Farm equipment has grown in complexity, along with the tasks that are asked of it. Manufacturers have developed better tools with each generation: some innovative, some adding capacity, some improving sustainability, but all of them using technologies that are more difficult to diagnose, maintain and modify than those that came before.
Many farm machinery builders took a position, in parallel to other equipment and technology providers, that their research-driven or purchased software or complex electronics technologies should remain their own, something for licensing at most and certainly not to be shared with machinery buyers or unaffiliated repairers.
Much of the history of farming has been built on producer innovations developed using the knowledge that has accumulated in their tools. Machine lives have been extended and made more cost effective by farmers often handling maintenance and repairs. But now their machinery hides many of its strengths, preventing farmers from modifying or fixing it themselves.
Software is not easily unwound from the machinery systems it operates, and in some cases it is encrypted, making it impossible.
And while the needs of machinery companies to maintain the value of their technologies might seem apparent, could it be they may have over-protected it?
Manufacturers loudly say modifications or repairs could lead to unsafe operations, poor machine performance, removal of emissions controls and a lack transparency when it comes to the modified situation at resale — and, of course, void the warranties.
After a few seasons, that claim subsides, along with the coverage, leaving expensive, high-capacity equipment with what should still be thousands of hours of useful value to farmers.
Equipment manufacturers might have underestimated the abilities of producers to deal with the technology. Many farmers have an honest desire to customize the tools to meet their own needs. Prairie farmers have long known and shown that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to equipment and have been prepared to act on it.
Producers, facing large bills from dealers’ shops, delays in repair times and feelings of being held hostage to a lack of information, have legitimate claims on access to the workings of very expensive equipment.
Farmers are part of a larger movement to take control of their technology, and it makes sense for them to do so. Unlike consumers who are leading the right-to-repair crusade in the United States, lobbying to get access to the guts of their cellular phones and automotive black boxes, farmers have more money in the game, and their place inside the right-to-repair movement is justified.
Reducing the complexity of machinery design might not yield the harvest of features that farmers or environmental regulators are looking for, but a compromise of offering the agricultural industry access to all the parts of the machines they have paid for would add value to the business as a whole.
Recent moves through the Association of Equipment Manufacturers to provide farmers with access to loaned shop diagnostic tools and expanded shop manuals is a good start, but unless it goes further, the lobbying for fully open-source technologies will likely continue and potentially bear fruit in U.S. legislatures.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.