Who really owns the right to repair farm equipment?

The toolbox for fixing modern farm equipment has evolved dramatically. Troubleshooting typically starts with computer diagnostic tools, and many of the fixes don’t require wrenches at all.

Producers adept at replacing belts and bearings, and even alternators and starters, are stymied when it comes to the computer software that runs modern tractors and combines. Not only do they lack diagnostic tools for the error codes, they don’t technically own the software.

Repair or replace?

In many U.S. states, this has generated backlash with so-called right-to-repair legislation in various stages of consideration. Discussion is also being generated in Canada. Right-to-repair advocate and Nebraska farmer Tom Schwarz spoke about the issue at the CropSphere conference in Saskatoon.

Schwarz argues that farm equipment is not the same as smart phones, which are primarily software. When the software malfunctions, the entire phone is typically discarded. On farm equipment, it’s the physical function of the machine that’s most important, not the software running it.

Use your warranty

For their part, farm equipment manufacturers and dealers point out that when equipment is still under warranty, farmers should call the dealership for assistance. In fact, if there’s good rural internet, the service technician can sometimes diagnose the problem without leaving the dealership.

The farm equipment industry also warns against software hacks aimed at increasing engine horsepower and/or circumventing emission controls. “Chipping” (changing computer chips) or tuning the software components voids the manufacturer’s warranty – and a major engine repair or replacement can cost as much as $100,000.

Ironically, kits are being sold to modify or delete diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) emission systems, even though the modifications are technically illegal.

Most farmers recognize the dangers of modifying computer codes, but many argue that once the warranty has expired, they and third-party repair shops should have access to the codes. Tweet this

The equipment companies counter by noting the need for proprietary rights to protect their software innovation investments.

While this is a complicated issue with divergent views, some things seem clear.

  • The right-to-repair debate is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, with the end results uncertain. We may end up with different rules in different jurisdictions.
  • Equipment buyers will increasingly want to know if software has been modified, and may refuse trade-ins. Even if it was a repair rather than a modification, a buyer might be leery if the work wasn’t conducted by an accredited technician.
  • Farm equipment, particularly tractors, have traditionally remained in service for several decades. We may be entering a time when some farm equipment reaches the end of its useful life not because the mechanical parts are worn out, but because the software is outdated or irreparable.

From an AgriSuccess article (June 2019) by Kevin Hursh.