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In an increasingly corporate industry, Ohio farmers seek the ‘right to repair’

A tractor pulls heavy machinery through a brown field.
Modern tractors and combines have advanced on-board computers, and can cost upwards of $400,000. Increasingly, farmers can't repair it on their own. Now, they're seeking the 'right to repair.'

As agricultural technology advances, farmers want to reserve the ‘right to repair’ their own equipment. In Ohio, securing that right has a ways to go.

Earlier this year, John Deere signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Farm Bureau Federation, promising to share tools and software with farmers so they could more easily repair their tractors and combines without the help of a company-authorized technician.

The memorandum of understanding with the country’s largest farm equipment maker isn’t legally binding or enforceable though.

Now, more than a dozen states are discussing legislation about the ‘right to repair.’

Colorado and New York have already passed laws guaranteeing that right, but advocates for Ohio farmers say agricultural corporations hold so much power that a similar law is unlikely to come to fruition here.

They say that’s not only frustrating for Ohio’s farmers, but costly.

What is the ‘right to repair’ and why do farmers want it?

Modern farm equipment is high-tech and expensive.

Today’s tractors and combines, equipped with advanced computers, GPS trackers and temperature and moisture sensors, can easily cost upwards of $400,000.

When that equipment breaks down, farmers need repairs quickly.

“Agriculture has to happen within a few fairly modest, limited windows of weather and crop maturity,” said Joe Logan, president of the Ohio Farmers Union. “So when things are right, farmers need to be moving. They can't afford to have that half-a-million-dollar investment sitting in the middle of a field as inert as the ground upon which it works.”

But as equipment becomes more sophisticated, farmers increasingly are not able to make repairs on their own. Instead, they have to wait for company-authorized dealers who control access to manuals, diagnostics and parts.

Waiting for company-authorized repairmen can take days. And as agriculture equipment providers consolidate, those wait times are stretching even longer.

“That farmer may have to wear out his patience before he can wear out his combine.”
Joe Logan, President of the Ohio Farmers Union

“There used to be dealers up and down the road, four or five of them that we could get to within half an hour,” Logan said. “Now, there may be one or two.”

Those remaining dealers serve more customers across larger areas.

“So when a farmer breaks down, he may be the sixth or seventh in line,” Logan said. “That farmer may have to wear out his patience before he can wear out his combine.”

The memorandum of understanding

Farmers want the ‘right to repair’ so they can bypass that line and fix their own equipment, limiting the amount of time wasted during busy planting and harvest seasons.

The memorandum of understanding between John Deere and the American Farm Bureau Federation seems to be a step toward achieving that goal.

“We look forward to working alongside the American Farm Bureau and our customers in the months and years ahead to ensure farmers continue to have the tools and resources to diagnose, maintain and repair their equipment,” said David Gilmore, John Deere’s Senior Vice President of Ag & Turf Sales & Marketing, in a statement.

But the MOU only goes so far.

Because the agreement isn’t legally binding, it has no means of enforcement.

“Perhaps its intentions were noble,” Logan says, “but, unfortunately, it included no language, no teeth to make sure that John Deere or any other equipment manufacturer would have to abide by this.”

A tractor drives through a field of plants sprouting from the ground
John Deere signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Farm Bureau Federation promising to give farmers access to manuals and diagnostics. But some farmers say it doesn't go far enough.

On top of that, the MOU also stipulates that the American Farm Bureau Federation cannot introduce, promote or support ‘right to repair’ legislation on either the federal or state level.

Logan says without the bureau’s backing, passing meaningful ‘right to repair’ laws will be challenging.

“That made us suspicious,” he said. “And when we started looking at it more closely, frankly, we feel that it's not the solution to America's technology problem on the farm.”

‘Right to repair’ legislation

Ohio is one of 20 states with ‘right to repair’ legislation on the docket in early 2023.

But in Ohio, although this legislation applies to some digital electronic equipment, motor vehicles are excluded.

“With regard to agricultural equipment, this goes nowhere in terms of improving our right to repair,” Logan said. “And it once again illustrates the incredible power of the corporations to make things happen.”

Manufacturers, however, say the software and tools they use to build and repair high-tech equipment are intellectual property.

They also argue giving farmers too many tools would allow them to modify their equipment to the extent that it could no longer comply with safety and environmental standards.

Corporate power in agriculture

While there are about two million farmers in the U.S., most buy inputs like equipment and seeds from a very small number of companies. That concentration of corporate agricultural power has farmers like Logan worried.

“When you get down to that small cartel of global corporations supplying everything that we need, competition really doesn't exist. Market power dominates.”
Joe Logan, President of the Ohio Farmers Union

John Deere dominates sales for large farm tractors and combines –controlling more than half of North American market shares. And just four firms control 60 percent of global seed sales.

Logan says buyers of agriculture products have consolidated as well.

“We're selling into a market that consists of only two or three or four markets globally too,” he said. “An individual buyer can put a great deal of pressure on an individual farmer. And so farmers are squeezed on both ends, both on the things we buy and the things we sell, because of the excessive consolidation that's going on in agriculture.”

He says the free enterprise system has served American farmers well for centuries. But as technology advances, individual farmers have less and less control over their fields.

“When you get down to that small cartel of global corporations supplying everything that we need, competition really doesn't exist,” Logan says. “Market power dominates.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.