon these artificial software locks, to make repair tools and guides available to the general public, and to, broadly speaking, allow farmers to fix the tractors they owned. 

Deere, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (the lobbying group that represents Deere and several other large manufacturers), and the Equipment Dealers Association announced this "commitment" to farmers in order to prevent any of this legislation from passing; the thinking was that if manufacturers like Deere provided some of the things that right to repair legislation would have required, they could explain to lawmakers that these bills (which provided more consumer control) weren't actually necessary.

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This was a big deal in the farm world. In California, The Far West Equipment Dealers Association (which represents authorized dealers in seven western states) signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" with the California Farm Bureau that enshrined this statement of principles, printed out a giant poster of it, and then displayed it in a signing ceremony and photo-op. It was seen as a grand compromise, and farmers were the winners. 

California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson, left, and Far West Equipment Dealers Association President and CEO Joani Woelfel, right, sign a “right to repair” agreement as Assembly Member Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, watches. The memorandum of understanding says equipment dealers agree to provide manuals, service guides and other information needed to help farmers diagnose and fix machinery. Image:Dave Kranz

“This agreement says a lot about the relationship between dealers and their customers,” Far West Equipment Dealers Association president and CEO Joani Woelfel said in a 2018 press release. “It is especially important because whenever we can resolve issues that concern us without passing laws, everybody wins."

It is now three years later. The agreement is supposed to be in effect. No right to repair legislation has been passed. Deere, the dealers, and the manufacturers got what they wanted. And, yet, farmers are still struggling to get anything promised in the agreement.

"Right now, the situation is quite bad," Nathan Proctor, the campaign director of Right to Repair at U.S. PIRG, a nonprofit consumer advocate group working on right to repair issues, told Motherboard. "Three years ago, John Deere offered a half measure that was going to take three years to implement. It seemed like a stall tactic at the time. But there was some wait-and-see going on in the farm world. We’ve waited and now we see—it’s not just a half measure, it's Kabuki Theatre. You can't get it."

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U.S. PIRG Right to Repair advocate Kevin O'Reilly published a report Thursday that claims dealers and manufacturers have not held up their end of the bargain, and that it is still extremely difficult, if not impossible, for farmers to get diagnostic software, tools, or parts from dealers as was promised. Posing as a customer, O'Reilly called 12 John Deere dealerships in six states: "Of those, 11 told me that they don't sell diagnostic software and the last one gave me an email of someone to ask for the tools. I sent an email two days ago and haven't heard anything back." Motherboard called nine dealerships in seven states and was told by representatives there that the things promised by manufacturers are not available. We tried three in California; two said no immediately, a third offered to help. "We don't sell those parts to the public," one said. "You have to be a licensed dealer, we're not allowed to sell them to anyone," another said. 

Kerry Sheehan, iFixit's head of US policy, points out that currently, the "only John Deere repair tools we can find" are these children’s toys.

David Ward, a spokesperson for the AEM, the manufacturers' lobbying and trade group that often represents John Deere, told Motherboard that "Equipment manufacturers support farmers right to repair their equipment. Comprehensive repair and diagnostic information is now available for the vast majority of the tractor and combine market through authorized dealers. While we do not track it, specific information on pricing varies based on manufacturer.” A follow-up email from Motherboard that asked if he could point to a single instance where this is actually the case, or a single manufacturer that explains to farmers where they can get this information or these tools, was unreturned.

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John Deere did not respond to a request for comment. But John Deere customer support manager Aaron Vancil insisted at a meeting about right to repair with the Florida Farm Bureau last week that much of this information is readily available, according to a recording obtained by Motherboard.

“Many of these manufactures, ourselves included, we provide diagnostic tools, repair manuals, parts. Diagnostic and repair information for you, the producer has always been around, you've always had parts, you've always been able to get manuals, paper and such,” he said. “You have the right to repair your own equipment.”

The Equipment Dealers Association did not respond to a request for comment.

New sensors and software in tractors have led to this problem. For decades, many farmers did their own repairs. By-and-large, they can no longer do this: the proliferation of onboard computers and fancy equipment in newer models of tractors and combine harvesters has made it hard for farmers to repair the tools they need to keep the country fed. 

“Farm equipment, much like all of the devices and gadgets in our lives, is increasingly driven by software,” the PIRG report said. “While this software has increased the efficiency of some tasks, it has also allowed manufacturers to take increasing control of the repair process.” 

Like cars, farm equipment is increasingly controlled by an elaborate and complex web of computer sensors. When one of these sensors notices an error, no matter how small or serious, it puts the machine into “limp mode.” This allows farmers to move the machine slowly but not operate it fully. When the problem is diagnosed and repaired, the error code is cleared and the machine can keep working.

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The problem is that farmers often don’t have access to the diagnostic software and repair tools they need to make the fix. According to U.S. PIRG, the John Deere S760 combine harvester has 125 different computer sensors in it. If those sensors start throwing an error code, the combine won’t run and the farmer doesn’t have immediate access to the tools they need to fix the problem.

"It doesn’t matter how industrious they are, what their planting window looks like, or if their tractor goes down right as weather threatens to destroy their crop—modern farming equipment is designed so that farmers need to call the dealership to repair their machines," O'Reilly said.

At a town hall meeting of the Montana Farmers Union on February 8, Farmers Union president Walter Sweitzer shared a personal story about how a broken tractor affected his farm. Last summer, he was having problems with his new tractor. He didn’t have the hardware and software he needed to figure out the error code and fix the tractor on his own so he had to send it back to his dealer for repair. 

“It was a simple fix,” Sweiter said. “It was a fuel sensor, it only cost about $800 to actually do the fix. But when it was all said and done, when you paid for freight, when you paid for the hours that it was there, my bill was about $5,000….if I could have just bought that software, I could have known right away my problem and either fixed it or had the dealer come out with the part to fix it. When I shared my story, I heard from farmers all over the state that they’re having the same problem.”

“If we are making the tools available to empower farmers with the tools they need to service and repair equipment, why are R2R laws that cover farm equipment necessary at all?”

Sweitzer is one of the few people who in recent weeks has seemingly been able to at least get information about how to obtain the things promised by the manufacturers' commitment. A dealer near him wanted $8,000 for software, equipment, and training before it would give it to him.

"There’s farms where $8,000 is not that big of a deal, but this isn't being advertised and it's also not widely available," Proctor said. "This is example 1A of why repair monopolies are bad."

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The problem with new machines is so bad that farmers are taking drastic action to repair their own equipment. Some have become hackers, using software and tools they’ve found online to diagnose and repair their equipment. Others are buying 40-year old tractors because they still function and they’re more repairable than new models.

As the problem has become more pronounced, legislators are trying to pass right-to-repair laws that would help farmers repair their own equipment. LC 1562 in Montana is one example, a simple piece of legislation that would make it easier for farmers to access the information they need to make repairs. 

“What the bill does, overall, is give the owner the ability to purchase the diagnostic tools to make repairs themselves, saving time and money,” Katie Sullivan, a Missoula area state representative said during the town hall. “It supports farmers who don’t have the time to wait for mechanics or have the extra money to spend just to fix a small issue.”

It was the explicit intention of Deere, the manufacturers, and the dealers to kill the right to repair bills with their 2018 promise. At the time, Motherboard wrote that the agreement was a half measure, and that the California Farm Bureau sold out farmers by agreeing to it. Soon after that article was published, Michael O'Brien, a spokesperson with the AEM wrote to Motherboard to tell us they believed the article was unfair, and said, at length, that right to repair laws (specifically one that was being proposed in Nebraska) were now "unnecessary."

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"What farm equipment manufacturers have agreed to do is to make available a comprehensive suite of electronic service tools that allow a dealer or independent repair providers who want to acquire those tools and training on how to use them to make repairs on farm equipment," O'Brien wrote. "We oppose any legislation that would provide access to source code for the reasons (safety and environmental compliance, and IP) we’ve discussed. We view the proposal in Nebraska–and the other states where different, though similar, right to repair laws have been proposed–as overly-broad and unnecessary in light of the tools being made available through the statement of principles."

"If we are making the tools available to empower farmers with the tools they need to service and repair equipment, why are R2R laws that cover farm equipment necessary at all?," he added. "It keeps coming back to this: If a farmer wants to repair the equipment, and we’re making available the tools to do so in a good-faith effort to address their code needs, then why do we need to pass these Right to Repair laws covering farm equipment?"

Deere has claimed that it can’t allow farmers access to the computer system at this level because it’s a security risk and might lead to farmers breaking federal law. “Sometimes, these modifications can be altered and now the machine is not functioning as it was intended,” Vancil said at a webinar about right to repair with the Florida Farm Bureau last week. “It also starts getting into some areas, if you're talking about emissions, that get into the area where you start having federal topics being introduced from an emissions standpoint.”

The problem is that no farmer is talking about hacking their tractor to bypass emission standards or steal John Deere’s source code. No pending right-to-repair legislation mentions source code or calls for farmers to be able to access farm equipment’s embedded software beyond what a dealership already has access to. 

It would not be difficult for John Deere and other manufacturers to comply with a right to repair law, or, at the very least, to abide by its own promise. Europe has had some right to repair regulations which require "standardized access to repair and maintenance information (RMI) systems to provide repair and maintenance information for vehicles used in agriculture and forestry" since 2013, and manufacturers comply with those.

And so the solution in the United States seems like it's going to have to be the same. Not a promise from manufacturers and dealers, but legislation with the force of law. 

"The best recourse is that states pass right to repair legislation given that Deere pitched this as a way to avoid or delay or defer states passing right to repair laws that would impact ag equipment," Sheehan said. "Well, you didn’t do what you promised you’d do. We’re back to legislating."

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