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Why US farmers are now at the forefront of the right to repair movement

Rural News / analysis
Why US farmers are now at the forefront of the right to repair movement
John Deere harvester in a field.
Machinery giant John Deere provoked outrage after it restricted who could fix its tractors.

John Deere has become a key figure in the long-running battle for consumers to be able to repair machinery they buy without being locked in to using a solution dictated by the machinery giant.

The agricultural firm is the subject of a complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) from farming groups, who argue John Deere unlawfully forces farmers to pay a Deere dealer when their tractors break down.

The 43-page complaint was filed in April, and says the FTC needs to force John Deere to stop “withholding from its customers diagnostic software and other information necessary to repair Deere equipment they own”.

“Manufacturers have far too much control over what farmers are allowed to do with their own equipment,” National Farmers Union president Rob Larew told media.

“These restrictions are costly in terms of time and money. The Federal Trade Commission should take action to ensure that farmers and independent mechanics have the freedom to fix their equipment in a timely and cost-effective way.”

Farmers say not only does John Deere dominate the supply of machinery that they need, it also has used (and abused) its dominant position to lock up the market to repair its machinery too.

The complaint says John Deere refused to provide software or technical data farmers need to repair their machines, which is a violation of the Sherman Act antitrust laws, and statutes covering unfair and deceptive trade practices.

The repair market is expected to be a big earner for John Deere.

A recent Wall Street Journal article with John Deere chief executive John May outlined that the company estimates software fees will account for 10% of its revenue by the end of this decade.

A little bit like the automotive maker BMW’s move to charge car-owners for seat warmers, John Deere wants to sell software subscriptions for operating its vehicles.

The Wall Street Journal story detailed that John Deere had poured billions into developing self-driving tractors and crop sprayers that can tell the difference between weeds and produce.

And it has many machines with auto-pilot modes - if you play nicely and pay.

The company says it plans to have 1.5 million machines and half a billion acres of land connected to the John Deere Operations Center within a matter of years. 

This cloud service "will collect and store crop data, including millions of images of weeds that can be targeted by herbicide".

None of this would be pleasing news to farmers, who have been raising the issue of John Deere making its gear a closed-shop for repairs since 2016.

In October of that year, John Deere kicked off the outrage when it asked farmers to sign a licence agreement which prohibited nearly all repair or modifications to farming equipment, and stopped farmers from suing John Deere for "crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software". 

Since then there have been high-profile hacks of John Deere equipment as people try to get around John Deere’s measures to stop anyone but approved parties working on its gear.

It appears the first hacks originated out of Ukraine, where firmware was created that was then on-sold to farmers to use to access their tractor’s software without going through an authorised repair outlet, and is still being openly traded online.

If you poke around the internet, a motivated farmer could find hacked versions of the John Deere Service Advisor diagnostic-calibration tool; John Deere files required for programming and configuration of some machine parts; drivers that allow the computer to "communicate" with the tractor and you can find licensed key generators, speed limit modifiers and even special cables for connecting to tractors.

Farmers say they have to hack their own tractors, just to keep their gear running when they need it running and to not pay an arm and a leg for it.

They say equipment that's in constant use requires constant maintenance, and relying on dealer-approved technicians to diagnose issues that could be handled on the farm wastes valuable time, and of course, costs farmers cash.

Now, hacking John Deere tractors has become something of a sport to people with tech skills and there is even a “Tractor Hacking team site” where the tech-savvy can pitch in.

John Deere’s control issues culminated with a hack at tech conference DEF CON held in Las Vegas in August, which saw Aussie hacker Sick Codes break into a John Deere’s controls to make it play the old-school game, DOOM.

Sick Codes is known as a “white hat” hacker or security researcher. Unlike other less friendly hackers, Sick Codes helps firms identify issues with their security, and doesn’t ask for money like a nefarious hacker might.

Sick Codes says he was able to get the software off the John Deere tractor display and then modify it.

He installed a modified version of DOOM on the tractor computer, to show that he had taken control of it.

“Farmers prefer the older equipment simply because they want reliability. They don’t want stuff to go wrong at the most important part of the year when they have to pull stuff out of the ground,” Sick Codes said. 

“So that's what we should all want too. We want farmers to be able to repair their stuff for when things go wrong, and now that means being able to repair or make decisions about the software in their tractors.”

Canadian blogger and journalist Cory Doctorow was in the audience for DEF CON and made these observations.

He says John Deere – along with Apple – are the vanguard of the war on repair.

Doctorow says John Deere’s insistence that they are guardians of farmers and the agricultural sector is a “paper-thin cover for monopolistic practices and rent-seeking”. 

As well as controlling the tractors, he says monopolising the repair and reconfiguration of Deere products gives the company “all kinds of little gifts” – for example, it could refuse to fix the tractors of dissatisfied customers unless they agree to gag-orders.

Now, John Deere has somewhat softened its stance (perhaps US President Joe Biden’s executive order last July, directing federal agencies to encourage competition had something to do with it) announcing that in May  farmers and independent repair shops would be able to buy through its online store a version of its Customer Service ADVISOR diagnostic service tool. 

It said it would follow up in 2023 with "an enhanced customer solution" allowing owners and independent mechanics to download software updates to the machines from a Deere data network.

“We recognize our customers’ desire for more autonomy in managing their equipment,” Deere senior vice president of aftermarket & customer support Luke Gakstatter said in a statement.

“Quality and uptime are essential to their operations."

It also had a nice PR hit when it was able to stop the use of Ukrainian John Deere tractors that were stolen, but as Doctorow says, it is not a feel good story. He says this move to kill the tractors shows John Deere can not only thwart thieves, it can thwart farmers from user their own gear too.

John Deere is an massive firm, with an estimated 75,000 employees and a long history, including in New Zealand. The first "John Deere" tractor was sold in New Zealand in the early 1920s.

Being a John Deere distributor is big business.

In 2020 NZ rural media reported that John Deere Construction and Forestry Equipment would now be available from a dealer called AGrowQuip in the North Island, and Drummond & Etheridge (D&E) in the South Island.

AGrowQuip has four depots and 120 staff and a history dating back more than 50 years. 

And D&E, with 10 locations and over 200 staff, is an established John Deere Ag & Turf dealer. 

John Deere Construction & Forestry Division managing director for Asia Pacific and Africa, Jeff Kraft, says both dealers will offer world-class after-sales support. 

“They already have a proven track record of doing so across their existing John Deere customers."

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A note: Brandt (formerly Cervus Equipment) have supplied John Deere products in NZ for years, and continue to do so.


Interesting issues involved, re automation (self-driving, distinguishing crops from weeds) vs. the cost of a skilled driver.

The reference to Apple is also interesting vis-a-vis another likely trend - the centralising of automation intelligence (e.g. crops vs. weeds) away from the device itself and into the Cloud.

Some tech commentators predict the future of devices (where internet coverage exists) to be one of dumb terminals with all processing in the Cloud. In Apple's case, hardware would matter far less than today because all power and processing is moved out of the device. The phone is simply the screen and audio/camera hardware, a screen displaying what's processed in the Cloud. So...there's little value in paying $2,000 for a screen. Would that push Apple and Samsung toward trying to be Cloud companies in future?


I think a major red flag is JD expecting farmers to waive their right to sue for crop loss while at the same time expecting them to trust the AI to not spray weed killer their crops and ruin them.

My current (small) tractor is a JD, my next will likely be a Kubota, assuming they're not heading the same way.


The biggest issue is not doing what you want with stuff after buying it. Simple. Those Crony Capitalists are behind all this. Check JD's political contributions. Making money after you sell stuff by only letting the people who own the stuff you made deal with you. Simple. but the laws all had to be, and some are still to be changed to guarantee this happening. Also simple. by spending $1 on a politician, which is cheaper than spending $1.20 on marketing for a similar result. it is the way the Crony Capitalist world is heading.


I misspent many teenage years in the 1970s under cars learning how to fix them, it was the only way I & many others could afford a car.

Although modern vehicles are more complex, with integrated computers etc, most basics can still be worked on by the experienced amateur. However I've been anticipating for a long time a move by "the authorities" to restrict people from repairing their own cars - under eg Health & Safety. Increasing EVs is likely to highlight these concerns.

This is the "we know best & must control everything" attitude that after leaky homes (nothing to do with DIY, a professional's  stuff up from start to finish) almost totally restricted the previous right of people to repair/build their own homes: now you have to find a qualified LBP to supervise and sign off any structural, weathertightness etc. Good luck with finding one who'd take the license risk as well as lose the business. Similarly in the last decade or so, plumbers and sparkies have locked up their business profit models with Govt regulatory capture & connivance.



Haven't Waka Kotahi had a few failures in recent years? Both heavy trucks and dodgy WOFs for cars also?

Bit like leaky homes I guess.


Great article Rebecca, and an important topic.

John Deer and Apple are two major offenders, but unfortunately this type of behaviour is spreading. Any car manufactured in the past 20 years or so is required have an onboard diagnostics (OBD2) port, which was designed to make sure the owner of the vehicle can easily diagnose faults. OBD2 was supposed to be a standardised, open protocol, meaning anyone could make a device for reading error codes from any vehicle.

Unfortunately, vehicle manufacturers have gradually violated this standard over the years to the point where it's now pretty much useless. Your car will have an OBD2 port, but if something goes wrong with it and you really want to know what, you'll have to take it into a licensed dealer or mechanic who will charge like a wounded bull just to tell you what's wrong, before charging you even more to fix it - because you can be damned sure you won't be able to fix it yourself. This is the manufacturers' business model these days.

We are going to run up against this more and more as our vehicle fleet becomes electrified. As things become more complex they become more failure-prone, and more difficult (and expensive) to repair. This is a problem for vehicle owners, but a boon for manufacturers, who not only make a killing off things breaking, but retain more and more control over something which you and I supposedly own (BMW's seat-warmer subscription is a good example of this).

Is this model really more sustainable than simplicity? Or just more profitable?


The hacker community has your back on this. VW Group cars use proprietary software that can be read using readily available products like VAGcom and VCDS. I'm sure there are several others available for a few hundred dollars.

Last time I didn't have time to look into a problem with my Nissan I took it to the stealership, and they couldn't find any issue for a cost of over $400. They reset the check engine light and sent me home. Naturally the issue returned in a few days. I had spare time by then, so used logic and rudimentary mechanical knowledge to fix the issue myself for $120. I swore never to return to that Nissan dealer.


Unfortunately, even in automotive, many newer vehicles require dealer proprietary tools to fix them. I had a Lexus LS that needed a new coolant bottle and my local independent couldn't do it because, although he could replace the part, he didn't have the $25k lexus proprietary tool to reprogram the ECU to talk to the coolant level sensor. Only the stealership has it.

"Right to repair" is going to be one of the most important future battlegrounds between society and corporations.


As things become more complex they become more failure-prone, and more difficult (and expensive) to repair.

However, electric car owners are reporting far lower maintenance costs because most bills have typically been for the complex internal combustion engine.

Computerisation is a separate matter, but one common to both engine types.


Repair, not maintain.


Yet still, the electric motor is less complex than ICE motors.


But when something does go wrong, it will likely cost a lot more.  Instead of swapping out a dud alternator and bolting in a new one, it will much more likely be an expensive and for all intents unrepairable electronic module (ask Merc owners about BCMs).  And the problem of needing dealer tools to "code" the replacement module to work with the car will remain.  Tesla apparently has all major modules with cryptographic certificates installed so they are near impossible to reprogram as you need to authenticate against the existing certificate before you can flash the code.

While the motor itself is more simple, the surrounding systems aren't.  Aircon/Heat in an ICE is a simple system, an electromagnetic clutch engages to drive the compressor when needed and relatively simple valves control the flow of engine coolant.   

The Heat pump in my Tesla is a far more complex beast, an inverter to drive the compressors electric motor at the required speed, an Octovalve assembly and several electric pumps to send coolant to the various places that might need heating or cooling (Passenger cabin, Battery Pack, Inverters and charger modules, self driving computer etc).  And the tesla system is praised for its simplicity compared to the EVs of other manufacturers, so i can only imagine the nightmare those systems will be to fault find and fix. 

The Tesla Model Y's Octovalve And Cooling System Manifolds Are Simply Amazing (   


T'will be Interesting indeed to apply RtR to EV batteries.  Typically  only a few dud components are present, but the surrounding battery management software, ID'ing and comms to the car bus, render Repair next to impossible.  And then there is the total absence of recycling options....circular economy it ain't.....


Maybe specific to the Leaf and driven by the inherent limitations in their battery design but there's an active modding community that has the proprietary engine management signalling well figured out, so replacing battery packs (OEM and aftermarket) and other components are very much a thing.


There is no total absense of recycling options, you've fallen victim to the complete BS spread by the climate change deniers and petrochemical industry.   The real problem is likely to that there are more recycling facilities than batteries needing recycling, at least for the next 8+ years or so.


Redwood already gets 6GWh of Li-ion batteries for recycling annually (


If it is still within the warranty period, the manufacturer has responsibility to the reliability of the machine. Amateurs attempt repairs and then blame the manufacturer when it all goes wrong on them. Especially when using software equipment.


You can always purchase another brand in NZ. Different story in the US where JD has total market and dealership domination


This is a cracker of an article - a stunner.

Opens the lid on a whole skunk-nest.

Partly, we've outsmarted ourselves; ever-so-technical equals ever so much less resilient, ever so much more fragile.

You can fix an old Fergie (my love happens to be a 1936 Cletrac crawler) with a crescent, a screwdriver, some pliers and a hammer. Not only that, it all makes sense; you can follow it through visually without 'diagnostics'.

A great read is Tainters' Collapse of complex societies. Pick up a book from 1,000 years ago and you can understand the message. Try that with a data-stick in even 100 years. S,mart and stupid are sometimes hard to distinguish.

Thank you - just about the article of the year for me.



Wouldn't these actions by John Deere run foul of some component of the US Antitrust laws? The US eventually had a go at Microsoft for something similar with loaded 'Internet Explorer' being anti-competitive.  Not the same but withholding diagnostic access is pretty close.