The Federal Trade Commission has indicated it intends to crack down on ag companies that keep diagnostic and repair technology closely guarded.
The battle for farmers to fix their own tractors isn’t new. For years, in the face of increasingly complicated farm machinery and proprietary technology that makes it next-to-impossible for owners to do their own repairs, growers and ranchers have been lobbying federal and state governments to push back on the rigid constraints John Deere places on the maintenance and repairs of their equipment. This week, after years of fruitless appeals made to the manufacturing giant, a significant salvo was fired.
“Two years ago, I would have laughed if you asked me about our chances of winning [the right to repair],” said third-generation rancher Walter Schweitzer, president of the Montana Farmers Union. “Now it’s suddenly boom, boom, boom—I feel very hopeful.”
Schweitzer is referring to a 43-page complaint filed against John Deere Thursday with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on behalf of the National Farmers Union, six state farmer groups, and a handful of advocacy organizations. The comprehensive complaint, detailing exactly how challenging John Deere makes it to fix their equipment, comes in response to the shared intent of the FTC and Biden administration to dismantle corporate consolidation in agriculture. As a key plank in that agenda, FTC chair Lina Khan announced last summer that her agency would be cracking down on John Deere and its competitors “with vigor.”
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“The Biden administration wanted to hear from farmers for some real evidence of how the policies of companies like John Deere are affecting their livelihoods,” said Kevin O’Reilly, right to repair campaign director for U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy group and one of the complainants. “We presented 43 pages of evidence to bolster their case.”
Currently, when a piece of John Deere equipment breaks down on the job, its owner is expressly forbidden from making their own fixes—only authorized, company-employed technicians have those permissions. And even if you attempted to conduct your own repairs, you’d find it next-to-impossible, particularly on newer, computer-driven models. Deere locks down its proprietary knowledge tightly, and without company-provided diagnostic software and equipment, even getting a sense of what’s broken is virtually out of reach.
Agriculture is a profession rife with DIY spirit, where farmers are constantly pushed to do their own repairs and hacks because they don’t have the time—or spare funds—to outsource it. “If a piece of my equipment breaks down during planting season, time is a luxury I don’t have,” said Jared Wilson, a commodity corn and soybean farmer in Missouri. “My only purpose in life is to get it working again as soon as I can.”
“If a piece of my equipment breaks down during planting season, time is a luxury I don’t have.”
In the complaint, compiled by D.C.-based litigation firm Fairmark Partners, farmers detail a variety of challenging scenarios they’ve faced, with common themes: lengthy waits to get a Deere-authorized technician to service machinery; further waits for the actual repairs; crops and profits lost in the meantime; and overall frustration that a company making $6 billion annually can keep such a stranglehold on their own ability to do business.
The right to repair movement is far wider than farm gear—there are parallel arguments being made for laptops, cell phones, cars, and complex medical equipment. “It wouldn’t be fair to say we’re the first to make noise,” said attorney Jamie Crooks, managing partner at Fairmark. “We’re just situating ourselves as an important part of a broader movement.”
In fact, the battle for farm equipment self-repair is working on multiple fronts: statehouse lobbying, scattered pieces of federal legislation, even farmer hacking initiatives sharing knowledge of how to crack Deere’s codes. And John Deere is not the only target—with 50 percent of the U.S. tractor market, they’re simply the most powerful. “They’re the 900-pound gorilla,” said Schweitzer. “All the big tractor companies have this proprietary technology, but Deere is the biggest, and they’re also the ones fighting back.”
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In 2018, John Deere announced it would begin voluntarily making repair tools, software guides, and diagnostic equipment available for ordinary farmers beginning January 1, 2021. By all accounts, this promise failed to materialize. “The company simply lied,” said O’Reilly. “We don’t think they’re ever going to change voluntarily.”
The FTC granted itself subpoena power to investigate companies like John Deere, an indication that action may be imminent. If it so chooses, the agency can ultimately mandate Deere and other tractor manufacturers to open up their products to home repair (or even independent technicians, currently sidelined from conducting John Deere diagnostics and repairs in the same way farmers are).
“The five FTC commissioners have all indicated their support of right to repair,” said O’Reilly. “They have the power to issue subpoenas, to access internal documents, to compel Deere executives to testify. And once they make a decision on our claims, they can take immediate action.”
The Counter reached out to John Deere for comment; if they reply, we will update this story.
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