A farmer in Missouri said he had to go to complain to the Federal Trade Commission in order to get his tractor repaired by the only John Deere dealership in his area, showing how without the right to repair farmers are bound by the whims of the corporations who have a monopoly on repair.
Jared Wilson had a problem with the AC in his John Deere tractor. It wasn’t running and he needed to finish planting his corn and soybeans. The tractor would run, but finishing the plant would be a miserable experience in the heat of the Missouri spring. According to an affidavit Wilson filed to the FTC, he called the local John Deere dealership and asked for an appointment. The manager told him he didn’t want his business.
In the FTC complaint, Wilson is asking the commission to open a consumer protection investigation.
Wilson and the manager talked on April 14, according to an affidavit about the incident filed with the FTC on April 16. Wilson told Motherboard he didn’t know the AC had gone out until temperatures started creeping up in April. “When it hits 70 degrees it’s almost unbearable inside the cab because it’s all just glass and you’ve got a super hot motor sitting in front of you,” he said.
Knowing he’d never make it through the rest of his plant without a little cooling in the tractor, he called his local John Deere dealership: Heritage Tractor. He got the manager on the phone. According to Wilson’s affidavit, the manager said that, “I was not a ‘profitable customer,’ due to my repeated repair service complaints and written notices to John Deere’s corporate office about my dissatisfaction with Heritage Tractor’s repair services.”
According to the affidavit, Wilson felt the manager’s words were “a veiled threat that if I continued to complain to ‘outside people’ about my dissatisfaction with Heritage Tractor that I could or would no longer authorize [sic] repair assistance from Heritage Tractor in the future.”
Wilson is a fierce and vocal advocate for a farmer’s right to repair their tractors. He’s testified about it in the Missouri state house, been interviewed by NBC News, and is quoted by name in a complaint to the FTC.
It’s a lot of drama for one farmer to deal with. But Wilson is a fifth generation farmer whose family has used John Deere for decades. He likes the product, but he doesn’t like their repair restrictions and he doesn’t particularly like Heritage Tractor. But Heritage Tractor is the only reasonably close repair shop, according to the affidavit.
Heritage Tractor did not respond to two requests for comment, including a detailed list of questions. John Deere did not respond to a request for comment about the affidavit.
When Wilson started farming in 2013, there were three different repair shops within 30 minutes of his farm. Now there’s just one: Heritage Tractor, the store Wilson is constantly at odds with.
There’s some independent repair people, but they’re all very busy. “I just talked to one of the few independent repair guys around, one that formerly worked at Heritage, and he said he’s still a couple of weeks out from being able to work on anything new,” WIlson said. “If I were to go to a different Deere facility, you’re talking about 80 miles from where I am.”
Moving a huge tractor 80 miles is what Wilson called a “Herculean task.” He’d have to haul it along highways, take the wheels off so it could fit on a transport, and spend the time ferrying the machine back and forth. It’s not doable, especially not affordable or fast. So he’s stuck with Heritage Tractor a company he claims didn’t want his business.
A lot of this wouldn’t be a problem if Wilson could repair his own machines, but John Deere has taken pains to make that very difficult, if not impossible. “What I think kind of gets lost in this is it’s not just about ‘Can I repair it without all this information?’ It’s, ‘Can I diagnose what the problem actually is?’” he said. “Anything software related that has to do with the controller, we just don’t have any tools for that.”
John Deere tractors require special tools its official technicians have access to and that it won’t sell to farmers. According to Wilson, all the other big tractor manufacturers have followed suit and even if he wanted he couldn't use a different brand because they’re all operating by John Deere’s playbook. “It’s an oligopoly and John Deere is, by far, the market leader,” Wilson said.
After some back and forth and an affidavit filed with the FTC about the fight, Wilson said that Heritage Tractor relented and agreed to send someone to look at Wilson’s tractor. But it’s always a fight and he’s tired of it. Worse, it’s costing him money. “Farmers are losing profitably, even with this technology being added,” Wilson said. “Because the additional cost of it is compressing our margin.”
Wilson said he’s grateful for the technology because it means he doesn’t have to shuck corn by hand like his grandfather. “Now I sit in a 543 horse combine with a connection to a satellite overhead,” he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m making more money. It just means that someone is making more money.”
Farmers are on the forefront of the right-to-repair movement. The FTC is in the early stages of investigation into the company over its repair practices. Meanwhile, John Deere shareholders have demanded answers about the issue and the company asked the SEC for an exemption from answering the questions.
The right-to-repair movement is gaining traction in the United States. The FTC has formally adopted a pro right-to-repair stance, president Biden has backed the issue, and even companies like Apple are slowly making it easier for customers to repair their own phones. John Deere is a hold out in a changing world.