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The silhouette of a farmer is seen in front of a John Deere & Co. tractor at night on a field in Malden, Illinois, on May 16, 2017. Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker

Commentary: Tractor monopoly is bleeding US farmers

The unpredictable weather in southern Minnesota means that spring planting season is brief and often frantic, sometimes requiring 24-hour shifts if the weather requires it. Farmers who want to get their crops in the ground can't afford to waste an hour.

So when John Nauerth III, a farmer in remote Jackson, had trouble with his tractor last spring, he was worried. In years past, he told me over the phone, he might've diagnosed and fixed the problem with a screwdriver, or called a local mechanic.

But as tractors become as complex as Teslas, agricultural equipment manufacturers and their authorized dealerships are using technology as an excuse to force farmers to use the authorized service center - and only the authorized service center - for repairs. That's costing farmers - and independent repair shops - dearly.

Nauerth, under pressure to plant, waited a costly "two or three hours" for an authorized dealer to show up at his farm to plug in a computer and diagnose the problem. Worse, the dealer didn't have the repair part - and independent repair shops, excluded from the repair monopoly, didn't either.

"Right now, you're at the mercy of the dealers," Nauerth said. "Good thing is we figured out a way to get it running with a two-by-six piece of plywood."

Other American farmers are just as frustrated as he is at being funneled into the authorized repair services that can't meet demand, especially when they are already struggling against economic headwinds. Across rural America, they are seeking relief, sometimes by joining so called "tractor hacking" collectives that override manufacturer-installed software locks, and - increasingly - by backing so-called Fair Repair (or Right to Repair) bills that would require manufacturers of everything from tractors to smartphones to open up their repair monopolies to competition by providing equal access to service manuals, diagnostic tools and parts.

Twenty U.S. states are currently considering versions of Fair Repair, and Minnesota - which is likely to debate the legislation in its House of Representatives in coming weeks - is a frontrunner to pass it first.

U.S. consumers may be unaware of the farmers' plight, but many people have had similar experiences with their automobiles. It wasn't so long ago that American driveways were filled with DIY mechanics performing oil changes, brake jobs and other basic maintenance. What the hobbyist mechanic couldn't do at home, a plethora of independent repair shops could do, instead.

As cars became more like computers, manufacturers and their dealerships began to restrict independent repair shops from obtaining diagnostic equipment, maintenance guides and other essential service materials. If you've ever had to pay a car dealership to reset a light or sensor because an independent garage didn't have the equipment or diagnostics, you've experienced what it's like to be a farmer with a malfunctioning tractor.

It's not cheap. In Nebraska, an independent mechanic can replace a John Deere Co tractor transmission. But if the farmer wants to drive it out of the mechanic's garage, a Deere technician must be hired for $230, plus $130 per hour, to show up to plug a computer into the tractor to authorize the part, according to Motherboard.

Making matters more difficult, equipment manufacturers and dealers have been consolidating for years, reducing the number of techs and increasing the distance they must travel. Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, which supports Minnesota's Fair Repair bill, cited this problem as especially costly.

"It can be 50 miles to the nearest dealership," he explained in a phone interview. "If independent repair businesses could do the work, that'd solve a lot of problems, especially in the spring and fall."

The Minnesota Fair Repair bill requires that manufacturers of equipment with embedded electronics - everything from a tractor to an iPhone - must make available repair manuals, parts and tools to independent repair businesses that it makes available to dealerships and other authorized repair businesses. It must also provide the means to reset software locks disabled during diagnosis and repair.

It's hardly a radical proposal, even as companies from Apple Inc to John Deere try to depict it as one. In 2012, the voters of Massachusetts overwhelmingly approved a motor vehicle right-to-repair law that gave independent businesses access to the same diagnostic tools as authorized service centers. Rather than face similar laws in 50 different states, automakers reached a binding settlement with associations representing independent auto repair businesses to make the Massachusetts law a national standard, starting with the 2018 model year.

Farm equipment manufacturers and dealers, as well as consumer electronics companies, should seek a similar settlement while they can. In Minnesota, as well as other states, Fair Repair is a bipartisan cause, attracting support from rural and urban legislators, as well as some of the most conservative and liberal ones.

The cause is also receiving national attention: Last month, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, announced her support for a national Right-to-Repair bill targeted to farmers beset with high repair costs.

State Rep. Peter Fischer, the chief sponsor of the Minnesota bill, senses the momentum. "I've met with the manufacturers and told them that I'd like to give them time to do a deal like the Massachusetts one," saod Fischer, a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said in an interview. "That's the best outcome."

It's also the most likely one, and the sooner electronics manufacturers recognize that this prairie revolt won't flame out, the better it is for everyone.

This column was written by Adam Minter, Bloomberg.

Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of "Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade."

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