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John Deere signs right to repair agreement with US ag lobbyists

Holy cow! Memorandum of Understanding to give farmers access to 'diagnostic tools' and documentation

In what looks like a victory for farmers in the United States, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) has struck a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with equipment vendor John Deere regarding the repairability of its machines.

As farming has become more technology-driven, Deere has increasingly injected software into its products with all of its tractors and harvesters now including an autopilot feature as standard.

There is also the John Deere Operations Center, which "instantly captures vital operational data to boost transparency and increase productivity for your business."

Within a matter of years, the company envisages having 1.5 million machines and half a billion acres of land connected to the cloud service, which will "collect and store crop data, including millions of images of weeds that can be targeted by herbicide."

Deere also estimates that software fees will make up 10 percent of the company's revenues by the end of the decade, with Bernstein analysts pegging the average gross margin for farming software at 85 percent, compared to 25 percent for equipment sales.

Just like other commercial software vendors, however, Deere exercises close control and restricts what can be done with its products. This led farm labor advocacy groups to file a complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission last year, claiming that Deere unlawfully refused to provide the software and technical data necessary to repair its machinery.

"Deere is the dominant force in the $68 billion US agricultural equipment market, controlling over 50 per cent of the market for large tractors and combines," said Fairmark Partners, the groups' attorneys, in a preface to the complaint [PDF].

"For many farmers and ranchers, they effectively have no choice but to purchase their equipment from Deere. Not satisfied with dominating just the market for equipment, Deere has sought to leverage its power in that market to monopolize the market for repairs of that equipment, to the detriment of farmers, ranchers, and independent repair providers."

At the time, the company told The Register: "John Deere supports a customer's right to safely maintain, diagnose, and repair their own equipment. To facilitate this, Deere provides the tools, parts, information guides, training videos and manuals needed for farmers to work on their machines, including remote access for technicians to provide long-distance support.

"John Deere does not support the right to modify embedded software due to the risks associated with the safe operation of equipment, emissions compliance, and engine performance. We remain committed to providing innovative solutions that support our customers' needs."

The MoU, which can be read here [PDF], was signed yesterday at the 2023 AFBF Convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and seems to be a commitment by Deere to improve farmers' access and choice when it comes to repairs.

The AFBF, a lobbying group that represents the American agriculture industry, said the agreement "sets parameters and creates a mechanism to address farmers' concerns. John Deere commits to engaging with farmers and dealers to resolve issues when they arise and agrees to meet with AFBF at least twice per year to evaluate progress.

"The agreement formalizes farmers' access to diagnostic and repair codes, as well as manuals (operator, parts, service) and product guides. It also ensures farmers will be able to purchase diagnostic tools directly from John Deere and receive assistance from the manufacturer when ordering parts and products."

David Gilmore, John Deere senior vice president, Ag & Turf Sales & Marketing, said in a statement: "This agreement reaffirms the longstanding commitment Deere has made to ensure our customers have the diagnostic tools and information they need to make many repairs to their machines. We look forward to working alongside the American Farm Bureau and our customers in the months and years ahead to ensure farmers continue to have the tools and resources to diagnose, maintain and repair their equipment."

AFBF President Zippy Duvall commented: "AFBF is pleased to announce this agreement with John Deere. It addresses a long-running issue for farmers and ranchers when it comes to accessing tools, information and resources, while protecting John Deere's intellectual property rights and ensuring equipment safety.

"A piece of equipment is a major investment. Farmers must have the freedom to choose where equipment is repaired, or to repair it themselves, to help control costs. The MoU commits John Deere to ensuring farmers and independent repair facilities have access to many of the tools and software needed to grow the food, fuel and fiber America's families rely on."

Duvall said on a podcast about the matter that the MoU is the result of several years' work. "As you use equipment, we all know at some point in time, there's going to be problems with it. And we did have problems with having the opportunity to repair our equipment where we wanted to, or even repair it on the farm," he added.

"It ensures that our farmers can repair their equipment and have access to the diagnostic tools and product guides so that they can find the problems and find solutions for them. And this is the beginning of a process that we think is going to be real healthy for our farmers and for the company because what it does is it sets up an opportunity for our farmers to really work with John Deere on a personal basis."

While the MoU concedes that it is "a voluntary private sector commitment to outcomes rather than legislative or regulatory measures" and makes reference to access "per subscription or sale," we did not see this one coming. ®

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