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Alabama farmers’ equipment struggles highlight right-to-repair issues

Mark Byrd and his family farm about 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in Morgan County.

Last fall, their corn combine broke down and it was seven days before a dealer technician could look at and repair it. A week is a critical amount of time in a harvesting season that lasts less than a month and one big storm could quickly undo a year’s worth of work and investments.

“The technicians were just so backed up, they just weren’t available,” Byrd told Alabama Daily News about the repair delay.

Byrd’s situation is an example of the right-to-repair debates going on in many states, over many products. While some of the Byrds’ farming equipment is older, he said they’ve kept up-to-date on new technology. Five or six pieces of Byrd’s harvesting equipment require dealership help to run diagnostic tests when they’re not working correctly.

“They have to plug their laptops in to diagnose the problem, and usually they can fix it right then and there,” Byrd said. “But the challenge that we’ve had … is there’s a shortage of technicians.” If Byrd had access to the software, he said his son, partner and chief mechanic, Perry Byrd, has the skills to make the fixes.

But last year, that wasn’t an option.

Consumers’ ability to repair the products they buy, from tractors to cars to cellular phones, has increasingly become legislated in several states. Thirty-three states and Puerto Rico considered right-to-repair legislation during their 2023 legislative sessions; three enacted laws this year, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Minnesota’s new Digital Fair Repair law requires manufacturers of certain electronic products to make documents, parts and tools for repair available to independent repair providers and owners. Colorado approved a law related to ag equipment repairs and New York now has a right-to-repair law for new electronic equipment.

Alabama has yet to see a right-to-repair bill and several leaders are hoping legislation won’t be needed for Alabama farmers.

Earlier this year, John Deere, the largest farm machinery manufacturer in the world, signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Farm Bureau Federation. It gives farmers and independent repair facilities access to the manuals and tools needed to make repairs while respecting manufacturers’ intellectual property, according to the federation. Since John Deere’s agreement, four other manufacturers have followed suit. Together, the agreements cover about three-quarters of the agricultural machinery sold in the United States, according to the Federation.

Alabama Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Rick Pate told Alabama Daily News he and others are waiting to see if the MOUs are effective.

“I don’t think the story’s been written on this yet and I think this fall will tell us a lot about this situation,” Pate said.

New tractors can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are complex, with the days of shade-tree mechanics likely gone, Pate said. No one begrudges John Deere or other manufacturers from owning their technology, he said.

“The problem is, we’ve got to harvest our crops in a certain window of time, and with the labor shortages at the John Deere dealerships, sometimes they’re not able to, in a timely manner, get our equipment back to us,” Pate said.

Pate and Byrd agree that besides access to the manufacturers’ information and technology, a shortage of technicians and needed parts has exacerbated the situation for farmers in recent years.

Rep. Danny Crawford, R-Athens, told Alabama Daily News he considered sponsoring a bill in the 2023 session guaranteeing farmers a right to tractor repair manuals and tools.

He said that when the MOUs began being signed, he was asked to hold off. He’s waiting to see if the MOUs solve the problem and hopes they will be, but hasn’t ruled out legislation next year if needed.

“If a farmer owns that piece of equipment, he ought to have the right to work on it,” Crawford said.

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