Farmers seeking 'right to repair' rules to fix their own tractors gain White House ally

Farmers say they just want the right to repair their own equipment, but industry is wary of any push that could allow modifications affecting safety and privacy. U.S. President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order designed to help farmers, something advocates hope will have an impact in Canada, too.

Industry says it's committed to helping farmers make their own repairs, but advocates say legislation needed

Some farmer advocates say they need legislation to ensure they have the 'right to repair' their own agricultural equipment as machinery becomes increasingly sophisticated. (Submitted by Hannah Konschuh)

Grain farmer Cole Siegle didn't have time to waste when a combine his family was using to help with the harvest started acting up.

An onboard computer glitch was the problem — a quick fix with the right equipment.

Instead, the Alberta farmer had to wait for a dealership technician to drive out to diagnose and reset the system. It was a five-minute job that idled the combine for two hours.

It was "extremely" frustrating, he said of the incident from two years ago. In those couple hours, he said the combine might have harvested the equivalent of roughly $20,000 worth of canola. 

It's situations like this behind wrangling over whether "right-to-repair" laws are needed to ensure farmers can fix their own machinery, or whether they open the door to legalizing the kind of modifications the industry says would have implications for safety and privacy. 

"I'm not going to rewrite the software," Siegle said. 

"I just want to be able to read these codes … and then [be] able to reset the computer so that I can actually use this half-million-dollar piece of equipment.

"I don't think that's asking too much."

Alberta grain farmer Cole Siegle said he once had to idle a combine for two hours in the middle of harvest while waiting for a five-minute fix from an authorized technician. (Submitted by Cole Siegle)

Biden weighs in

The right-to-repair issue has been around for years, but the discussion has grown louder as more products — from smartphones to dishwashers to tractors — become increasingly sophisticated and integrated with computers.

Consumer advocates say these repairs can be difficult due to a lack of access to parts, tools and information needed to actually complete the fix.

When it comes to farm equipment, the issue took a leap in prominence last month after U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order encouraging the Federal Trade Commission to limit equipment manufacturers from restricting people's ability to use independent repair shops or do DIY repairs.

"Powerful equipment manufacturers — such as tractor manufacturers — use proprietary repair tools, software, and diagnostics to prevent third-parties from performing repairs," read a White House statement provided to reporters last month.

The statement said such practices force farmers "to pay dealer rates" for repairs they can make themselves or that an independent repair shop could do for less.

Later in July, the FTC voted to make right to repair a priority.

WATCH | What Biden's order means for right to repair movement:

Right-to-repair movement gets boost after executive order from Biden

2 years ago
Duration 5:51
Canada Tonight guest host Arti Pole speaks with Alice Henry from Share Reuse Repair Initiative in Vancouver about why consumers should have more ability to repair and alter the products they buy without going through the manufacturer.

Industry concerns over privacy, safety, innovation

In Canada, some advocates hope if the U.S. makes legislative changes, the benefits will ripple across the border. Others believe Biden's stance should ease concerns that if Canada passed its own reforms it would risk running afoul of bilateral trade deals.

"If the United States is on board to move in this direction anyway, it makes that argument pretty much null and void," said Bryan May, who, as a Liberal MP, recently advanced a private member's bill that took aim at copyright laws related to right to repair.

But such issues are often complex and have been hotly debated, with big tech like Apple and Microsoft among those pushing back against repair rules.

Representatives for farm equipment dealers have argued new regulation is unnecessary and have objected to efforts they say push beyond the right to repair equipment into software modification, which they say has implications for privacy, safety and industry innovation

U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order earlier this month encouraging the Federal Trade Commission to limit farm equipment manufacturers from restricting people's ability to use independent repair shops or do their own repairs. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Leading tractor manufacturer John Deere said in a statement to Reuters last month that it "does not support the right to modify embedded software due to risks associated with the safe operation of the equipment, emissions compliance and engine performance." 

Industry groups also point to commitments made by two trade organizations representing North American equipment dealers and manufacturers to provide access to training and make diagnostic equipment, tools and manuals available for farmers to purchase. They say these are also available to third-party repair shops.

John Schmeiser, chief executive of the Western Equipment Dealers Association (WEDA), which represents more than 2,000 North American equipment dealers, said these commitments demonstrate that legislation isn't necessary.

"If the issue really is right to repair, and if it is farmers that are concerned about not getting quick answers to an error code or not having the ability to fix their own equipment, if that is really the concern, those tools are now available to help our customers," said Schmeiser from Calgary. 

He said no one has taken away the farmers' right to fix their own equipment, noting the success of equipment dealers depends on the success of farmers.

In a statement, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), a lobby group representing North American construction and farm equipment manufacturers, said it has "always supported" the rights of farmers to repair their own equipment and that Biden's order doesn't change its commitments.

Canadian group wants legislation

But one Canadian farmers group said its members want to see regulation that ensures the industry lives up to those commitments. A representative called industry concerns about modification a "deflection" from the issues farmers face. 

"Most producers feel they would be best served if there was some legislation," said Geoff Backman, business development and markets manager for the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions, which represents about 17,000 farmers across the province. 

Anthony Rosborough, a lawyer and right-to-repair advocate, understands why farmers want to see legislation rather than rely on industry commitments, which he said are really about allowing repair on the industry's terms. 

He said it's also important that farmers be able to innovate, as they've always done.

"Farmers need the freedom to not only develop their own ways of devising a solution, but freedom to circulate and distribute and provide solutions to others."

Equipment manufacturers and dealers say they've committed to making diagnostic equipment, tools and manuals available for farmers to purchase, as well as providing access to training. They say those same things are available to third-party repair shops. (Don Somers/CBC News)

In Ottawa, May's private member's bill hit a dead end last Sunday with the federal election call, but he said earlier this month he feels there's enough support to try again later.

He said his bill aimed to carve out a specific and limited allowance for consumers to bypass a technological protection measure (TPM), or digital locks, without violating the Copyright Act — but only for diagnosis, maintenance or repair.

Much of the responsibility for right to repair lies with provinces, May said, but he contends that the copyright issues his bill sought to address would have eliminated a major barrier for provinces to develop their own frameworks. 

Larger discussion around right to repair

The right-to-repair issue is part of a larger discussion about consumers' right to repair more of the things they buy, including smartphones, cameras and other sophisticated electronics. 

But it's also been an issue for medical equipment, mining and home-automation systems, like the kind that turn off your lights or lock your doors via an app, said Rosborough.

"Right to repair is about really trying to get some legal changes to allow for greater access to parts, tools and information."

Rosborough, a part-time faculty member at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, said he's optimistic changes will come, adding Biden's executive order provides some momentum, even in Canada.

"But we still have to do our own heavy lifting," he said. "We're starting on that process now." 

With files from Reuters