The American Farm Bureau Federation flexed its muscle at its recent annual meeting in Puerto Rico. Zippy Duvall, AFBF’s president, announced that it entered into a memorandum of understanding with John Deere about the right-to-repair issue. John Deere has committed to allowing farmers and third-party repairmen to work on its farm equipment.
A Quick History
Do farmers have the right to repair or maintain their own equipment? The answer to that question is important, especially in a world of tech-savvy farm equipment. The days when tractor were built with only mechanical parts is gone. Now they have computers, sensors, and software. You can’t fix those things with a hammer and a wrench. It’s all a little more…proprietary.
John Deere has taken the position that farmers only have a license to use equipment; they don’t actually own the equipment. It’s a sophisticated argument that relies on copyright laws to prohibit farmers and third-party repairmen to perform diagnostics, sell repair parts, and fix the equipment. Instead John Deere wanted farmers to only use its authorized technicians to do the work, and its dealers to sell replacement parts.
If that sounds uncomfortable (and a bit like a monopoly), that’s what a lot of farmers thought too. When equipment breaks down during busy seasons, farmers need it repaired right away. That doesn’t always happen when they’re waiting for a limited number of authorized technicians. And if all the parts to repair the equipment come from one source, it isn’t always the most economical. Not to mention that most farmers are skilled enough to fix their tractor’s mechanical parts (if not the software), so this is a huge change in culture.
John Deere is now changing its tune. The memorandum of understanding it signed clearly states that farmers may fix their equipment themselves, or seek out independent technicians to do the work. John Deere agrees to provide the resources necessary so that farmers and independent repairmen can perform that work.
Talking about the agreement, AFBF’s Zippy Duvall said:
It ensures that our farmers can repair their equipment and have access to the diagnostic tools and product guides so that they can find the problems and find solutions for them. And this is the beginning of a process that we think is going to be real healthy for our famers and for the company because what it does is it sets up an opportunity for our farmers to really work with John Deere on a personal basis.
It’s quite an accomplishment by Duvall and AFBF. But it came at quite a price. AFBF agreed to encourage its members to forego any federal or state right-to-repair legislation. If such legislation is introduced, John Deere has the right to withdraw from the MOU entirely. Yikes.
But that’s not the biggest problem: there’s absolutely no mechanism to enforce the MOU. Disagreements must be handled by “good faith” consultations between John Deere and the farmers. If that doesn’t work, then AFBF will participate in a second consultation. That hardly seems helpful. What happens if John Deere outright refuses to honor the agreement? Or, more likely, what if it’s response to these requests are so slow that farmers in the middle of a busy season have to resort to their authorized dealer anyway?
The Way Forward
John Deere’s MOU with AFBF seems like a last-minute effort to prevent right-to-repair legislation. Some states beat AFBF to the punch by passing laws aimed at giants like Apple and Samsung as well as John Deere. Right-to-repair bills are gaining momentum across the country. Unfortunately, the tech companies aren’t willing capitulate so quickly.
At least on the surface, it seems like AFBF is pulling a fast one. Why? Because it had all of the negotiating power! The public momentum is in favor of right-to-repair laws, with even President Biden weighing in favorably. And state and local farm bureau organizations have the ability to take up this issue, lobby lawmakers, and pass legislation. John Deere’s choices were limited: come to the table or lose the right-to-repair argument. So why would AFBF enter into an MOU that’s essentially unenforceable?
Here’s what I predict will happen. John Deere will work with farmers and independent technicians for awhile. But eventually there’s going to be a dispute where John Deere isn’t willing to budge. Depending on the issue, it could be enough for a state farm bureau organization to campaign for right-to-repair legislation. John Deere will pull out of the MOU with AFBF, effectively canceling the deal for farmers nationwide. But it won’t be the bad guy; that label will be used against the farmers that supported the right-to-repair law. After all, the farmers violated the MOU, not John Deere.
Alternatively, this might be too little too late. Like I said, multiple states are looking into this issue for all tech companies, not just farm-equipment manufacturers. Those laws might force a resolution anyway. But my fear is that this MOU will compel farm groups to stand down, and farm equipment will be left out of those conversations and laws. So you’ll be able to repair your smart phone, but not your smart tractor.
Maybe I’m too pessimistic about it (after all, lawyers tend to think of worst-possible outcomes). I hope John Deere will prove me wrong, and I hope this issue is now water under the bridge. I’d like to see John Deere cooperate with farmers and third parties, so we’ll never have to deal with this again. Let’s get back to growing food.