NBC News: Senate introduces bill to allow farmers to fix their own equipment

by Louise Matsakis and Olivia Solon

Scott Potmesil, a fourth-generation farmer who raises cattle in Sandhills, Nebraska, recently bought a John Deere tractor that is over 25 years old. He said he purposely went looking for the older device in 2020 because he believed it would be easier to repair than newer models, which can often be fixed only by authorized dealerships.

“I visited with my local mechanic and asked which tractor he could fix, and it was a 1995 one,” Potmesil said. “New equipment is getting so complicated and loaded with sensors. If one of them goes out, you can’t even start your tractor. You need a technician and software to identify the problem.”

A bill introduced Tuesday in the Senate could help make it easier for farmers like Potmesil to repair their tractors independently. The legislation would require agriculture equipment manufacturers to make spare parts, instruction manuals and software codes publicly available, allowing farmers to fix devices by themselves or hire third-party mechanics of their own choosing.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in an interview that he has heard from many farmers who reported that difficulties repairing equipment hurt their businesses.

“We’ve got to figure out ways to empower farmers to make sure they can stay on the land. This is one of the ways to do it,” Tester said. “I think that the more we can empower farmers to be able to control their own destiny, which is what this bill does, the safer food chains are going to be.”

Tester said farmers often reported that company-authorized repairs were costly and could be handled only by licensed technicians who may take days, or even weeks, to show up. That type of delay can have serious impacts on the delicate harvest cycle for planting and reaping crops.

“After May 10 here, if I don’t plant my soybeans, I’m losing yield,” said Jared Wilson, who took over his family’s farm near Butler, Missouri, in 2017 and struggled to fix his John Deere tractor after it broke down. “If you have two days of lost productivity and then it rains, you don’t get back in the field for two weeks. A few of those per season really adds up.”

Broader movement
The rules about farming equipment could help boost the wider “right to repair” movement, which has gained steam across the country in recent years. Consumer rights groups like U.S. PIRG, a federation of nonprofit public interest research groups, or PIRGs, say people have a fundamental right to control devices they already own, especially when they need to be fixed. Over the last few decades, they say, companies have made third-party repairs nearly impossible by locking software, writing prohibitive warranties or restricting spare parts.

The tactics have affected everything from iPhones and laptops to tractors and neonatal incubators. One notable exception are cars, which consumers can repair at any garage they want because of a 2012 Massachusetts law that carmakers later agreed to apply nationally.

Right to repair advocates say less-fixable devices hurt the environment and people’s wallets because consumers often have no choice but to replace their electronics more frequently. After years of criticism, some companies, including Apple and Microsoft, have recently agreed to make third-party repairs more accessible.

The issue has also captured the attention of local lawmakers, who have introduced legislation that would give consumers the right to repair in dozens of states over the last few years. In July, President Joe Biden signed an executive order pushing the Federal Trade Commission to come up with new rules to limit cumbersome repair restrictions.

“Right to repair is on the precipice of really breaking through and becoming the law of the land,” said Kevin O’Reilly, the director of the right to repair campaign at U.S. PIRG.

The Senate bill is the latest effort to tackle the issue in Congress, following similar legislation sponsored in the House last year by Rep. Joseph Morelle, D-N.Y. But unlike some of the other proposed laws, the Senate bill narrowly targets farmers, who have become one of the most vocal groups advocating for more repair regulations.

Tester said: “I think when you get into other areas like cellphones and TVs and all that kind of stuff, it brings in all sorts of other issues that I am personally not as familiar with as agriculture. That’s not to say that those other issues aren’t really, really important. What it is to say is that I know this issue reasonably well, and I thought this is an issue that we need to deal with, and the sooner the better.”

Farming challenge
Modern farming equipment often runs on complex software designed to help farmers increase their efficiency with data. But despite the potential upsides of using it, 77 percent of farmers say they have bought older equipment to avoid dealing with the software on more modern machinery, according to a survey of 74 U.S. farmers published Tuesday by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the National Farmers Union.

“This technology is supposed to make farmers’ lives easier, but in fact, many farmers are saying forget the technology, give me something I can fix,” O’Reilly said. “That’s a clear sign that there’s something wrong with the system.”

Potmesil said he wanted a low-tech tractor because he didn’t know what he would do if his equipment was broken during an emergency. “I didn’t want the mental stress of wondering, ‘If I break down in a blizzard, how do I feed the cattle?'” he said. “So I needed a backup tractor.”

Manufacturers like John Deere and trade groups representing device manufacturers have argued that they aren’t actually placing many restrictions on farmers, who can already do the vast majority of repairs themselves.

“We have and remain committed to enabling customers to repair the products that they buy,” Jahmy Hindman, the company’s chief technology officer, told The Verge last year.

Hindman said that if other people tinkered with John Deere’s software, they could change devices’ emissions output, which is calibrated to comply with environmental regulations. But Tester disagreed and defended farmers.

“They just want to be able to fix their equipment so they can get back in the field in a timely basis and get the job done,” he said.