ROLLA, Mo. — In the mounting battle between manufacturers trying to protect their technology from intellectual theft and customers who want more freedom to fix things when that technology breaks down, the Biden administration has won some gratitude in farm country.
Early last month, President Joe Biden issued an executive order telling the Federal Trade Commission to let individuals and repair shops fix products — from six-figure tractors to smartphones — rather than only turning to manufacturers.
Biden has essentially sided with the “right to repair” movement that forces manufacturers to grant access to diagnostic equipment, information and parts to consumers or repair shops.
Farmers have been particularly vocal about right to repair because they’ve long been accustomed to fixing an old combine or fertilizer spreader to keep them running.
“If farmers are out in the field and there is weather threatening, if there is a storm coming and their tractor breaks down, two, three days wait for a manufacturer technician is simply not an option,” said Kevin O’Reilly, who heads the right to repair campaing for the left-leaning Public Interest Research Group. “They need to be able to get under the hood and fix it themselves right away.”
It’s not just about fixing it themselves, according to some farmers. It also has to do with having options of who can fix something when it is broken.
“The John Deere dealership in my area owns 21 stores from Topeka, Kansas, to Harrison, Arkansas, to Rolla, Missouri,” said Mark Blackwell, a cattle farmer from Brookline, Missouri. “So if you own a John Deere Tractor, you’re going to take it to one of their stores.”
Opponents of the right to repair in the agriculture industry say the move will reduce innovation in the agriculture sector by making it easier for companies to have their technology stolen and put operators’ safety at risk.
“Modern tractors include better safety and emission features, in accordance with the law, to keep farmers and the public safe,” rancher and former Missouri state Rep. Warren Love wrote for the Missouri Times. “But ‘right to repair’ legislation would allow third-party bad actors to steal, modify, or disable safety features that could put farmers at risk.”
Biden’s executive order encourages a move toward right to repair policies, but is limited to actions the Federal Trade Commission could take.
It would take state or federal legislation to make it the law. Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma are among the 27 states that have introduced right to repair bills, but so far, none of them have passed.
This story first appeared on Illinois Newsroom, part of a reporting partnership that includes Illinois Public Media, Side Effects Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News. Copyright 2021 NPR.
Lead photo: Paul Treffer, a tractor mechanic near Lexington, Neb., replaces a bearing on a Case-IH combine. Independent repair shops would have more freedom to fix farm equipment under "Right to Repair." Grant Gerlock, Harvest Public Media