Sell the Farm, Save the Tractor

The equipment many farmers are now using is a lot different from the tractors we had once become accustomed to. Today’s modern tractors are fully equipped with software and technology that is designed to improve efficiency and increase yields. In order to repair these features, however, it requires digital tools — tools that your average farmer cannot buy and cost a fortune.

“I consider myself to be a bit of a handyman,” stated Barry Hovis recently, a member of the Missouri House of Representatives and a local farmer. “When I tried to buy the software tools, I needed to do simple things like sync a new part to my tractor, I came up empty. And because independent repair shops get the same treatment from manufacturers, I’m forced to turn to the dealer for repair.”

A farmer cannot do anything on a modern tractor today without creating messages captured by its onboard computer, which uploads the signals to the cloud via a cellular transmitter — located beneath the driver’s seat in many John Deere tractor. These machines have been thoroughly programmed to reduce hazards and increase productivity, Deere has stated, and it’s all just too complicated for farmers to be getting involved in.

Many within the farming community are calling for “right to repair” laws. Right to repair laws would require manufacturers to provide their customers access to the key parts, software, and any necessary documentation to repair their equipment. Right now, farmers are forced to go to the dealer for help — an incredibly expensive option that can consume time — or turn to hacking the digital features in the tractor, which is a violation of the license they are required to sign upon purchasing.

“When harvest season starts in southeast Missouri, everybody’s running multiple combines, tractors, everything. That means more breakdowns,” he said. “Our two dealerships’ service techs can’t keep up with the demand. Being a smaller farmer, I’m typically going to be the last guy on the list that gets the truck out to my house.”

Vintage tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are now selling like hot cakes in farm auctions across the Midwest these days to mitigate the costs of repair from more modern equipment. Farmers are being forced to look for better bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built, functional, and aren’t nearly as complicated or expensive to repair as the more recent models that run on software.

“They’ve stood the test of time, [are] well-built, easy to fix, and it’s easy to get parts,” Said Kris Folland, a Minnesota based farmer, while speaking with the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis on the subject. “Older equipment is a way to reduce your cost per bushel to become more profitable.”

As a result of this increased demand though, older tactors are continually drawing higher prices at auction. According to Machinery Pete, a farm equipment data company, the highest price a 30-year-old John Deere tractor in 1989 was a little over $7,200 (adjusted to current inflation). In 2019 though, a 1989 John Deere tractor sold for $71,000 — a significant jump in a 30-year span.

The dilemma has created an opportunity for legislators to come together in a bipartisan effort to assist farmers and agriculture during a period when it is increasingly difficult to turn a profit farming, and reform may very well be on its way. Mr. Hovis recently filed a right-to-repair bill in January in his home state of Missouri.

“To me this is a bipartisan issue. This is not about politics or anything like that,” he told the Wall Street Journal recently. Farmers in other states — such as Florida, Montana and Nebraska — are also pursuing legislative change with “right to repair” laws, and they are drawing support from state farm bureaus, farmers unions and lawmakers from both parties.

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