WASHINGTON, D.C. — Technology is transforming family farms and ranches. But it's also bringing complications, as major equipment manufacturers tighten access to tools and software.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester believes the "right-to-repair" question threatens the viability of agriculture.
In the days when now-antique machinery was sold, you could fix anything with a wrench and a little know-how. In fact, it's why these museum pieces are still running. But that's changed dramatically in the past decade.
"Whether it's seeding or harvest or anything in between, time is literally money in agriculture, and if you have a piece of equipment to break down, you cannot get it fixed in a timely basis," Tester told MTN News. "And by the way, many people have the same equipment and equipment does break down. Then it puts you at a real loss and you and you lose income because of that."
It's the issue the Montana Democrat is tackling with the Agriculture Right to Repair Act. The problem where major companies like John Deere are locking down equipment and software so it can only be fixed by a dealer. That's forcing many farmers to stick with the older equipment they can fix, delaying upgrades.
"So I've got a combine and that's relatively new to me," Tester related. "But I got to thinking about, it's 15 years old and it doesn't have a lot of this stuff on it that the new combines have. And even if I had the dough to trade off, trade it off and get a new one, I'm not sure I would because I can fix this combine if something goes wrong with it."
Tester says his bill, focusing specifically on farm machinery, attempts to find a balance between convenience, and the company's need for product control.
"There's always going to be plenty of work for mechanics in these dealerships to do. All we're asking is that the manufacturers give us some documentation. Give us some software so that we can deal with that," Tester says. "With our ability to repair and maintain our equipment."
And he believes that's critical, especially in smaller towns that lost local dealerships.
Tester was asked if the legislation would help enable the smaller shops, the so-called "shade tree mechanics" to be able to to to do that emergency fix too.
"Absolutely," Tester says without hesitation. "And I will tell you that a lot of those mechanics that are out there in those small towns that are working as independents do a great job. And they can do it in timely job and they don't have to drive, you know, 100 miles to get to your place. They're much, much closer, and so all that saves money, saves time and make sure operation more efficient."
"Ultimately, what this does... if we don't do something like this, is it further consolidates agriculture and it makes our food chain less dependable."