Farmers have become hackers. Increasingly, farmers have started hacking into their own tractors and other agricultural technology in order to perform a variety of repairs on their equipment. According to these farmers-hackers, this hacking activity is necessary as a result of John Deere’s recent progress in monopolizing the repair regime.

John Deere has negotiated deals with various “authorized service providers” wherein these authorized service providers pay John Deere for the exclusive access to replacement parts, tools, service manuals, and software that can fix John Deere equipment. These authorized service providers then charge a premium for repairs, and one farmer stated that repairs from authorized John Deere repair services cost thousands of dollars for “even minor repairs.” More importantly, repairs from an authorized John Deere repair service costs farmers time. It is time consuming to find and reach out to one of these licensed repair services and arrange the logistical details necessary to schedule a repair. Since one farmer’s equipment is not the only machine being repaired by one of these authorized service providers, farmers may experience significant delays. Farmers have a brief period of time to complete a harvest, rendering speedy repairs critically important to their livelihoods. Even a delay as small as a number of days could be detrimental in the agricultural industry. However, the repair is vital since farmers cannot simply ignore the warning signs or the consequences of working with faulty equipment, and many farmers have begun plugging their own computers into their tractors, downloading a version of John Deere’s Service Advisor software, and repairing the problem themselves. Notably, it is legal to hack tractors for the purposes of repair under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. However, John Deere forces farmers to sign licensing agreements that constrain farmers’ abilities to repair their equipment. Thus, farmers engaging in this hacking activity, if discovered, would be liable for breach of contract.

This dilemma has prompted political action. The “right to repair” movement calls for legislation that would oblige corporations to provide consumers with access to service manuals, software, and tools that would allow them to repair their own machinery. This legislation would also require companies to provide independent repair services with these materials, giving consumers the option to outsource this repair work to a service outside of the manufacturer’s control. This legislation would not only cover the agricultural industry, but would also apply to electronics such as computers, phones, appliances, and video game consoles.

Although this legislation has currently been proposed in nineteen states, no state has passed the legislation yet. This might be attributable to the vehement opposition by the Equipment Dealers Association. While the Equipment Dealers Association made concessions recently, stating that John Deere and other monopolistic technology corporations would begin to offer manuals, product guides, diagnostic service tools, and on-board diagnostics to farmers by 2021, it did not promise to sell repair parts. It also reserved the right of tractor manufacturers “to continue using software locks that could prevent repair.” The California Farm Bureau agreed to these concessions with the Equipment Dealers Association in September, “without seemingly getting anything else out of it, and without even getting it to move up its 2021 timeline.” This agreement has received scathing criticism because it effectively ended the right to repair movement for farmers in California, and the rest of the right to repair movement has lost a powerful lobbying ally.

It is unclear where the future of the right to repair movement is headed—but for the time being, the people growing our produce are still forced to hack into their own tractors’ software to keep their careers afloat and to keep food on our tables.

Caroline Hyde

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