By DOUG GRAVES
WILMINGTON, Ohio — When Dale Spencer was growing up on his family’s 1,400-acre farm and his father’s International tractor broke down, fixing it was easy.
“We simply bought a new or used part, replaced the broken piece and that was it,” said Spencer, now 48.
But today, repairs are more complicated. A component in the guidance system on Spencer’s sophisticated John Deere tractor broke. Since the Moline, Ill.-based company no longer supports his vehicle’s system, he is staring at a $2,500 bill for a used electrical part.
Manufacturers won’t provide independent shops with the guides or technology that would allow them to fix it, and Deere won’t repair older parts if it no longer supports them.
Once capable of fixing their tractors and other machinery in their own barn, many of the nation’s 3.2 million farmers are now faced with tractors that can only be fixed by a manufacturer, a situation that benefits manufacturers’ bottom lines and temporarily hampers the progress of farming.
Spencer and other farmers are rebelling and pushing for “right-to-repair” legislation, which would require manufacturers to provide the same information and parts to farmers or independent repair shops as they do the manufacturers’ own repair shops.
This year, right-to-repair bills have been introduced in 11 state legislatures, including Illinois and Iowa. Supporters of the bill are at a monetary disadvantage, though, and policy victories frequently are won by the side that spends the most. According to a MapLight (a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that examines the influence of money in politics) analysis of state lobbying, proponents of right-to-repair legislation have been outspent by a 28-to-1 margin.
“We never doubted that it was going to be difficult,” said Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Assoc., a New Jersey-based coalition that works to promote right-to-repair legislation.
On the other side, equipment makers (including Deere), which control as much as 60 percent of the tractor market in the United States and Canada, are opposed to the legislation. In a letter laying out its position, Deere argued that current regulations are necessary to maintain product safety and compliance with emissions standards.
Allowing untrained individuals to modify equipment software can endanger operators, bystanders, dealers, mechanics, customers and others,” said Ken Golden, a Deere spokesman.
He added that customers, dealers and manufacturers “should work together on the issue, rather than invite government regulation that could add costs with no associated value.”
Golden confirmed Deere has lobbied on right-to-repair legislation, but declined to say in which states or how much the company spent. However, records show Deere has retained lobbyists in New York, and reported spending $42,000 while lobbying on a 2015 right-to-repair bill in Massachusetts without reporting a position on the bill.
Deere and other equipment dealers have strong incentives to fight right-torepair legislation. If farmers are forced to visit authorized dealers, it provides increased business for the manufacturers, and allows them to set the prices for parts. Additionally, having only authorized shops able to repair machines means farmers are more likely to buy equipment from manufacturers with authorized shops nearby – which, in most areas, are the bigger companies.
Right-to-repair legislation has attracted more than just tractor manufacturers’ attention, though. If a right-to-repair bill were to pass, it could also affect people ranging from heavy equipment operators to mobile phone users.
Caterpillar, the world’s largest manufacturer of construction and miningequipment, has spent $38,700 while lobbying on right-to-repair legislation in New York. And corporate heavyweights including Apple, Verizon and the Computing Technology Industry Assoc. (CompTIA) oppose the legislation. “The way forward is a state is going topass right-to-repair legislation or we’re going to do a ballot initiative, but when that occurs, we don’t really know yet,” Gordon-Byrne said.
Meanwhile, Spencer is saving his money so he can afford a new guidance component for his high-tech tractor.
“I bought the tractor and I should be allowed to get the parts myself and fix it,” he said. “I’m going to have to buy another receiver for the tractor. Right now I have no option and I have to go to John Deere for everything.”