It’s 2 a.m. and Clint Stoutenburg has been planting sugar beets on his family farm in eastern lower Michigan for 18 hours.
But a transmission code lights up and locks his John Deere planter at a fixed speed. Stoutenburg doesn’t know how to fix the software problem and the dealership isn’t open.
It’s supposed to rain in an hour. He needs to get the seeds in the ground.
Moments like these, Stoutenburg said, make him feel like he’s handcuffed because he’s unable to access the resources necessary to fix these problems.
“The times have changed so rapidly that you can’t just put a piece of tape over the sensor and get by,” he said. “It’s holding us back. I mean, I bought the machine. I paid for the technology.”
For years, farmers and ranchers have argued they should have the right to fix their own equipment — and not be solely reliant on authorized dealerships.
The right-to-repair movement has resulted in the introduction of several bills across the country. They seek to require equipment manufacturers to hand over software, codes and tools to farmers and independent service technicians, enabling them to fix their own equipment.
Yet, so far, only one state has succeeded.
In April, Colorado passed the nation’s first farmer’s right-to-repair law, which will go into effect at the start of 2024. Four other states in the Midwest introduced similar legislation, but bills in Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota all failed to make it out of committee. A bill in Michigan remains active as the state’s legislature heads into its fall session.
“Giving farmers this right is common sense,” said Michigan State Rep. Reggie Miller, a Democrat from southeastern Michigan and chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee. “This bill will save Michigan’s farmers time and money by giving them the freedom to make their own repairs and maintenance decisions.”
But passing a right-to-repair legislation faces steep opposition.
In 2022, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature didn’t send a proposed bill up for a floor vote due to outside influence, according to John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.
“Lobbyists were brought in by the farm equipment manufacturers to oppose the right to farm [repair] legislation,” said Hansen. “The joke was that there was hardly enough room in the rotunda.”
Bills have stalled across the country in recent years and at the federal level. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, introduced the Agricultural Right to Repair Act last year, but the bill failed to advance.
“There is a significant amount of pressure that is brought to bear by manufacturers,” said Willie Cade, a regional director for The Repair Association, a group that advocates for repair-friendly policies across the country.
With just one state having passed legislation, Cade said lawmakers in other states may be reluctant to move forward.
The American Farm Bureau Federation has signed five memoranda of understanding with farm equipment manufacturers this year, including John Deere. The farm group and manufacturers say these agreements enhance a farmer’s ability to control the upkeep of their equipment by ensuring the timely availability of codes, software and various other tools for repairs, while also protecting intellectual property.
“The MOUs have also established a path for our members to reach a manufacturer to immediately resolve any repair issues that arise,” a spokesperson for the American Farm Bureau Federation said in an email to Harvest Public Media.
“With legislation, a member would potentially have to file suit to reach resolution. It is clear which path will result in the farmer’s equipment getting back up and running in a timely manner.”
John Deere did not respond to our request for comment.
Since the pacts were signed, Hansen, head of the Nebraska’s Farmers Union, said farmers haven’t experienced any significant changes when it comes to timely repairs due to the agreement’s lack of enforceability.
For Stoutenburg, the sugar beet farmer from Michigan, he says his local John Deere dealership is a critical asset to his farming operation and understands the company’s point of view to protect itself.
“But … it’s pretty hard for the dealership to have a person staffed 24 hours a day,” Stoutenburg said, “because there’s only three of us working at two in the morning.”
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.
Rick Brewer is a reporter at WCMU in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, an associate partner of Harvest Public Media.
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