Why Nebraska farmers are taking on John Deere and Apple

Sep 19, 2018, 06:00 PM

The Guardian

There are corn and soy fields as far as the eye can see around Kyle Schwarting’s home in Ceresco, Nebraska. The 36-year-old farmer lives on a small plot of land peppered with large agricultural machines including tractors, planters and a combine harvester.

Parked up in front of his house is a bright red 27-ton Case tractor which has tracks instead of wheels. It’s worth about $250,000, and there’s a problem with it: an in-cab alarm sounds at ten-minute intervals to alert him to a faulty hydraulic connector he never needs to use.

Because farm machinery is now so high-tech, the only way to silence the error message is by plugging in a special diagnostic tool – essentially a computer loaded with troubleshooting software that connects to a port inside the tractor – to identify and resolve the problem. Only manufacturers and authorized dealers are allowed that tool, and they charge hundreds of dollars in call-out fees to use it. For a fifth-generation farmer in an increasingly squeezed industry, whose family has spent decades fixing the equipment they paid for, it’s a tough pill to swallow. He’s coped with the intermittent alarm sound for almost a year.

“I can’t turn the alarm off. If I had the literature and capability to diagnose and fix it, it would already be done. I changed the mechanical switch and wire, but now I’m down to the programming,” he said Wednesday.

Kyle is one of many farmers in the US fighting for the right to repair their equipment. He and others are getting behind Nebraska’s “Fair Repair” bill, which would require companies to provide consumers and independent repair shops access to service manuals, diagnostic tools and parts so they aren’t limited to a single supplier. They have an unlikely ally: repair shops for electronic items like iPhones, tablets and laptops who struggle to find official components and information to fix broken devices. This means the bill could benefit not just farmers but anyone who owns electronic goods. There’s also a benefit to the environment, as it would allow for more refurbishment and recycling instead of sending equipment to the landfill.

Nebraska is one of eight states in the US – including Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Wyoming, Tennessee and Kansas – seeking to pass “right to repair” legislation. All eyes will be on the Cornhusker state when the bill has its public hearing on 9 March, because its unique “unicameral legislature” (it’s the only state to have a single parliamentary chamber) means laws can be enacted swiftly. If this bill, officially named LB67, gets through, it may lead to a domino effect through the rest of the US, as happened with a similar battle over the right to repair cars. These Nebraska farmers are fighting for all of us

Big agriculture and big tech – including John Deere, Apple and AT&T – are lobbying hard against the bill, and have sent representatives to the Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, to spend hours talking to senators, citing safety, security and intellectual property concerns.

John Deere has gone as far as to claim that farmers don’t own the tractors they pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for, but instead receive a “license to operate the vehicle”. They lock users into license agreements that forbid them from even looking at the software running the tractor or the signals it generates.

Squaring up to the corporates are grassroots activists like Kevin Kenney, 52, who has spent months educating fellow farmers and pounding the corridors of the Capitol building to counter the lobbyists’ fear-mongering.

Kenney argues farmers are in effect being held to ransom when their machinery breaks down. “Before software, there wasn’t anything you couldn’t work on. It was all book and tools. Now it’s book and tools and software,” he said. Opening up the equipment will allow Nebraska’s farmers to expand their skills into computer science, allowing for ag-tech innovation in “Silicon Prairie”.

The combination of the agric...