“Nothing runs like a Deere.”
That's what the Moline, Illinois, John Deere & Company likes to tell folks about its tractors and combines.
But farmers are saying that isn't quite right. Farmers are now telling the courts, “Almost nothing runs without Deere's consent.”
You would think when a farmer buys one of those shiny, new green Deere rigs, he or she owns it...lock, stock, and barrel. And when it breaks down – as most complicated pieces of machinery are prone to do – the farmer can elect for some DIY repairs or call in whomever to lend a hand.
As it turns out when farmer Joe buys his Deere rig, he owns all the mechanical bits – the wheels, engine, steering wheel, entertainment system and the like. But it's what he does not own that's got farmers everywhere putting together multiple class-action suits against John Deere.
The skinny is that farmers are required by Deere to lease the software (engine control units) that monitor and control the functionality of the rig.
Those leases are now at the center of at least 10 class-action lawsuits, most of which have been consolidated for adjudication by the U.S. District Court Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. The John Deere lease forbids nearly all repairs and modifications and, for good measure, prevents farmers from suing the corporation for “crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment...arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software.”
Here's how it works.
Just like cars and trucks, John Deere tractors have oodles of sensors throughout the rig that constantly monitor the engine control unit. When a sensor detects an error it can put the machine into limp mode. At that point, farmers may be able to slowly move the rig but cannot fully operate it. Only when the problem is diagnosed, repaired and the error code cleared will the machine function normally again.
Replacing parts also can result in a tractor “bricking.” After a new part is installed, a John Deere dealership must connect the tractor's ECU to a software program called Service Advisor to authorize and pair the new part to the rig. If the part is not authorized, the engine won't start.
By the way, neither farmers nor independent repair shops can purchase the full bells and whistles Service Advisor program that allows the engine to turn over. A farmer or independent repair shop can only purchase a bare bones version of the Service Advisor program that permits interpretation of sensor codes but lacks the software to replace a sensor and re-calibrate a tractor.
Deere claims farmers can look up diagnostic error codes in its service manuals. Not that it's much use. A complaint petition from the National Farmers Union and others to the FTC says: “Of the 706 diagnostic error codes the Manual lists, 627—more than 89%—state that to solve the issue the farmer should ‘Have your John Deere dealer repair as soon as possible.’ The manuals offer little or no guidance on how a farmer could repair their machine. Deere charges $149 to provide farmers with the manual.”
So let's be clear. Only John Deere approved technicians can authorize a repair and restore tractor operation once a tractor goes into limp mode or bricks.
Where I come from we call that a scam.
John Deere has been at this sort of thing for quite a while. In 2015, Deere claimed that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act allowed the company to prevent farmers from repairing or adding aftermarket modifications to their rigs because they didn't actually own the software.
Deere and Company told the U.S. Copyright Office that allowing farmers to alter the software for the purpose of repair would “make it possible for pirates, third-party developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique expression and ingenuity of vehicle software.”
And in a fit of disillusion Deere added if an owner could tinker with the tractor's software, it might lead to pirating music through the rig's entertainment system.
I'm not making that up.
In December of 2015, the copyright office decided Deere was wrong (along with bunches of other corporations trying to prevent access to their software). The copyright office ruled farmers could make diagnoses, repairs and legal modifications to the software in their tractors and combines.
But in a matter of months, Deere pivoted to license agreements for John Deere embedded software. John Deere chief technology officer Jahmy Hindman said Deere needs to own the software due to emission and safety concerns: “Where we differ with the right-to-repair folks is that software, in many cases, it’s regulated. So let’s take the diesel engine example. We are required, because it’s a regulated emissions environment, to make sure that diesel engine performs at a certain emission output, nitrous oxide, particulate matter, etc., and so on. Modifying software changes that. It changes the output characteristics of the emissions of the engine and that’s a regulated device. So we’re pretty sensitive to changes that would impact that. And disproportionately, those are software changes. Like going in and changing governor gain scheduling, for example, on a diesel engine would have a negative consequence on the emissions that [an] engine produces. The same argument would apply in brake-by-wire and steer-by-wire. Do you really want a tractor going down the road with software on it that has been modified for steering or modified for braking in some way that might have a consequence that nobody thought of?”
The Federal Trade Commission begs to differ. A May 2021 report to Congress suggested ag equipment manufacturers were full of beans. The FTC slapped ag equipment dealers sideways saying the companies had “no empirical evidence” that providing software tools to independent repair shops would cause liability or reputational harm. For good measure, the FTC noted that to override emission and safety controls a person would need to illegally overwrite the tractor's entire operating system.
Let’s be frank: The bottom line on all this tomfoolery is the bottom line.
Forest Rivers Farms filed the first class action lawsuit this past January claiming: “The motive behind restricting access to the software is simple: Deere and its Dealerships did not want their revenue stream from service and repair—a far more lucrative business than original equipment sales—to end when the equipment is purchased, as it often did in the past when owners could perform their own repairs or rely on individual repair shops.”
What must be particularly galling to farmers is that Deere routinely tells the public there is no issue here...nothing to see.
Well, farmers are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore. And they shouldn't.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at email@example.com.