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As my dad used to say, being a farmer isn’t an easy life, but it is a good life.
Good enough for myself and the last four generations of my family — though it’s getting harder and harder to pass the farm to the next generation. That’s a problem for our rural communities and the whole nation which depends on the food we produce.
The stress is a big part of it — I know it contributed to my children choosing another path. Knowing that the weather or equipment failures or a host of other things can cause a total loss of your yield, of your season’s profits, is a lot of pressure.
The inability of farmers to get the repair tools and information they need to fix their equipment is an emerging issue, and just one more barrier to family farmers continuing the tradition.
I have a degree in mechanical engineering, so I’m used to fixing things myself at my family farm in Colorado, which I sold last year to move to Wyoming (our once little town was getting crowded in upon by Denver’s expansion, and I like the quiet life: Traffic should involve four feet and not tail lights).
Our older equipment — like our John Deere 5010 tractor — was eminently fixable. When the starter went bad, you’d just find another starter around on a similar piece of equipment. It didn’t even have to match perfectly, I remember using bailing wire to fasten something on just to get a job done.
Nowadays? Forget it. Even if you have the exact part you need, many times those parts have programmed instructions on them which are unique to that specific piece of equipment (a process called “VIN burning”). The only one who can install those instructions? You guessed it, the dealership. As an engineering decision, designing parts to have unique software instructions serves no real purpose other than forcing your customer to come back to the authorized shop for repairs.
And that’s a big problem for farmers. We rely on equipment to work when we need to get the job done. When the hay is ready to bale, you need to be out there baling. Sometimes the windows are just several days long — you could lose everything in a hail storm. You could lose cattle if you don’t have your tractor you use to feed them.
Right to Repair would ensure that other local mechanics would get access to the tools and information they need to complete repairs, giving farmers multiple options. At our farm in Colorado, we used to have a local independent equipment mechanic and dealership. They were bought up by a bigger dealer and then an even bigger dealer bought that chain … and shut down our local shop. Now the closest Deere dealership to that farm is an hour drive.
This is the trend everywhere. According to a report from U.S. PIRG Education Fund, decades of consolidation turned local mom and pop dealers into massive chains. Now there is one John Deere dealership chain for every 12,018 farms and every 5.3 million acres of American farmland.
Meanwhile, most of those Deere-trained technicians are still in that Colorado town, and still repair equipment. But they often can’t finalize repairs or reset equipment because they can’t access the proprietary repair tools that the dealers use. We need every hand to fix equipment during peak season.
As a Wyomingan now, I’m glad Sen. Cynthia Lummis is a leader on Right to Repair in the U.S. Senate — standing up for farmers in the face of opposition from the big equipment manufacturers. And frankly, I wonder why more of our elected leaders don’t stand with her, and with farmers.
Farming is a good life, and we need farmers to survive. If we want family farming to continue, we need to stop suppliers from stacking the deck against them. It’s time for more of our elected leaders to get off the sidelines and back Right to Repair and allow farmers to choose who works on the equipment they own.
Vice President, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union