Minnesota debates right-to-repair bills as tractor makers, farm groups seek amends

Tribune Content Agency

From his tractor dealership in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, Kyle Smith, owner of Midway Farm Equipment, dispatches his mechanics miles away to fix farmers’ tractors — repairs requiring much more than a wrench.

“It’s not as easy as your tractor from 1978, when something doesn’t work you go out and follow linkage to a cable and a cable to a valve,” said Smith. “Nowadays, it’s all electronic and it’s on a wiring sensor somewhere.”

He understands why do-it-yourself-minded operators are increasingly frustrated by their inability to fix equipment themselves. Instead of running solely on basic mechanics, tractors — like automobiles — increasingly rely on computer technology.

A movement within the industry known as “right-to-repair” — which aims to help that farmer or a local, independent mechanic fix the tractor on their own — has reached the Minnesota Legislature. A pair of bills are moving through the Capitol that could mandate farm equipment manufacturers share proprietary information — usually held by authorized dealers — so independent mechanics, or even farmers, could fix their own machinery.

But Smith doesn’t like the term.

“I think the right-to-repair is almost worded wrongly from the fact that nothing is preventing the farmer from fixing his tractor,” Smith said. “It’s just anything software is proprietary from the manufacturer because they don’t want unskilled people to go in there and mess it up.”

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

Supporters view this as part of a larger push to break up monopolies in the farming industry. But some lawmakers say the highly technical nature of today’s repairs are best left to the specialists.

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

Last month, Rasmusson brought an amendment to remove farm equipment and off-road vehicles from the Senate version of a so-called “Digital Repair” bill, which covers consumer electronics. It remains in the House version of the bill.

Tim Velde started farming near Granite Falls, Minnesota, a half-century ago. He remembers the day hydraulics arrived, what he called “the biggest innovation” at the time. That technology allowed his tractor to lower or raise his implement.

“Until you got into the 90s, there were just about anything you or the small … mechanic could do yourself,” Velde said. “As soon as computers started coming in to run things, that completely changed everything.”

Velde had finished planting three-fourths his corn crop last spring when the planter malfunctioned. He called his local dealer. But by the time a backlogged technician could come out, rain had drenched the soil. He didn’t finish planting until two weeks later.

“It would’ve been nice to diagnose that (malfunction) myself or have an independent person (help),” Velde said.

Stories like this one — of repair knowledge being locked away in a dealer’s shop, stalling harvests or plantings — are found across rural Minnesota and the nation, leading to legislation in other states.

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

In Colorado, a right-to-repair agricultural equipment bill has passed through the House of Representatives, as well as a Senate Ag Committee.

Large equipment manufacturers have taken note.

In January, at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Puerto Rico, the leading farmer association announced a memorandum of understanding with tractor manufacturer John Deere. It requires Deere to share materials, such as manuals and on-board diagnostics, with farmers and independent repair shops in a timely and “reasonable” manner.

Farm Bureau announced last week two more memorandums of understanding with New Holland and Case IH.

“For now, this memorandum of understanding is exactly what we need,” Dan Glessing, a dairy farmer from Wright County and president of Minnesota Farm Bureau, told a senate committee last month.

But critics say the agreement lacks enforcement. At least in Minnesota, the future of right-to-repair for tractors may be sorted later this spring when the competing House and Senate versions of the bill are reconciled.

As farming has consolidated, many farm equipment repair shops have closed, sending growers farther down the road for assistance.

Farmers used to rent a tractor from the repair shop to finish their field work while theirs got worked on, Glessing told the Star Tribune in a January interview. “Now, inventory is pretty skinny on a lot of lots.”

At Midway Farm Equipment in Mountain Lake, Smith said his industry has been strained by the lack of mechanics.

“As a dealer, I guess I’m torn between the whole (right-to-repair) subject,” Smith said. While many of his customers are local, others come from out of state or a day’s drive away. “They’re 200, maybe 500 miles away. We’re not going to make that service call out to them. So in that respect, giving them that freedom to do that would help keep those customers in those brands.”

On the other hand, he sees the problem like he views maintenance on a Chevrolet pickup truck. If a farmer buys a new pickup that experiences a hiccup, he or she doesn’t want to tinker on it themselves. “Just take it to the dealer,” Smith said.