Farmers File Federal Complaint Over Right to Repair Equipment

By: - March 3, 2022 12:00 am

New John Deere farm machinery, including tractors, combines, balers and cutter heads, is lined up for sale outside a dealership in Kansas. A coalition of farmers, ranchers and consumer groups wants John Deere to make repair manuals and parts available to farmers and small repair shops. Mark Reinstein/MediaPunch/IPX via The Associated Press

Frustrated by a lack of state or federal legislation that would give farmers the tools and parts to repair their own equipment, farm organizations and consumer groups on Thursday filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission aimed at forcing Deere & Co. to provide access to software, parts and manuals.

The complaint alleges that John Deere, the largest farm equipment supplier in the United States, deliberately engages in unfair and deceptive trade practices by withholding the information and parts from equipment owners and small repair shops. The company requires anyone who wants to fix broken equipment to go to an authorized John Deere dealer, which in many rural states can be hours away.

“Deere has designed its machines such that when a wide variety of malfunctions, errors, or breakdowns occur, or a new part is needed to be installed, the equipment owner cannot address the issue—indeed, in many cases, cannot even diagnose what the issue is—without using software that Deere only shares with Deere-authorized technicians,” the complaint said.

The John Deere petition is the latest salvo in the widespread “right to repair” movement, which has been going after mobile phone, farm equipment and automobile manufacturers for several years. The movement won a victory in November when Apple agreed to offer some tools and parts to phone and tablet tinkerers, conceding to pressure from consumer groups and President Joe Biden.

Biden issued an executive order in July directing the FTC to make rules that will limit manufacturers’ ability to restrict independent repairs of their products.

But “right to repair” advocates have been frustrated both at the state and federal level in trying to pass laws that would require the sharing of information, parts and software. The pandemic put further pressure on the issue, as Americans turned to phones and computers to stay in touch with schools and businesses, and often needed to fix broken equipment.

Bills were introduced in more than half of the states last year, but under pressure from tech companies and equipment manufacturers such as John Deere, none passed.

The FTC complaint was filed by the National Farmers Union, along with Farm Action, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Illinois Public Interest Research Group, Digital Right to Repair Coalition and iFixit, a consumer site that touts do-it-yourself repairs.

Joe Maxwell, president of the interest group Farm Action, noted that while there have been bills in more than half the states, and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, is touting a bill in Congress, action has been stymied by big equipment companies, such as John Deere, that contribute mightily to rural state representatives.

Missouri farmer Jared Wilson said farmers are approaching the issue at the state level, particularly in Missouri and Nebraska this year. “Hopefully if we can get some states to act on this, it will force action at the federal level,” he said in a video news conference for reporters.

John Deere and other farm equipment manufacturers have argued that allowing farmers and small repairers to have access to parts and information could be dangerous and could ruin complicated equipment. The company did not respond to an email requesting comment on the FTC complaint. The FTC, through a spokesperson, said in an email the agency had received the complaint but, per agency policy, would not comment on it.

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers education and consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.