ROBERTS - As the 2019 harvest wrapped up in Idaho and the second-best in history, yet farmers still faced a serious obstacle.
They still do not have the right to repair their broken-down machinery.
With 12 states passing Right to Repair legislation, momentum is swinging back to the farmer’s side. Farmer Andrew Mickelson of Roberts advocates the Right to Repair in Idaho and says the situation is improving.
“We attended several meetings where the manufacturers came out here. The manufacturers are concerned about it and I think they are willing to find some middle ground there and they’re just worried that legislation is going through that will twist their hand,” said Mickelsen.
Repairing tractors have never been harder, enter the 21st century and computer software that's now entwined in every tractor and almost all equipment. These days farmers can’t pull a water pump and install a new one without a software code.
Mickelsen says he can’t do basic repairs on his tractors because of the software computer codes have locked him out.
"We think farmers have a right to the codes and that information. We should be able to fix our equipment without going to the dealer and paying hundreds of dollars for minor repairs,” he said.
At Mickelsen's Farm outside of Roberts this time of year they’re repairing equipment around the clock. When something goes wrong there’s an annoying in-cab alarm that alerts the driver of any number of problems, everything from oil pressure to faulty hydraulics.
Mickelsen pulled up an iPad-sized screen in one of his tractors to show the problem.
“This shows all the codes that are going on, and active now. But a lot of times when we see the codes it says ‘tracks control communication fault.’ Basically, it says there's some problem somewhere, sometimes the codes don’t mean anything. We get bogged down in information that’s useless and we have to take it to the dealer,” said Mickelsen.
All tractors now have software connecting to a port inside the tractor that points out the problem. Right now tractor manufacturers have that tool, we don’t. It can cost hundreds of dollars in call-out fees for a $10 part. For farmers used to fixing their own equipment, it's not only expensive but annoying.
“Farmers right to have that information that the dealerships have to repair the equipment,” he said.
The Mickelsen farm is one of many farm families in the US that continues to fight for the right to repair equipment. Momentum is building and there are eight states pushing “Right to Repair” bills in their legislatures this session. The bills require companies to give consumers and repair shops full access to service manuals, diagnostic tools, and parts so farmers are not limited to a single supplier.
The issue is growing across the US and now farmers have a new partner: cellphone repair shops. Repair shops across the US struggle to find certified components and codes to fix broken phones, tablets and laptops.
Farm machinery and big tech companies are lobbying against the right to repair bills, and have sent lobbyists to state Capitols citing intellectual property concerns.
“In the old days, we could work on anything. We’d pull a tractor in the shed and we had the books and tools to get it done. Now you got to have the manufacturers diagnostic computers and software,” said Mickelsen. “Opening up and getting us back under the hood of these tractors allow us to fix them once again.”
Not having the right diagnostic and disassembly tools can bring operations to a dead stop.
“We’ve had problems on the tractors. Some wires shorted-out and blew a fuse, we didn't know it at the time. We don't have a diagnostic computer. Our dealer sent a tech out and we had to take the tractor offline for three days," said Mickelsen. "Turns out it was a $2-dollar fuse in the back of the tractor. It's something that could've been fixed in minutes, instead took days, because we didn’t have codes or tools to fix the problem. It cost us a lot of time and money.”
Although there's a resolution in the AFBF policy book, supporters are working to get legislation going here. But Mickelsen says dealers are now working well with farmers.
“I got a text message just this morning from my dealer suggesting things we could do to fix our tractor, that’s new! They even offered to come out and fix it, so I think there’s a real push by the manufacturers to loosen up so we don’t need legislation, so I'm more optimistic,” said Mickelsen.