Minnesota debates right-to-repair bills as tractor manufacturers and farm groups demand redress

From his tractor dealership in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, Kyle Smith, owner of Midway Farm Equipment, sends his mechanics miles to fix farmers’ tractors – repairs that require much more than a wrench.

“It’s not as easy as your 1978 tractor, if something doesn’t work you go out there and follow the linkage to a cable and a cable to a valve,” Smith said. “Everything is electronic these days and it’s on a wired sensor somewhere.”

He understands why DIY enthusiasts are becoming increasingly frustrated with not being able to repair appliances themselves. Instead of just running on simple mechanics, tractors – like cars – increasingly rely on computer technology.

A movement within the industry known as the “right to repair” aimed at helping that farmer or a local, independent mechanic fix the tractor themselves has reached the Minnesota Legislature. A couple of bills are going through the Capitol that could require farm equipment makers to share proprietary information — usually held by authorized dealers — so independent mechanics, or even farmers, can fix their own machines.

But Smith doesn’t like the term.

“I think the right to repairs is almost wrongly formulated, because nothing stands in the way of the farmer repairing his tractor,” said Smith. “It’s just all software from the manufacturer because they don’t want unskilled people going in there and messing it up.”

Therein lies the conflict between a company’s intellectual property and a farmer’s independence.

Proponents see this as part of a larger push to break up agribusiness monopolies. However, some lawmakers say the highly technical nature of today’s repairs are best left to the specialists.

“Today’s farm equipment is not my grandfather’s Minneapolis Moline,” said Senator Jordan Rasmusson. R-Fergus Falls. “There are new environmental standards, additional safety concerns and financial liability.”

Last month, Rasmusson introduced an amendment to remove farm equipment and ATVs from the Senate version of a so-called “digital repair” bill that covers consumer electronics. It remains in the House version of the bill.

Tim Velde started farming near Granite Falls half a century ago. He remembers the day hydraulics hit the market, which he called “the greatest innovation” at the time. This technology allowed his tractor to lower or raise his implement.

“Up until the 1990s, there was pretty much everything that you or the little … mechanic could do yourself,” says Velde. “Once computers got around to doing things, it completely changed everything.”

Last spring, Velde had planted three quarters of its corn crop when the planting machine malfunctioned. He called his local dealer. But by the time a late technician was able to get out, the rain had soaked the ground. He didn’t finish planting until two weeks later.

“It would have been nice to diagnose that [malfunction] have myself or an independent person [help]’ Velde said.

Stories like this—of repair knowledge locked away at a dealer’s store, crops or plantings faltering—are found in rural Minnesota and across the country, leading to legislation in other states.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the nation’s first right-to-repair bill into law in December. The law aims to avoid hundreds of thousands of tons of so-called e-waste by extending the life of a device. But before passage, Hochul amended the bill to exclude large farm implements.

In Colorado, a Farm Equipment Repair Bill has passed the House of Representatives and a Senate Ag Committee.

Major device manufacturers have taken notice.

In January, at the American Farm Bureau Federation meeting in Puerto Rico, the leading farmers’ organization announced a letter of intent with tractor manufacturer John Deere. It requires Deere to share materials such as manuals and on-board diagnostics with farmers and independent repairers in a timely and “appropriate” manner.

Farm Bureau announced two more letters of intent with New Holland and Case IH last week.

“Right now, this MOU is exactly what we need,” Dan Glessing, a Wright County dairy farmer and president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, told a Senate committee last month.

However, critics say the agreement will not be enforced. In Minnesota, at least, the future of the right to repairs for tractors can be sorted out later this spring when the competing House and Senate versions of the bill are reconciled.

As agriculture has consolidated, many farm equipment repair shops have closed, sending growers further down the road in support.

Farmers used to rent a tractor from the shop to do their field work while theirs was being worked on, Glessing told the Star Tribune in a January interview. “Now the inventory on many properties is pretty meager.”

At Midway Farm Equipment in Mountain Lake, Smith said his industry was burdened by the lack of mechanics.

“As a trader, I’m probably torn [right-to-repair] subject,” said Smith. While many of its customers are local, others are from out of state or a day’s drive away. “They’re 200, maybe 500 miles away. We will not make you this service call. In that regard, giving them that freedom to do that would help keep those customers with those brands.”

On the other hand, he sees the problem the way he looks at servicing a Chevrolet pickup truck. When a farmer buys a new pickup truck that has the hiccups, they don’t want to tinker with it themselves. “Just take it to the dealer,” Smith said.


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