No one else embodies the self-sufficient, do-it-yourself mindset quite like the American farmer. If something breaks on the farm you can’t always afford to wait around for help so farmers like to fix things themselves. Today though, a farmer might purchase a high tech tractor or combine for hundreds of thousands of dollars but he won’t be allowed to repair it himself when it breaks down. This is because the software running on the complicated electronics that control the machine prevents him from being able to attempt repair himself.
A new tractor often costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, but one thing not included in that price is the right to repair it. That has put farmers on the front lines of a battle pitting consumers against the makers of all kinds of consumer goods, from tractors to refrigerators to smartphones.
Modern tractors, essentially, have two keys to make the engine work. One key starts the engine. But because today’s tractors are high-tech machines that can steer themselves by GPS, you also need a software key — to fix the programs that make a tractor run properly. And farmers don’t get that key.
“You’re paying for the metal but the electronic parts technically you don’t own it. They do,” says Kyle Schwarting, who plants and harvests fields in southeast Nebraska.
Schwarting explains that this situation costs a farmer both time and money.
He previously ran auto shops fixing cars and trucks. So when he started farming, he thought he’d be a natural to do the mechanical work himself.
Even a used combine like his Deere S670 can cost $200,000 or $300,000. As he lifts the side panel on this giant green harvester, he explains that the engine is basically off limits.
“Maybe a gasket or something you can fix, but everything else is computer controlled and so if it breaks down I’m really in a bad spot,” Schwarting says. He has to call the dealer.
Only dealerships have the software to make those parts work, and it costs hundreds of dollars just to get a service call. Schwarting worries about being broken down in a field, waiting for a dealer to show up with a software key. If he had that key, he could likely fix the machine himself.
Motherboard reports that some farmers are working computer hackers from Eastern Europe in order to gain access to the machines they own to fix them when they break down.
Tractor hacking is growing increasingly popular because John Deere and other manufacturers have made it impossible to perform “unauthorized” repair on farm equipment, which farmers see as an attack on their sovereignty and quite possibly an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time.
“When crunch time comes and we break down, chances are we don’t have time to wait for a dealership employee to show up and fix it,” Danny Kluthe, a hog farmer in Nebraska, told his state legislature earlier this month. “Most all the new equipment [requires] a download [to fix].”
The nightmare scenario, and a fear I heard expressed over and over again in talking with farmers, is that John Deere could remotely shut down a tractor and there wouldn’t be anything a farmer could do about it.
This seems like a terrible way to do business. I could understand a policy where self repair might void a warrantee but being prohibited outright from attempting to fix your own property seems extremely unethical.
“If a farmer bought the tractor, he should be able to do whatever he wants with it,” Kevin Kenney, a farmer and right-to-repair advocate in Nebraska, told me. “You want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic—he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can’t drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part.”
“What you’ve got is technicians running around here with cracked Ukrainian John Deere software that they bought off the black market,” he added.
Farmers are pushing for legislation that stops corporations like John Deere from seizing so much control over the machines they sell.
Kenney and Kluthe have been pushing for right-to-repair legislation in Nebraska that would invalidate John Deere’s license agreement (seven other states are considering similar bills). In the meantime, farmers have started hacking their machines because even simple repairs are made impossible by the embedded software within the tractor. John Deere is one of the staunchest opponents of this legislation.
“There’s software out there a guy can get his hands on if he looks for it,” one farmer and repair mechanic in Nebraska who uses cracked John Deere software told me. “I’m not a big business or anything, but let’s say you’ve got a guy here who has a tractor and something goes wrong with it—the nearest dealership is 40 miles away, but you’ve got me or a diesel shop a mile away. The only way we can fix things is illegally, which is what’s holding back free enterprise more than anything and hampers a farmer’s ability to get stuff done, too.”
John Deere and companies like it really have these farmers over a barrel. This isn’t capitalism, it’s corporatism and the farmers have a right to be angry.