Lack of repair options for Maryland farmers has Deere in the Headlights

Farmers need software tools to fix their tractors—tools that manufacturers such as John Deere won’t provide.

Maryland PIRG

BALTIMORE — Modern farm equipment, just like most modern technology, runs on software. But when manufacturers restrict access to the software tools needed to repair broken tractors, farmers are forced to rely on dealerships. That can lead to lengthy delays and inflated repair bills. With fields to be plowed, planted and harvested, farmers don’t have the time to wait for a dealer. They need to be able to fix their own stuff.

A new Maryland PIRG Foundation report, Deere in the Headlights, details how much software is in modern farming equipment and how software tools are essential to farmers’ ability to fix their own tractors and combine harvesters. But calls to local dealerships have revealed that these software tools are often not available for sale. despite promises from manufacturers to provide them starting January 2021. This morning, Maryland PIRG and the Maryland Farm Bureau hosted a press event on Zoom to discuss the report.

“Farmers can’t get their hands on everything they need to fix their tractors—they have to rely on the dealership to get the job done,” said Rishi Shah, Maryland PIRG Campaign Associate. “There is a strong financial incentive for manufacturers and dealers to maintain their role in the repair process. But the fact of the matter is farmers who don’t have access to software repair tools are getting left out in the cold.”

When farmers have to wait for the dealer to fix their equipment, a simple task can turn into a month-long wait.

“Farmers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on modern farm equipment, but aren’t able to repair their equipment after they invest so much. We just want a farmer to have the same options as an automobile owner when it comes to repairing it yourself or using an independent repair shop,” said Colby Ferguson, Maryland Farm Bureau Director of Government & Public Relations.

“Environmental concerns have challenged Maryland farmers to become leaders in their field, and they have risen to the occasion.  In order for family farms to be sustainable, they must be profitable,” said Kevin Anderson of Wimberly Farms. “The ag community is now challenging the machinery manufacturers and dealers to adjust their business model to meet the needs of their customers and the challenges we are all facing as we try to remain profitable.”

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM)—an industry group that includes John Deere, Kubota, Case, New Holland, and more—issued a statement of principles promising to provide on-board diagnostics and other repair information starting in 2021. But calls to local dealers have shown that diagnostic tools are rarely available for purchase.

“We’ve called dozens of dealers in states all over the country asking to buy diagnostic software tools,” Shah added. “Most of the time, the response to our request is an emphatic ‘no’. If you aren’t dealer-affiliated, you’re out of luck.”

Right to Repair legislation—which would provide farmers with access to the physical and software tools used to diagnose, calibrate and otherwise authorize repairs—is gaining popularity amongst farmers as a result. 

“Maryland’s farmers do so much to ensure members of our communities can put food on the table every day. They shouldn’t have to break the bank in order to replace equipment that can easily be fixed with the right tools,” said Maryland Senator Katie Fry Hester. “Right to Repair will make sure our farmers can maintain the hardware they own and use day in and day out, so they can focus on what matters most- supporting their businesses, their families, and the people of Maryland.” 

Maryland has introduced a general Right to Repair bill, which calls for access to repair material for agricultural equipment as well as other electronic devices such as cellphones, laptops, household appliances, and medical equipment. 

“Right to Repair is a common sense approach to protecting consumers, protecting the environment, and protecting small businesses. When it comes to agricultural equipment, it’s also about protecting our food supply. We cannot allow our farmers to be trapped in a manufacturer’s monopoly on repairs,” said Maryland Delegate Jessica Feldmark.

“We’ve praised farmers as essential workers during this pandemic, but they’re still getting the short end of the stick. Restoring their right to repair their equipment is just common sense,” concluded Shah.