Tractor Repair: Do It Yourself?

05/01/2023
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    When Danny Wood’s tractor broke down, he had to wait for service. That meant he stopped fertilizing for a few days. (Danny Wood via AP)
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    Farmer Nathan Weathers checks a tractor in Yuma, Colorado. (Brian Brainerd/The Denver Post via AP)
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    A combine harvests grain on Danny Wood’s farm. (Danny Wood via AP)
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    A farmer repairs his tractor. (AP/Paul Vernon)
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    Women fix a tractor on a farm in South Wales in 1939. (AP)
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On Colorado’s northeastern plains, farmer Danny Wood scrambles to plant and harvest millet, corn, and wheat in short, seasonal windows. Then his high-tech Steiger 370 tractor conks out.

The tractor’s manufacturer doesn’t allow Wood to make certain fixes himself. Last spring, his fertilizing operations stalled for three days. Finally, the servicer arrived to add a few lines of missing computer code—and left a bill for $950. Waiting for a repair can mean a hail storm decimates a wheat field or the soil temperature moves beyond the right zone for planting. Farmers can lose thousands of dollars per day while a machine is broken.

“It’s more like we are renting [a tractor] than buying it,” says Wood. He spent $300,000 on the used tractor.

This problem pushed lawmakers in Colorado and 10 other states, including Florida, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Texas, and Vermont, to introduce bills to help. These bills would force manufacturers to provide the tools, software, parts, and manuals needed for farmers to do their own repairs. That helps growers avoid steep labor costs and delays.

Manufacturers argue that changing the law would force companies to expose trade secrets. They want to protect their intellectual property—their inventions and ideas. They also say it would make it easier for farmers to play with the software, illegally crank up the horsepower, or bypass the emissions controller. On the other hand, proponents of the bill say farmers are already able to tinker with their machines and doing so would remain illegal.

“The manufacturers and the dealers have a monopoly on that repair market because it’s lucrative,” says Representative Brianna Titone, one of the bill’s sponsors. “[Farmers] just want to get their machine going again.”

Still, Representative Richard Holtorf, a farmer himself, is concerned about forcing the sale of intellectual property.

The “right to repair” movement isn’t just about farm equipment. People and businesses want the right to fix everything from iPhones to hospital ventilators.

For example, in 2011, Congress passed the Motor Vehicle Owners Right to Repair Act. That ensured that car owners and independent mechanics—not just authorized dealerships—had access to the necessary tools and information to fix problems.

This January, farm equipment manufacturer John Deere signed a memorandum of understanding. That’s a right to repair agreement made in the free market and without government intervention. The agreement says that John Deere will share some parts, diagnostic and repair codes, and manuals.

But many farmers say that’s not enough. Nathan Proctor, a right to repair campaigner, says, “We want the real thing.”

Why? Lawmakers must consider carefully: What is their role in assisting farmers while protecting intellectual property?

Pray for God to give lawmakers wisdom in seeking to protect both farmers and tractor companies.