Skip to main content

A right to repair: Farmers want computer codes

Roberts—Since the dawn of time, Farmers not only produced food to feed the world, but they fixed the machinery that helped them do it.

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. Just like Hal, the computer that took over the spacecraft in the movie 2001 Space Oddity modern day software systems in equipment is every bit alarming.

Farmer Andrew Mickelsen of Michelsen Farms out of Roberts says he can’t do basic repairs on his tractors because of the software computer codes have locked him out.

“I went to the Bonneville County Farm Bureau with a resolution," said Mickelsen. "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 to fix minor repairs.”

At Mickelsen's Farm outside of Roberts this time of year you’ll find a long line of bright-green tractors. The fleet looks brand new and is well maintained and the oldest tractor is 6 years old.The tractors have tracks instead of wheels and they’re worth a quarter million dollars apiece. When something goes wrong there’s an annoying in-cab alarm that sounds at intervals to alert the driver of a myriad of problems, everything from oil pressure to faulty hydraulic connectors.

In the cab of one of his tractors, Mickelsen pulls up an iPad-sized screen.

“It shows all the codes that we have going on, and whether its active right 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 unless we take it to the dealer,” said Mickelsen.

Because of ever-increasing, high-tech farm machinery a farmer has to have special diagnostic tools to stop alarms. All tractors now have software connecting to a port inside the tractor that points out the problem. Right now tractor manufacturers have that tool, and it can cost hundreds of dollars in call-out fees for cash-strapped farmers.  For the Mickelsens and other farmers used to fixing their own equipment, it's not only expensive but annoying.

“We got the resolution considered at Bonneville County Farm Bureau and the American Farm Bureau put it in their policy book,” said Mickelsen. “We believe that it’s the farmers right to have that information that the dealerships have to repair the equipment.”

The Mickelsen is one of many farm families in the US that are fighting for the right to repair equipment. Momentum is building and there are eight states pushing “Right to Repair” bills in their legislatures. The legislation requires 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.

“In the old days if we had a problem we’d check the fuel, check the compression little things like that,” said Mickelsen. “It could be maybe five things, now its one of a hundred things. So over time, the problems have multiplied and its harder to find what went wrong.”

The issue is growing across the US and now farmers have a new partner: iPhone 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.

Big tractor companies say that farmers don’t actually own the tractors that they pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for and instead receive a 'license to operate the vehicle.' They lock farmers into license agreements that keep them opening the software running their tractors and the signals they generate.

Grassroots activists are educating fellow farmers and hitting the corridors of Statehouses to counter the farm software lobby.

Mickelsen thinks farmers are being held for ransom when their machinery breaks down.

“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 will allow us to fix them once again.”

The semi-truck situation is much better on the farm according to Mickelsen.

“The great thing about the trucks is that because of some lawsuits and legislation years ago, it ruled that trucks and cat engines have to be able to have computers and software available at repair shops. So if our International breaks down we got a computer, we can plug it in and we have the codes, we can read pressures in the engine, we can do a lot more with our trucks than any of our tractors, said Mickelsen.

And not having the right diagnostic and disassembly tools can bring operations to a dead stop. Last fall in the middle of harvest the tractor Mickelsen was driving had an alarm go off.

“We had problems on one 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 don’t have codes or tools to fix the problem. It cost us a lot of time and money.”

In Nebraska, the legislature has considered 'The right to repair act' for the past two years. State Senator Lydia Brasch spearheaded efforts to free up computer codes. Senator Brasch told the Website Motherboard that releasing codes evens the 'right to repair' playing field.

"This fair repair act gives farmers the ability to purchase the diagnostic tools and take tractors to a local shop or try and repair equipment themselves," said Senator Brasch.

Apple and other high tech companies showed up in Lincoln to fight the bill. LB67 is still being held in the Nebraska Statehouse, yet this year 12 other states have right to repair bills under consideration.

"This complicated issue impacts all equipment manufacturers with embedded software in their products. Customers, dealers, and manufacturers should work together on the issue rather than invite government regulation that could ask costs with no associated value," Ken Golden PR Director of John Deere and Company told Motherboard.

Although there's a resolution in the AFBF policy book, no legislation has been proposed at the Idaho Statehouse. Farmers like Mickelsen says with costs and frustration rising on the farm, that could soon change.