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Colorado farmers hopeful Biden's executive order will help them fix their own equipment

Right to repair
Posted at 8:28 PM, Jul 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-15 10:08:14-04

ROGGEN, Colo. — An executive order signed by President Joe Biden could make it easier for farmers to be able to perform their own repairs on equipment or hire a third-party mechanic to fix the equipment for them.

At the heart of the issue is the right to repair, where companies would make the tools, parts, information and manuals for equipment available for consumers so that they would be able to diagnose and fix issues on their own.

The tools, software and diagnostics equipment is proprietary, and, unlike the blender you buy from the store, this equipment does not come with a manual with all the parts information. The manufacturing companies argue they want to keep the quality of their products as high as possible for customers and they are the best ones to make the repair.

Right to repair advocates say withholding this information is a big money-grab by manufacturers to ensure that customers keep coming back. The executive order follows the release of the Federal Trade Commission’s Nixing the Fix report, which concluded, “There is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.”

On a small farm off of I-76 in Roggen, Chad Franke raises calves; he’s a fifth-generation farmer who gets the majority of his work done with a tractor that’s from the 1970s. Because it's an older piece of equipment without new technology inside, when it breaks down, Franke is able to make repairs on his own.

However, Franke says any equipment made after the mid-1990s needs to be taken to the manufacturer for repairs because consumers aren’t able to access the software.

“The way they did their entire computer system is if one of those sensors tends to go bad, the only way to know which one is bad is to plug into their computer to do the diagnosis. The only way you can plug into their computer is to take it to a dealership or call a dealer’s technician out,” Franke said.

On the bigger farms, each piece of big equipment can cost as much as $500,000, not including the added parts. The repairs can be costly and time consuming.

When a piece of equipment breaks down, the best-case scenario for repairs is a technician comes out that day to diagnose the problem and then has the part in stock to make the repairs within 24 hours.

However, many times the repairs can take longer, particularly with the current backups in the supply chain. During harvest time, any delays can be a serious disruption for business.

“Harvest may be over before your combine is back up and running,” Franke said. “You may have to go out and rent a combine, you may have to pay one of your neighbors to finish after they finish their harvest and it all adds expense in an industry that there’s not much margin.”

The executive order signed on Friday directs the Federal Trade Commission to come up with rules that would limit manufacturers from preventing third-party and DIY repairs. The rules could have far-reaching effects on technology from farm equipment to wheelchairs to cell phones.

Franke is the vice president of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and is paying close attention to the executive order and what comes out of it.

“Once you own something you should be able to fix it and diagnose it and repair it how you see fit,” Franke said.

He would like to see all farm equipment use a universal interface so that a standard diagnostic system can check it out, much like what cars have today.

Franke isn’t sure what will come out of this executive order or how it will affect the industry, but he’s hopeful.

At the farm next door, Larry Schrooeder is going to wait and see how things go before letting a third party try to repair his very expensive equipment.

He hasn’t been able to take his John Deere machinery to a third-party mechanic and says, even with a potential rule change, it will take time before consumers are able to understand all the software and fix it correctly.

“It’s an investment, but there’s going to have to be more of the technology on the private side. They’ll have to step up to be able to get to some of that software,” Schroeder said. “I’ve got to have it done correct. It has to perform for me.”

In a statement to Denver7, John Deere said it supports a customer’s right to safely maintain and repair their own equipment and that the company provides tools, parts, information guides, manuals, training videos, etc. to help them repair it correctly.

However, the company stopped short of supporting DIY software fixes.

“John Deere does not support the right to modify embedded software due to the risks associated with the safe operation of equipment, emissions compliance, and engine performance. We remain committed to providing innovative solutions that support our customers’ needs,” the statement read.

For now, it’s up to the FTC to review the right to repair rules and figure out a way to move forward and how to write the rules.

“Nothing has happened in a long time, and so just starting the conversation is a step forward,” Franke said.

The FTC is set to meet on July 21 to discuss repair restrictions and vote on whether to issue a new policy statement on the matter.