As It Happens

Saskatchewan farmer hacks his 'smart' tractor to avoid costly dealer fees

Frustrated farmers are using hacked software to fix their "smart" tractors. Under the manufacturer agreements, farmers aren't allowed to repair their tractors without going through a licensed dealer first, but that costs precious time and money.
A computer monitor is seen inside a tractor cab with a farm field in the background.
Inside the cabin of a GPS-equipped John Deere tractor. (Seth Perlman/The Associated Press)

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For generations, farmers have been able to repair their tractors with their own hands, some ingenuity and a little help from their friends.

But with the advent of so-called "smart" tractors, which feature all sorts of computerized components, repair jobs have become a lot more difficult and companies that sell the tractors won't allow farmers to fix them without going through a licensed dealer.
The anonymous Saskatchewan farmer's 'hacked' John Deere tractor.

But some farmers have found a way around the company sale agreements so they can continue to repair their own tractors — by buying hacked software online. 

One farmer in Saskatchewan uses these underground solutions and agreed to speak with As It Happens host Carol Off. He asked to conceal his identity to avoid getting in trouble with tractor companies — or the law.

Carol Off: Can you tell us, first of all, where did you go to look for help when you needed to repair your John Deere tractor?

Farmer: Well, we've always done all of our own repairs on the farm. Basically, when it came to this unit, we expected to do the exact same thing we've always done and just take care of it ourselves. Thanks to modern technology and software and computers running everything, we ran up to the problem of needing the dealer's, the John Deere software, in order to be able to complete a repair. We just weren't in the position where we wanted to pay the dealer $500 to come out and spend 15 minutes with a laptop hooked up to the tractor.

CO: And is that what John Deere requires you to do?

F: Yes, all of the manufacturers now are that way. The equipment is completely controlled by computers and software. The diagnostic equipment used to manage, adjust and modify the equipment software is proprietary to the manufacture of that piece of equipment.

CO: Did you have to agree to that — that you would use their technicians and their repair people when you bought the tractor?

F: Yes. Every monitor on startup flashes an agreement that signifies that if you start this tractor, operate this tractor, you agree to the license terms.

CO: So what did you do?

F: Well, basically, because we bought this tractor used to start with and, as I said, we were not in the position where we wanted to spend that kind of money for something that was so rudimentary and basic, so we turned to the internet and found a 'hack version' of the software to use ourselves.

CO: Where'd you find that?

F: It's scattered all over the internet. There are certain forums, discussion groups and sites like that where software is hacked or cracked, software is traded — and the John Deere service advisor was one of the downloads that was available. The internet is so anonymous it's really hard to know who originally did the cracking of the software. In this case, the credits are to somebody who had a Russian email address, so I'm assuming the person who cracked it was from Russia.

CO: Is it legal, what you did?

F: In John Deere's eyes probably not. Is it by law? I'm not lawyer. I'm not qualified to answer that. But in my eyes, I paid real money for a real tractor that's expected to perform on our farm and that has been the case for the last hundred and some years. My forefathers have always been able to repair their own machinery. While we might be repairing it with laptops instead of wrenches and a welder, I don't see why I would not be allowed to repair my own equipment today as, like I say, as my dad and grandpa did before me.

CO: John Deere's argument is that you bought the tractor, the hardware, the actual machine. But you didn't buy the software — you're licensing that. So that's their argument as to why you should be using them and allow them to have the connection with that, which I guess is licensed.

F: Yes, but on the flip side of that, when I pay $189,000 for a tractor, I expect to have a piece of equipment that is functioning. The tractor without the software will not function. It will not start. It will not drive. It will not do anything. There's a big difference in software between the software that runs GPS and optional equipment and the software that runs the internal engine and transmission components that are required to make the tractor do anything. No one is disputing that John Deere has intellectual property rights to their software. What we are disputing is that the base code that actually makes the machine do something is part of the machine. It's not a separate entity because the machine will not operate without that code.

CO: When you say "we," how many other Canadian farmers or other farmers are running into this same problem, as far as you know?

F: Well, pretty much every farmer runs into the same problem. The big problem is logistics. What they've basically done is try to create a new revenue stream for their service departments without thinking about the logistics of trying to support a huge number of farmers that are geographically spread out with limited dealer resources. When you phone your dealer and they say, "Well, we can be there the next day." I mean, in a 12-hour day a modern combine will take off $50,000 or $60,000 of grain. So, I mean, that's revenue that might be sitting under the snow because the dealer couldn't come out to spend 10 minutes with a laptop to unlock a new part.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview.

Update Mar. 29, 2017: ​A John Deere representative responded to our interview with a Saskatchewan farmer who uses hacked internet software to repair his tractor. 

Chuck Studer, Director of Industry Relations at John Deere, said to the best of his knowledge, the company has not sought charges against any customers who have used unofficial software. 

"We reserve that right but we are more focused on wanting to ensure that the customer experience is right."

Studer said that as someone who grew up in a farming family, he understands the desire for farmers to take things into their own hands. But when it comes to repairs involving software, which he says should be only a fraction of the repairs, he said the most efficient and safe solution would be to go through a John Deere dealer. 

Using hacked software carries some risks, Studer said, because the customer could not be sure that it was tested appropriately or that it meets emissions requirements. 

When asked if using hacked software is a violation of the licensing agreement, Studer responded by saying that it depends on where the customer is located, but that he sees that solution as "unneeded" because the customer could go through a John Deere dealer instead. 

He also said customers can access John Deere's technical manuals online to aid in diagnosing issues with their equipment.