As tractors became more sophisticated over the past two decades, the big manufacturers allowed farmers fewer options for repairs. Rather than hiring independent repair shops, farmers have increasingly had to wait for company-authorized dealers to arrive. Getting repairs could take days, often leading to lost time and high costs.
A new memorandum of understanding between the country’s largest farm equipment maker, John Deere Corp., and the American Farm Bureau Federation is now raising hopes that U.S. farmers will finally regain the right to repair more of their own equipment.
However, supporters of right-to-repair laws suspect a more sinister purpose: to slow the momentum of efforts to secure right-to-repair laws around the country.
Under the agreement, John Deere promises to give farmers and independent repair shops access to manuals, diagnostics and parts. But there’s a catch – the agreement isn’t legally binding, and, as part of the deal, the influential Farm Bureau promised not to support any federal or state right-to-repair legislation.
The right-to-repair movement has become the leading edge of a pushback against growing corporate power. Intellectual property protections, whether patents on farm equipment, crops, computers or cellphones, have become more intense in recent decades and cover more territory, giving companies more control over what farmers and other consumers can do with the products they buy.
For farmers, few examples of those corporate constraints are more frustrating than repair restrictions and patent rights that prevent them from saving seeds from their own crops for future planting.
The United States’ market economy requires competition to function properly, which is why U.S. antitrust policies were strictly enforced in the post-World War II era.
During the 1970s and 1980s, however, political leaders began following the advice of a group of economists at the University of Chicago and relaxed enforcement of federal antitrust policies. That led to a concentration of economic power in many sectors.
This concentration has become especially pronounced in agriculture, with a few companies consolidating market share in numerous areas, including seeds, pesticides and machinery, as well as commodity processing and meatpacking. One study in 2014 estimated that Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, was responsible for approximately 80% of the corn and 90% of the soybeans grown in the U.S. In farm machinery, John Deere and Kubota account for about a third of the market.
Market power often translates into political power, which means that those large companies can influence regulatory oversight, legal decisions, and legislation that furthers their economic interests – including securing more expansive and stricter intellectual property policies.
At its most basic level, right-to-repair legislation seeks to protect the end users of a product from anti-competitive activities by large companies. New York passed the first broad right-to-repair law, in 2022, and nearly two dozen states have active legislation – about half of them targeting farm equipment.
Whether the product is an automobile, smartphone or seed, companies can extract more profits if they can force consumers to purchase the company’s replacement parts or use the company’s exclusive dealership to repair the product.
Itis difficult to calculate the costs farmers face from not having a right to repair their machinery. A machine breakdown that takes weeks to repair during harvest time could be catastrophic.
The nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group calculated that U.S. consumers could save US$40 billion per year if they could repair electronics and appliances – about $330 per family.
The memorandum of understanding between John Deere and the Farm Bureau may be a step in the right direction, but it is not a substitute for right-to-repair legislation or the enforcement of antitrust policies.