Photo by Joyce Bupp Rebuilding tractor motors is part of the variety of fixing challenges that Steve Sydor tackles at his farm equipment repair business in eastern York County, Pa. Tractors manufactured in the pre-computerized era are being kept running by many owners seeking to avoid technology-code roadblocks.

Faced with a failing tractor heater during winter’s coldest stretch, one Pennsylvania farmer recently contacted the equipment dealer in search of a solution.

A replacement for the likely faulty part was determined to be available, which the farmer felt he could install. The estimated cost of the part: about $150.

But, the repair would not correct the problem until a technician traveled to the farm to program in the necessary operating software code. The estimated cost for the repair technician to make the 100-mile round trip to the farm and key in the necessary, proprietary software codes: several hundred dollars.

This true tale of farmer fixing frustration is occurring repeatedly, not just in the United States, but around the world, as equipment becomes increasingly computerized with licensed, copyrighted software.

The farmer owns the tractor. But he or she can’t fix it themselves or have a trusted, local mechanic make the repair, because the computerized operating system can only be accessed via a proprietary code.

"Who Really Owns the Tractors?"

This “right to repair” issue was the focus of a session held during the Pasa Sustainability Agriculture virtual conference recently. The speaker for the session was Kevin O’Reilly, with the Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

PIRG’s website states that it is “an advocate for the public interest” working for “a healthier, safer world in which people are free to pursue individual well-being and the common good.”

“This is about democracy. Who really owns the tractors?” said O’Reilly, a staffer and advocate for PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign. He cited similar issues with the inability of owners to fix a variety of electronics and appliances, including the ubiquitous smartphones.

“It’s a de facto monopoly,” O’Reilly said, noting that owners of items operating on such licensed software systems often find it necessary to purchase “fixes,” or upgrades — with repair costs sometimes rivaling the cost of a new, replacement item.

“Not everyone can afford to buy up to new,” he said. “It’s about control and it’s about money.”

As part of the presentation, O’Reilly shared a video relating how some farmers have found ways to “hack” into their equipment software and over-ride the coding lock. Reportedly, software that enables the over-ride is believed to likely be sourced from areas of eastern Europe, or possibly from the Ukraine.

But while the “hacking” might be effective around locked systems, the legality is questionable.

O’Reilly related the history of a similar issue some years ago within the automotive industry.

With new automobile buyers facing similar software-lock issues, voters in Massachusetts in 2012 approved, by some 85%, a ballot initiative that forced the issue of access to computerized information that would facilitate repairs by owners or non-dealer mechanics. A memorandum of understanding was eventually developed within the automotive industry for widespread application of the Massachusetts initiative, rather than having manufacturers dealing with varying rules across different states.

PIRG and other consumer-oriented groups have been working to get similar “right to repair” legislation for agriculture equipment passed in at least one state, with the anticipation that a similar consensus could be developed among dealers across the country. Pennsylvania has been part of that legislative focus.

A bill introduced in the 2020 legislative session by Pennsylvania state Rep. Austin Davis (D-McKeesport), died for lack of activity.

O’Reilly speculated that an effort to re-introduce that legislation may be made in 2021.

Manufacturers Claim They're Beginning to Make Change

In the interim, according to O’Reilly, a statement of principle has recently been agreed to by some manufacturers that, beginning with new 2021 equipment, certain software-related information will be shared and made available for repair purposes.

“I haven’t heard if any of that has happened,” he said, “and there’s no guarantee that tools and parts would be available at fair and reasonable prices. And that would only apply to tractors and combines. So we still have a huge fleet of farm equipment (manufactured earlier) that would not be covered by those changes.”

No proposed legislation on “right to repair” has been introduced into the 2021 Pennsylvania legislative agenda as of yet, according to Liam Migdail, communications director with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

“We do support efforts to work with this issue and we see a couple of ways to get there to make the tools available to farmers,” Migdail said.

He cited the possibilities of utilizing legislative efforts, industry agreements with manufacturers and ongoing work toward that end on both the state and federal levels.

Companies, he said, do not want to deal with having to work with different rules in different states, and will develop ways to adjust to meeting more of an across-the-board standard.

Owners and Mechanics Voice Their Opinions

“Our business hasn’t really been impacted by the issue,” said York County farmer Jim Rexroth, who, with his family operates a crops and livestock operation near Windsor.

“We try to partner with our equipment dealers,” is his philosophy. “And, we try not to let our equipment get old enough that it becomes a problem. We do use our dealer’s services when we have a technology issue,” he said.

Rexroth believes that farmers will find ways to work around the issue. Some may lean toward continuing use of older models of equipment, with fewer computer and software components. Others may find ways to disable locked software, whether it be a legitimate method or not.

At Walker Farms’ crop operation near Glen Rock, “right to repair” hasn’t been an issue for owner Jerry Walker.

“I’m not allowed to do that. I don’t attempt to do that,” said Walker, of the issue of dealing with locked equipment systems. “I call the dealer if there’s a problem.”

Andy Flinchbaugh, who handles much of the field work for the family’s R&S Flinchbaugh orchard and crops operation near Hellam, said he has not run into any real difficulties with new equipment technologies.

“Sometimes, in order to get something calibrated, I need to get (a technician) here,” Flinchbaugh said. “Usually, I work with a local guy on repairs, but sometimes he doesn’t have access to the information necessary to make them.

“It might not be hurting farmers as much as it does the local repair people, the mechanics who are reliable when you really need them. Sometimes dealers are so busy they can’t always get out right away when you need them,” he said.

In the shop at Steve’s Tractor Repair, near East Prospect in York County, owner Steve Sydor repairs and restores tractors and farm equipment, primarily for owners seeking to prolong the life and use of older models.

“It is getting to the point where you almost need a computer to fix anything,” acknowledges Sydor. “Farmers are keeping a lot of their older tractors,” he said of the clients for whom he does repair work, along with maintaining his own part-time cropping operation.

“It’s the same reason I keep older tractors,” Sydor said, of his own focus on being able to continue keeping his personal equipment in operating order.

At Deer Country Farm and Lawn in Lancaster, spokesman Scott Brady said he wasn’t sure what other dealerships are doing about the issue.

“We service and repair the equipment that we sell,” he said. “That’s our business.”

Stacey Smith, sales manager at Hoober, in Intercourse, suggested that resolution of the issue will need to come at a higher level of the industry than from individual dealerships.

“If there’s a need for repairs, we go out and take care of our customers,” Smith said, adding that they get very “tied up” just keeping up with equipment repair demands.

“The market is so different now than what it used to be,” Smith said. “If I were a farmer, I’d want easy liquidity for equipment that’s specialized and high-priced, something easier to rebuild. Ten years down the road, what does this industry look like, with much higher risks. Who does that risk sit with?”

“We try to stay on top of what’s coming — the creation of new technologies,” added Smith. “We’re an industry that’s always been fairly close to our customer base, and it’s often generational. We all seem to work together pretty well.”

For now, the “right to repair” issue continues to be one of controversy, debate, and for some farmers, frustration. Rexroth looks ahead to how and when the issue might eventually be resolved.

“I’d like to see everyone come to the table, “ said Rexroth, of his hope for industry resolution and cooperation in finding workable solutions to the software-lock controversy. “And farmers will manage, however it comes out.”

Joyce Bupp is a freelance writer in York County, Pennsylvania.

Joyce Bupp is a freelance writer in York County, Pennsylvania.