You’d think that when something feels slightly off with a six-cylinder John Deere 6145R model at 5:30 a.m., one of the most qualified people to perform a quick fix would the same person who operates that hefty piece of expensive farming equipment on a daily basis.

After all, farmers have traditionally acted as their own mechanics — they know their machines inside and out and, most often, they know how to repair them quickly. And if it’s an issue that can’t be properly diagnosed or corrected, many farmers have “a guy” who will get the job done. In a previous era, a visit to the dealership was largely viewed as a last resort.

However, since 1998, the year the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) made the life of hardworking farmers’ all the more complicated, the owners of tractors, sprayers, harvesters, combines, loaders, bailers and all sorts of other agricultural machinery have been legally prohibited from embarking on their own repairs or enlisting independent mechanics to get the job done.

As Modern Farmer recently explained, the reason for this is frustratingly simple: manufacturers of farming equipment, namely John Deere, do not consider farmers to be the true owners of said equipment. Rather, farmers have purchased an “implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”

Essentially, due to digital copyright laws that aim to protect the intellectual property of the sophisticated software integrated into modern farming machinery, farmers who opt to perform their own repairs are acting in direct violation of the DMCA. Under the law, repairs both minor and major must be performed by a certified technician or dealership — easier said than done in rural farming communities. Whereas non-agricultural vehicles (i.e. your Honda Accord) can be serviced by independent mechanics, this is no longer the case for tractor owners whose livelihoods depend on the health of their equipment. A days-long wait in line at the only certified dealership in a three-country area could prove to be financially devastating.

“I want it to be my call. I don’t want to have to make two trips to the service department — one to diagnose it and one to fix it,” Nebraska farmer Nick Minchow explains to the Associated Press.

For better or worse, advances in technology have radically altered how farmers operate — and own — their tractors. While high-tech agricultural machinery has made the job of farmers more comfortable and more efficient in many regards, this same equipment has also proven to be what Wired calls a “nightmare” for farmers accustomed to equipment with simple control panels that don’t resemble something found on the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise. A generation of farmers capable of popping open the hood and fixing a broken engine with their eyes closed now have their hands tied. While much of the grueling work involved with farming has eased, so has a sense of control.

Explains Wired:

Aside from using it, there’s not much you can do with modern ag equipment. When it breaks or needs maintenance, farmers are dependent on dealers and manufacturer technicians — a hard pill to swallow for farmers, who have been maintaining their own equipment since the plow.

The problem is that farmers are essentially driving around a giant black box outfitted with harvesting blades. Only manufacturers have the keys to those boxes. Different connectors are needed from brand to brand, sometimes even from model to model — just to talk to the tECU [Tractor Electronic Control Unit]. Modifications and troubleshooting require diagnostic software that farmers can’t have. Even if a farmer managed to get the right software, calibrations to the tECU sometimes require a factory password. No password, no changes — not without the permission of the manufacturer.

Now, farmers are fighting back to regain control of their machines.

As the Associated Press reports, four states — Nebraska, Minnesota, Massachusetts and New York — have proposed legislation that would require the manufacturers of farming equipment, including John Deere, to provide “diagnostic, technical and service information” to farmers and independent mechanics.

Nebraska’s Fair Repair Bill (LB1072) — which extends beyond farm equipment to computers, smartphones and other devices that cannot be legally repaired by independent repair specialists or the owners themselves under the DMCA — was passed over by the state senate this past spring, but the Associated Press notes that the fight will continue on. Proponents have vowed to reintroduce the bill next year, arguing that not having the option to perform self-repairs or enlist a more accessible/less expensive independent mechanic adds additional financial challenges to an already financially challenging line of work.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau has yet to take an official stance on the matter.

“For the time being, we remain neutral on it but that very well might change as we work through our policy development process,” says Jordan Dux, the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s director of national affairs.

Dux does play devil’s advocate, however. He explains that those who have reservations about the bill worry that wresting control from dealerships could prove to be detrimental to everyone involved: “Repairs are going to be the way a lot of these dealerships are going to make money for the time being simply because folks aren’t buying a lot of new equipment."

While detractors of right-to-repair bills may have valid points, in the case of farmers and their tractors, it would seem particularly wise to not bite the hands that feed.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Farmers fight for the right to repair their own tractors
Farmers are forbidden from fixing busted ag equipment under digital copyright law.