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Right-To-Repair Advocates Question John Deere’s New Promises

Early this week, tractor maker John Deere said it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Farm Bureau Federation, an agricultural trade group, promising to make it easier for farmers to access tools and software needed to repair their own equipment.

The deal looked like a concession from the agricultural equipment maker, a major target of the right-to-repair movement, which campaigns for better access to documents and tools needed for people to repair their own gear. But right-to-repair advocates say that despite some good points, the agreement changes little, and farmers still face unfair barriers to maintaining equipment they own.

Kevin O’Reilly, a director of the right-to-repair campaign run by the US Public Interest Research Group, a grassroots lobbying organization, says the timing of Deere’s deal suggests the company may be trying to quash recent interest in right-to-repair laws from state legislators. In the past two years, corn belt states including Nebraska and Missouri, and also Montana, have considered giving farmers a legal right to tools needed to repair their own equipment. But no laws have been passed. “The timing of this new agreement is no accident,” O’Reilly says. “This could be part of an effort to take the wind out of the sails of right-to-repair legislation.”

Indeed, one section of the memorandum takes direct aim at proposals to enshrine the right to repair into law. It states that the American Farm Bureau Foundation “agrees to encourage state Farm Bureau organizations to recognize the commitments made in this MOU and refrain from introducing, promoting, or supporting federal or state Right to Repair legislation that imposes obligations beyond the commitments in this MOU.”

Walter Schweitzer, a Montana-based cattle farmer and right-to-repair advocate, calls the new agreement “a Groundhog Day sort of thing”—a repeat of something he has seen before. The memorandum is similar to one signed in 2018 by the California Farm Bureau, the state’s largest organization for farmers’ interests, and the Equipment Dealers Association, which represents Deere, he says. But little changed afterward, in his view.

A representative for John Deere, Ben Haber, says the new memorandum of understanding emerged from years of discussions with the American Farm Bureau. It reaffirms the company’s “long-standing commitment to ensure farmers have access to tools and resources they need to diagnose, maintain, and repair their equipment,” he says.

Deere dominates farming in the US, with 60 percent of farmers across 20 states owning at least one of the company’s combine harvesters. It has recently morphed products like tractors into mobile computers, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in robotics and adding AI tools to help farmers boost yields. But those computers on oversize wheels have become increasingly difficult to repair due to closed-off software, many farmers say. Being unable to repair your iPhone may be inconvenient, but a farmer at harvest time with a broken tractor faces potential ruin. 

In 2022, three lawsuits alleged that Deere has been monopolizing the repair market, and a group of farming organizations filed a similar complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission. And in 2021, the FTC said it planned to ramp up enforcement against companies that used restrictive measures to prevent consumers from repairing their own electronics.