Denver — On the northeastern plains of Colorado, where the pencil-straight horizon divides golden fields and blue sky, a farmer named Danny Wood scrambles to plant and harvest proso millet, dryland corn and winter wheat in small, seasonal windows Is. That is, until his high-tech Steiger 370 tractor rolls out.
The tractor’s manufacturer wouldn’t allow Wood to make some improvements himself, and last spring his fertilization operations were halted for three days before a servicer arrived for $950 to add a few lines of missing computer code.
“This is where they put us on the barrel, it’s more like we’re renting it than buying it,” said Wood, who spent $300,000 on the used tractor.
Wood’s plight, echoed by farmers across the country, has prompted lawmakers in Colorado and 10 other states to introduce bills that would require manufacturers to provide tools, software, parts and manuals for farmers to make their own repairs. Will force – thereby avoiding huge labor cost. and delays that jeopardize profits.
“The manufacturers and dealers have a monopoly on that repair market because it’s lucrative,” Rep. said Brianna Titone, a Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors. “(Farmers) just want to restart their machine.”
In Colorado, the legislation is being pushed largely by Democrats, while their Republican allies find themselves stuck in a tough spot: The right wing is torn between farming constituents who want to repair their machines and manufacturing businesses. Those who oppose this idea are asking to be able to.
Manufacturers argue that replacing current practice with this type of legislation would force companies to disclose trade secrets. They also say it will make it easier for farmers to tamper with the software and illegally crank up horsepower and bypass emissions controls – putting operators’ safety and the environment at risk.
Similar arguments around intellectual property have been leveled against a sweeping campaign called the ‘right to repair’ that has picked up steam across the country – a crusade for the right to repair everything from iPhones to hospital ventilators during the pandemic.
In 2011, Congress passed a law to ensure that car owners and independent mechanics — not just authorized dealerships — had access to the tools and information needed to fix problems.
Ten years later, the Federal Trade Commission pledged to increase its authority to crack enforcement at the behest of President Joe Biden. And just last year, Titone sponsored and passed Colorado’s first Right to Repair legislation, which empowers people who use wheelchairs with the tools and information to repair them.
For the right to repair farm equipment—from slender tractors used between vines to behemoth grain-harvesting combines that can cost more than half a million dollars—in Colorado to Florida, Maryland, Missouri, New 10 states are included, including Jersey, Texas, and Vermont.
Many of the bills have bipartisan support, said Nathan Proctor, who leads the National Right to Repair campaign for the Public Interest Research Group. But in the Colorado House Committee on Agriculture, Democrats pushed the bill along party lines in a 9-4 vote, while Republicans were in opposition, even though the bill’s other sponsor is Republican Rep. Ron Weinberg.
“It’s really surprising, and it bothered me,” said Republican Wood.
Wood’s tractor, which flies an American flag reading “Farmers First”, isn’t his only machine to break down. His threshing mill was idling, but it took five days for the servant to arrive at Wood’s farm—a blow that could mean a hailstorm destroys the wheat field or the soil temperature for planting out of Goldilocks territory. Go ahead
Wood said, “Our crops are ready to harvest and we cannot wait five days, but there was nothing else to do.” “When it breaks you just sit there and wait and that is not acceptable. You could lose $85,000 in a day.”
Rep. Richard Holtorf, the Republican who represents Wood’s district and a farmer himself, said he is being pulled between his constituents and the dealerships in the district that covers the state’s largely rural Northeast corner. He voted against the measure because he believes it would financially hurt local dealerships in rural areas and could jeopardize trade secrets.
Holtorf said, “I sympathize with our farmers,” but added, “I don’t think it’s the role of the government to force the sale of their intellectual property.”
In another packed hearing at Colorado’s capitol last week, among the main concerns raised in testimony were farmers illegally slipping around emissions controls and cranking up horsepower.
“I know producers, if they can change the horsepower and they can change the emissions, they’re going to do it,” said Russ Ball, sales manager for 21st Century Equipment, a John Deere dealership in the western states.
Supporters of the bill acknowledged that the legislation could make it easier for operators to modify horsepower and emissions controls, but argued that farmers are already capable of tampering with their machines and that it would remain illegal to do so.
This January, Farm Bureau and farm equipment maker John Deere signed a memorandum of understanding—a right to repair agreement made in the free market and without government interference. The agreement states that John Deere will share some parts, diagnostic and repair codes and manuals to allow farmers to make their own improvements.
Cynics of the Colorado bill lauded that agreement as a strong middle ground, while Titone said it was not enough, evidenced by the six largest farmworker unions in Colorado that support the bill.
Proctor, who is overseeing 20 repair proposals across multiple industries across the country, said the MOU fell far short.
“The farmers are saying no,” Proctor said. “We want the real thing.”
Jesse Beden is a core member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.