The Used Tractor Market Is Far Wilder Than the Used Car Market

Inflation, a labor strike, and the lack of repairability on newer models is a perfect storm that’s sent prices surging.
November 15, 2021, 6:46pm
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State of Repair is Motherboard's exploration of DIY culture, device repair, ownership, and the forces fighting to lock down access to the things you own.

In early November, a used John Deere tractor built in 1998 sold for $170,000. According to AGweb, a site that keeps up with agricultural news, that’s $32,400 more than the previous record for that model. If you wanted to buy a similar model brand new, it would cost $205,000. That’s if you could find one. Supply chain issues, the ongoing strike by John Deere workers, and the lack of repairability of new farm equipment is a perfect storm that’s sent prices of old equipment at auction soaring according to Bloomberg.

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Used tractor prices were already setting records before the supply chain issues and strike took hold. “There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Greg Peterson, founder of the farm equipment data company Machinery Pete, told the Minnesota StarTribune in 2020. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

What hasn’t been explicitly spelled out in previous articles about the used tractor market boom is the fact that some farmers explicitly prefer older models because they’re easier to work on and repair than newer models. Farm equipment has become more and more computerized over the past 20 years. Tending to a field is no longer as simple as starting up the tractor and using it. John Deere tractors are awash in onboard computers tied to subscription services. There’s more points of failure and more to hassle with when something breaks down. And when something breaks, farmers typically have to take it to John Deere to fix. 

“A broken tractor that you can’t fix is just a hunk of metal in a field,” Kevin O'Reilly, Right to Repair Campaign Director at U.S. PIRG, told Motherboard in an email. “Farmers have already told us that they’re buying older tractors to avoid the software repair restrictions that manufacturers like Deere put in place. Add in part shortages and labor unrest, and the house of cards comes tumbling down. Repair monopolization is making farmers’ lives harder than they have to be.”

The harvest waits for no one and farmers on a timetable need to work the fields. It’s made some of them into hackers and forced others to enter the competitive used tractor market. John Deere promised to make its tractors easier to repair, but it didn’t. It’s currently busy fighting its striking workers and hosting anti-right to repair conferences at mountain resorts.

Peterson told Bloomberg that the used tractor market is the most active he’s seen in his 32-year career. He keeps track of the market and publishes a Quarterly Used Values Index for subscribers. Values have grown to 9.5 in the third quarter, which matches a decades old used boom. According to Peterson, the market was up 22 percent in the first nine months of the year and doesn’t show signs of slowing.

The $170,000 tractor sold in Maryland to someone who had driven 12 hours from Illinois.