Two repair advocacy groups are accusing tractor manufacturer John Deere of flouting federal law by preventing people from repairing their own equipment. According to Repair.org and the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), John Deere is in violation of the Clean Air Act and the groups are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to do something about it.
Repair.org and PIRG announced the alleged violation in a joint statement. “John Deere is breaking the law and squeezing farmers every day,” Willie Cade, a Repair.org board member, said in a statement. “Deere has been locking farmers out of their own tractors while reporting that farmers have full repair choice. This monopolistic practice is not just anti-farmer—it’s anti-American. EPA should figure out exactly what is happening and take corrective action to stop it.”
John Deere makes it hard for farmers to repair equipment they purchase from the agricultural giant. It has ignored shareholders' concerns over the issue, lied about saying it would make things easier, and is facing several lawsuits accusing it of operating an illegal monopoly. It’s so hard and so expensive to repair new John Deere tractors that old—and easy to repair—used tractors are selling for astronomical prices.
One of the reasons John Deere has given for restricting repairs is that it has to comply with EPA regulations. In testimony before the Nebraska legislature last year, John Deere manager of customer support Grant Suhre said that the EPA would shut the company down if it made things easier to repair. “If we don't comply with [EPA] requirements, they can, up to and including stop us from building engines,” he said. “So the … motto ‘Nothing runs like a Deere’ becomes a bit of a moot point if there's no engine.”
The testimony struck Cade as odd and he set out to find out what specific EPA regulation John Deere was in danger of violating. That’s when, he told Motherboard, he made a bizarre discovery. Buried in section 1039 of the Clean Air Act is language he argues refutes Deere’s claim and, in fact, paves the way for the right-to-repair tractors.
Under the act, manufacturers making diesel engines for machines that aren’t going on the road have to get certified by the EPA. The certification requires the manufacturer to meet certain standards. According to Clean Air Act regulations, a manufacturer must “give the ultimate purchaser of each new nonroad engine written instructions for properly maintaining and using the engine, including the emission-control system.”
The Clean Air Act also stated that diesel engine makers must provide purchasers easy access to parts and repairs. “State clearly in your written maintenance instructions that a repair shop or person of the owner’s choosing may maintain, replace, or repair emission-control devices and systems,” the Act said. “Your instructions may not require components or service identified by brand, trade, or corporate name. Also, do not directly or indirectly condition your warranty on a requirement that the engine be serviced by your franchised dealers or any other service establishments with which you have a commercial relationship.”
If Cade, Repair.org, and PIRG are right—and they’ve been studying the issue for months—then John Deere is in clear violation of EPA regulations and, according to Cade, has been for 18 years. “It just seems impossible,” he said. “How could this have happened for so long?”
According to Cade, both John Deere and their dealers have known they’ve been getting one over on their customers for decades. In March, the manufacturer buckled and began selling a restricted version of its customer service repair tool to farmers. But even that still doesn’t live up to EPA standards, said Cade.
“I was the second customer in the state to get my hands on Customer Service ADVISOR. It didn’t let me fix problems with the emissions system,” Jared Wilson, a farmer in Missouri, said in PIRG’s statement about the violation. “These kinds of repair restrictions have cost me tens of thousands of dollars. I comply with environmental regulations because it’s the right thing to do. John Deere should do the same. It’s not every day that farmers look to EPA to be the hero.” Wilson has had so many problems with John Deere that he’s filed his own FTC complaint against the tractor maker.
Cade said that John Deere has to make this right. “Farmers have known that they’ve been getting screwed over,” he said. “They just didn’t know there were already protections. Everyone assumes that a giant corporation wouldn’t pull such a bonehead move. They are also incredibly bullying. Given that 98 percent of the farms in the U.S. are owned by families, no one can go up against them.”
Cade said he wants the EPA to do one of two things: “Either Deere’s engines get decertified, ie, they can’t sell. Which ain’t ever gonna happen,” he said. “Or two: they have to give out dealer level service ADVISORS. Make it available to everybody.”
The EPA declined to give a statement, saying it “cannot comment on potential or ongoing enforcement action.”
John Deere did not return Motherboard’s request for comment.