Deere in the Headlights

How software that farmers can't access has become necessary to tractor repair

Modern farm equipment runs on software. When manufacturers restrict access to the software tools needed to repair broken tractors, farmers are left out in the cold.

agriflanders via Wikimedia CC BY 2.0
PIRG Right to Repair Campaign Director speaks at a podium in front of a National Farmers Union backdrop.
Kevin O'Reilly

Former Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Modern farm equipment runs on software. But when manufacturers restrict access to the software tools needed to repair broken tractors, farmers are left out in the cold. They are forced to rely on dealerships to fix their equipment, which 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.

Our research shows just how much software is present in modern farming equipment, with as many as 125 software-connected sensors in a single combine harvester. Each sensor is connected to a controller network. A problem with any one of those controller networks will require diagnostic tools not available to farmers, sending them back to the dealer for a repair. According to agricultural equipment experts, these sensors and their associated controller networks are now the highest point of failure on the product.

The delays associated with dealer repair can have real impacts on a farmer’s crop and yield. Jared Wilson, a Missouri-based farmer, experienced them firsthand when a mechanical valve on his fertilizer spreader blew. He told us that the malfunction activated the immobilizer, which prevents the equipment from operating normally until error codes are cleared with software repair tools. That drove him to haul his machine into the dealer, where he says it sat for 32 days. In the meantime, he estimates he lost $30,000-$60,000 because of his inability to get seed in the ground.

The worst part? He thinks he could have fixed the valve himself if he had access to the parts and diagnostic tools needed to repair his equipment and put it back into use.

“My margins looked negative to start the year,” Wilson told us. “People bend down to pick up pennies where I’m from… I just don’t understand why I can’t have access to the same [repair tools] the field technicians have.”

Farmers support Right to Repair

Right to Repair legislation — which would provide farmers with access to the parts as well as the physical and software tools used to diagnose, calibrate and otherwise authorize repair — is gaining popularity amongst farmers. Over 30 states have considered these reforms, the American Farm Bureau Federation adopted a pro-Right to Repair policy in 2020 — and the Montana Farmers Union indicated a 2021 bill in its state is a top priority.

Opponents of Right to Repair reforms, such as the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and the Equipment Dealers Association, argue that the policy is an attempt to force manufacturers to turn over intellectual property in the form of source code. They also worry that Right to Repair would allow farmers to circumvent safety and environmental controls. Our analysis shows neither is the case.

Access to embedded code will not enable theft of source code

Right to Repair calls for the software tools that farmers need, and those tools consist of embedded code. Embedded code is not source code. While the two are related, there are significant differences between them.

Source code is instructions written in a human-legible programming language that tell a machine what to do. Anyone who can read the source code could modify it and use it in a competing form, justifying concern from manufacturers.

But before source code is turned into the software tools that dealers use to fix farm equipment, it is compiled into a series of computer-legible 1’s and 0’s known as embedded code. In a combine, a farmer interacts with this embedded code through the controls in the cabin, which execute the embedded code to display a selectable button or list of settings on their screen.

Sheryl Watson via

Translating these 1’s and 0’s back into source code is nearly impossible, which is why Apple, HP and others make embedded code freely available for their products in the form of firmware updates.

Because Right to Repair legislation only mandates access to the embedded code required for diagnosis, maintenance or repair, and not the uncompiled source code behind it, there is no additional risk of source code leaking.

Independent tractor repair does not allow avoidance of emissions or safety controls

When a sensor in a tractor control system fails and is in need of repair, an error message is delivered to the equipment operator and the immobilizer is activated. A software key is needed to diagnose the issue and then indicate that the repair has been completed. This deactivates the immobilizer and allows the farmer to go back to their business.

If manufacturers such as John Deere provided farmers with access to software keys, farmers would be able to break free from reliance on the dealer and perform critical repairs themselves. Industry groups, however, claim that doing so would also allow farmers to bypass emissions and safety controls.

This is not true. There is a clear difference between resetting an error code and ignoring or overriding safety codes. According to agricultural repair experts, overriding emissions or safety controls requires modification tools, not the tools used for diagnosis and repair that Right to Repair legislation provides.

To override these controls, a farmer would have to first erase the operating system present on the machine and then upload new, modified software that either does not have emissions and safety controls or allows a farmer to ignore them. This is an illegal practice separate from the software tools called for by farmers advocating for the Right to Repair.

Farmers need access to the tools necessary to repair their own equipment

The increased presence of software in agricultural equipment has allowed manufacturers such as John Deere to take control of the repair process at the expense of the equipment owner. The creation of software locks and keys required to authorize repair severely limits farmers and independent repair shops’ ability to fix broken farm equipment themselves.

A true solution would give farmers unrestricted access to the same tools that the dealers have. These are not tools that will allow farmers to override safety or emissions controls, nor will the tools lead to encroachments on intellectual property. They will, however, provide farmers with what they need to diagnose, calibrate, authorize and perform repairs. All of this should be provided at a fair and reasonable price.

Manufacturers should make these tools available to farmers. If they fail to do so, legislators should enact policies such as Right to Repair reforms to make sure that farmers can fix their own equipment.

Let us fix our stuff

Let us fix our stuff

Tell your legislators to support Right to Repair reforms so that every consumer and every small business can have access to the parts, tools and service information they need to repair products.

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Kevin O'Reilly

Former Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair, U.S. PIRG Education Fund