Repair restrictions come home to roost: Study shows farmers want to fix their own tractors

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Kevin O'Reilly

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

Manufacturers keep fed-up farmers from repairing their own equipment, highlighting need for new Senate bill

WASHINGTON—Sen. Jon Tester (Montana) introduced the Agricultural Right to Repair Act in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, providing a new, strong opportunity for farmers to win their Right to Repair. Farmers rely on their tractors and other farm equipment to get the job done, from preparing to plant through the harvest. When farmers’ equipment breaks down, they need it fixed—yesterday. But manufacturers refuse to provide farmers and independent mechanics with all the materials—particularly software tools—needed to fix modern tractors, making farmers reliant on the dealer for too many repairs. That monopolistic practice can leave farmers stuck waiting for a dealer technician and paying whatever the dealer wants to charge. 

According to new findings from U.S. PIRG Education Fund and National Farmers Union, farmers want more repair choices than equipment manufacturers offer. Of the 74 farmers from 15 states surveyed, 92% believe that they could save money if they had full access to fix their own equipment or could hire an independent mechanic to do it for them. Seventy-seven percent of respondents have opted for older equipment that doesn’t require dealer intervention to fix. And 95% of farmers surveyed support Right to Repair reforms, which would require manufacturers to provide access to all of the repair materials needed to fix modern farm equipment.

“It’s simple: Farmers should be able to fix their own tractors. But manufacturer-imposed repair restrictions allow manufacturers to determine who does the repair, when and for how much,” said U.S. PIRG Education Fund Right to Repair Campaign Director Kevin O’Reilly. “We need to give farmers repair choices and let them get back to producing the food that goes on our tables. Farmers are asking for help. The Senate should pass the Agricultural Right to Repair Act to make it clear that they are listening.” 

“I’ve been a farmer my whole life, and I’ve seen the unfair practices of equipment manufacturers make it harder and harder for folks to work on their tractors themselves—forcing them to go to an authorized mechanic and pay an arm and a leg for necessary repairs,” said Sen. Jon Tester. “Manufacturers have prevented producers from fixing their own machines in order to bolster corporate profits, and they’ve done it at the expense of family farmers and ranchers, who work hard every day to harvest the food that feeds families across the country. Farmers operate in tight windows and on tight margins, and they simply can’t afford to waste time or money bringing their equipment to dealer authorized mechanics in the middle of a season. They need to be able to repair their own equipment, and this legislation will secure them that right.”

Repair restrictions are not only expensive, they’re frustrating for farmers. “I’ve been farming all my life. I’ve been around tractors all my life. So I know my way around these machines,” said Missouri farmer Jared Wilson. “The idea that the manufacturer tells me that I cannot fix my own tractor—the tractor I paid good money for—is infuriating.”

“Farmers are being put through the wringer,” said Rob Larew, President, National Farmers Union. “It’s unreasonable that manufacturers have this much power to influence what a farmer does with their own equipment. We need to pass Senator Tester’s bill to give farmers what they need to fix their equipment as soon as it breaks.”

Independent fixers can repair older-model equipment, which does not require software tools. 

But opting for older equipment comes with a tradeoff. “I’m giving up 25 years of technology—I’m going backward on equipment just so I can afford to repair it,” said Scott Potmesil, a Nebraska farmer who bought a 1995 John Deere tractor. “It’d be nice to upgrade to new stuff that my mechanic could work on. But I’m going backward.”

Farm equipment manufacturers insist that they have heard farmers’ concerns and are addressing the problem. But many farmers, including farmers who have filed class actionlawsuits against John Deere for restricting repair, aren’t buying it. 

“My experience here in the real world of working on this stuff is that that’s absolutely not true,” Wilson said. “I guess if you included every single thing that could break on a machine, that might be true, but there’s no way in hell that that’s true for common things that break.” 

Change could come soon for farmers. Sen Tester’s bill is just one of several potential game-changers on the horizon. Dozens of state legislatures considered Right to Repair legislation in 2021. And President Joe Biden signed an executive order in July that encouraged the Federal Trade Commission to crack down repair restrictions like those farmers face. 

“It’s great to see that farmers’ concerns are getting through to lawmakers,” said O’Reilly. “Now it’s time to finish the job and get the tools farmers need in their hands.”