After a years-long battle, a national group that represents farmers has reached an agreement with John Deere that would make it easier to do many tractor repairs. The agreement has been widely celebrated as a huge win for the right-to-repair movement, but the agreement is explicitly meant to be an alternative to legislation, which would be stronger than this agreement.
Deere and the American Farm Bureau Federation, a lobbying group that represents farmers’ interests nationwide, announced the memorandum of understanding (MOU) Sunday.
According to Deere and the AFBF, the agreement will let farmers repair their tractors, which, as Motherboard has reported, has become increasingly hard as Deere has restricted access to parts and embedded software on its farm equipment. The agreement, however, is designed for Deere to pre-empt and potentially avoid government regulation and state-level legislation that would have the force of law behind it. It is pitched in the agreement as “a voluntary private sector commitment to outcomes rather than legislative or regulatory measures.”
The Farm Bureau—which is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country—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.” Deere and the Farm Bureau also both retain the right to pull out of the agreement if any state passes right-to-repair legislation.
Experts who’ve been working on the issue are skeptical of the MOU. “This isn't the first time that a manufacturer has made an announcement claiming that all of farmers' repair problems will be solved. So, there's reason for some cynicism here. We're heavy on ‘verify’ and much lighter on ‘trust,’” Kevin O'Reilly, Right to Repair Campaign Director at U.S. PIRG, told Motherboard.
Willie Cade, a Repair.org board member with a long history of calling out John Deere, didn’t quite trust the tractor giant either. “Given all the other failed promises, this is too good to be true,” he told Motherboard, calling the MOU a “PR stunt.”
Farmers have been here before with farm equipment manufacturers. In 2018, the Equipment Dealers Association, a lobbying group that represents Deere and other manufacturers, reached a similar agreement with the California Farm Bureau to provide greater access to parts and repair manuals. Three years later, many of the specifics promised in that agreement weren’t being offered to farmers.
“Manufacturer shall ensure that any Farmer, including any staff or independent technician assisting a Farmer at a Farmer's request, and any Independent Repair Facility that provides assistance to Farmers, has electronic access on Fair and Reasonable terms to Manufacturer's Tools, Specialty Tools, Software and Documentation,” the memo said.
The memo also said that Deere will ensure that farmers and independent repair facilities will be able to access the tools, software, special tools, and documentation that Deere uses to do repairs for “fair and reasonable terms.” The MOU also made some important exceptions. It does not require manufacturers to “divulge trade secrets, proprietary or confidential information, allow owners or Independent Repair Facilities to override safety features or emissions controls or to adjust Agricultural Equipment power levels; or, violate any federal, state, or local laws or regulations.”
Like everything else in the MOU, this sounds reasonable until you remember that farmers are already routinely jailbreaking tractors in ways that technically override safety and emission features so they can fix their equipment. This language gives John Deere a lot of wiggle room and what it will and won’t allow.
“Ultimately, farmers need to be able to fix every problem with their tractors without dealer intervention,” O'Reilly said. “Will farmers actually be able to reset the immobilizer, disable electronic locks and install the payload files required to authorize a replacement part? Or is this just another announcement about the same Customer Service ADVISOR tool timed to take the wind out of the sails of state legislation? One thing I would add to concerns is the cost. If these tools are priced so high that the average farmer can't afford them, it doesn't offer them the repair relief they deserve.”
The MOU comes at a time when the right-to-repair movement has gained momentum, and at a time when state-level legislation is starting to look inevitable. Thanks to software locks and lack of competition, farmers have struggled to do basic maintenance and repairs of their tractors. The problem is so bad that used tractors manufactured before the advent of computers are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last year, Democratic senator Jon Tester introduced the Agricultural Right to Repair Act into Congress. Right now, the bill is stalled in committee but various other similar bits of legislation are working their ways through state and local legislature. In New York, the first state-level electronics right to repair law passed at the end of last year. President Biden has formally adopted right-to-repair, signed executive orders supporting it, and directed the FTC to push for it.
The U.S. The Department of Agriculture mentioned this executive order when reached for comment on the MOU. “USDA is proud to play a role in implementing President Biden’s executive order on promoting competition in the American economy, particularly by increasing competition in agricultural markets,” a USDA Spokesperson told Motherboard. “USDA is also supportive of a robust right to repair and the executive order’s direction to FTC to address unfair anticompetitive restrictions.”
“This could be a significant step forward. If Deere truly provides farmers and independent mechanics with the same repair materials that its dealers have, then we would shout our praise from the rooftops,” O'Reilly said in a statement. “But the MOU contains limited enforcement mechanisms and the best aspects of this agreement could get lost in the legalese. Like Charlie Brown, farmers have lined up for the kick too many times to let Lucy pull the ball away again.”
John Deere did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.