Craig Hill has seen it happen. He has seen the breakdown in the middle of harvest, the delay as he tries to figure out what happened, the frustration as he twiddles his thumbs as the wheels do not move in the field.
“Sometimes farmers feel hostage,” the Iowa Farm Bureau President says of the desire to be able to fix his own equipment.
It is no secret today’s tractors are quite a bit more complicated than their older cousins. But the frustration by some farmers who are told they cannot repair their own machines has led to a movement to pass state laws regarding the right to repair. And the relationship between farmers and manufacturers has suffered in some cases as the two sides struggle to find a middle ground.
“Farmers should be able to fix their own stuff if they want to,” says Aaron Shier, government relations representative for the National Farmers Union.
It’s a stance that has gotten support from a number of agricultural groups. Bills have been introduced in more than 20 state legislatures, although none have become law. Lawsuits have been threatened.
And it all started with a fight over cell phones and computers.
“We mostly started out of the large-frame computer world,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of repair.org, an organization aimed at helping individuals get the legal and technical support to be able to repair their own equipment.
“We have been struggling in the dark,” she says.
Legally, she says, individuals have the right to fix their own computers and their own tractors. The problem is that they often don’t have the means because they don’t have the diagnostic information regarding the electronics involved. And manufacturers have in some cases argued that allowing individuals to tinker with fragile electronic equipment could damage machinery or would invalidate warranties.
Equipment dealers have sometimes felt like they are caught in the middle, says Andrew Goodman, president and CEO of the Iowa-Nebraska Farm Equipment Association.
For example, Goodman says his members have seen tractors come into the shop that may have been altered to provide more horsepower than when the machine came out of the factory. The Environmental Protection Agency is looking at the issue in regards to environmental compliance, he says.
The farm equipment industry is responding to the concerns, Goodman says, and they have made a commitment that by model year 2021 they will make available a variety of things, including an on-board diagnostics display and electronic diagnostic tools.
That has been a long time coming, Gordon-Byrne says. But she says legislation may still be necessary to make sure farmers, computer and car owners can have access to the schematics and diagnostics needed to fix their own property.
The machinery industry counters with arguments about fragile electronics and complex operating systems.
Hill says the discussion in some cases is not just about the farmer being able to repair equipment, but also about other businesses being able to get the materials to make needed repairs for farmers.
The issue resulted in a debate over proposed legislation in Nebraska a couple of years ago. Bills have been proposed in many other states. Goodman says he thinks the industry is responding and that legislation isn’t necessary. But the debate continues.