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Standoff Between Farmers And Tractor Makers Intensifies Over Repair Issues

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

American farmers have long had a clear favorite when it comes to tractors - John Deere is king in rural America. But farmers' loyalty to the John Deere brand is fraying. NPR's Uri Berliner explains.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Walter Schweitzer is a third-generation Montana farmer. He never expected to get political in the middle of haying season, but there he was last summer on his John Deere tractor, hustling to cut and bale his hay while the weather was still good. And then at the worst possible time, he says his tractor kept shutting down, randomly.

WALTER SCHWEITZER: Kind of did all the things that a farmer or rancher does to try to troubleshoot the problems.

BERLINER: But he couldn't do much because he didn't have access to the software that would help him diagnose what was wrong. Only a John Deere dealer could do that - not an independent mechanic or Schweitzer himself, the guy who owns the tractor.

SCHWEITZER: It's not like they didn't know that this was an issue. It just became personal. You know, when you're staring at a hay crop that needs to be in a bale and your tractor's not working, you get real nervous.

BERLINER: Schweitzer wound up sending his tractor to the dealer. He says it took about a month for the repair to get done. His bill to replace the fuel sensor? Nearly $5,000. He says a local independent mechanic would have charged only a small fraction of that. Schweitzer was fortunate he had an old backup tractor, so his crop didn't get ruined, but the experience made Schweitzer eager to fight for change.

SCHWEITZER: Equipment manufacturers are not supposed to hold you hostage, and that's what's happening here. These equipment manufacturers are holding me hostage to them, forcing me to use their dealerships to repair my equipment - on their schedule, on their time and at their rates. That's wrong.

BERLINER: Today's generation of tractors have fancy touch screens and are packed with software and sensors that can help a farmer plant, spray and harvest with great precision. That's one reason a new one can cost several hundred thousand dollars. And as tech has become more important in farming, the standoff between tractor-makers and farmers has intensified. Farmers say even simple repairs are off-limits. In 2018, the industry offered a compromise and made a promise - by this year, 2021, companies would sell farmers diagnostic tools that would let them fix their own equipment. But that's not happening, says Kevin O'Reilly of U.S. PIRG, a nonprofit research group.

KEVIN O'REILLY: I myself called 12 different John Deere dealers in six different states, asking to try to buy the software tools and diagnostics that you need to fix your tractor, and at 11 of the 12, I was told that I couldn't buy them. Sometimes I was told they didn't even exist. And then the 12th gave me an email address to reach out to, which I had never heard back from

BERLINER: John Deere declined to comment. Two other tractor-makers, CNH Industrial and AGCO, didn't respond to requests for interviews. The industry as a whole has fought against political efforts to force changes on manufacturers through what are called right-to-repair bills. Tom Brandt is a farmer and state senator who introduced Nebraska's right-to-repair bill.

TOM BRANDT: So let's say you've got a couple hundred thousand dollars and you buy a bright, shiny new tractor. You only own the hardware. Today that software is still controlled by the original equipment manufacturer.

BERLINER: Nebraska's bill would change that. It would unlock software and allow farmers and independent shops to make the same repairs as dealers. An industry group, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, tells NPR these kind of right-to-repair bills, they permit illegal tampering and create safety and environmental risks. And that's why states have rejected such bills in the past. But those right-to-repair bills, they keep coming. O'Reilly of U.S. PIRG says right-to-repair bills for agriculture have been introduced in 12 states.

O'REILLY: Farmers continue to speak out. We see more and more states introducing this legislation. And the movement continues forward as they realize that they just want to be able to fix our stuff. And that's not too much to ask.

BERLINER: But some farmers aren't waiting for bills to get passed. They're hacking their own equipment to get around repair restrictions. Others, they're going back in time. They're buying vintage tractors from the '70s and '80s that don't run on software.

Uri Berliner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.