‘Right to repair’ advocate plans to wait and see if recent MOU really helps

Farmers Union representative says deal with John Deere looks like ‘damage control’ and little else

By: - January 17, 2023 5:45 am

A John Deere combine harvests a field of soybeans during the fall near Denton, Nebraska. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — If a tractor on State Sen. Tom Brandt’s farm near Plymouth breaks down, he doesn’t reach for a wrench but for a telephone — because only a John Deere technician can discern what a computer-coded alert of a problem means on one of its modern tractors or combines.

It costs $150 an hour for such a service call from a John Deere technician, and if the breakdown comes during harvest or planting times, it can mean a lengthy delay before the problem is fixed, as well as an expensive repair bill — even, the senator said, for something simple like the need to replace a fuel filter.

Sen. Tom Brandt
State Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

It’s a totally different story for repairs of cars and pickup trucks, Brandt said, where you can hire an independent shop to do the work or do it yourself. And you can buy repair parts at a parts store, unlike for newer tractors, where repairs and parts come exclusively from a dealership.

Now both Brandt and the leader of the Nebraska Farmers Union are expressing skepticism about a recent memorandum of understanding (MOU) reached with John Deere, the nation’s largest farm implement manufacturer. It was portrayed as a “workable solution” to the “right to repair” sought by farmers and independent repair shops by the American Farm Bureau, which signed the agreement.

“It’s a step. It’s a small step,” said Brandt of the MOU.

But the recently re-elected state senator said it’s enough, for now, to convince him not to reintroduce a bill he’s been trying to get passed in the Nebraska Legislature calling for a right to repair.

“My inclination is to wait and see what happens,” Brandt said of the MOU.

If it doesn’t live up to its billing, he said, he will reintroduce his right-to-repair bill next year. It sits drafted and waiting on Brandt’s desk in the State Capitol.

Not a ‘new breakthrough’

John Hansen, the president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, was more blunt about the MOU. He said it was not “a new breakthrough” or a “comprehensive solution.”

Hansen said it leaves to future interpretation what terms such as “fair and reasonable” — in terms of farmer/independent shop access to diagnostic equipment and repair codes — means.

John Hansen
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union (Courtesy of the Nebraska Farmers Union)

“From our perspective, this is John Deere trying to head off all of these right-to-repair bills at the state level, bills that force them to do something more binding,” Hansen said.

“This was damage control on the part of John Deere,” he said.

According to the American Farm Bureau, the agreement formalizes farmers’ access to diagnostic and repair codes, as well as to manuals (operator, parts, service) and product guides.

The Farm Bureau, in a statement announcing the MOU, said it also ensures that 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, a senior vice president with John Deere, said in a statement that the agreement reaffirms the company’s commitment “to ensure our customers have the diagnostic tools and information they need to make many repairs to their machines.”

The agreement, advocates said, could also serve as a template for similar MOUs with other farm equipment manufacturers. John Deere controls more than half of that tractor/ag equipment market.

Farmers want to get back in the field

Mark McHargue, the president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, praised the MOU, saying “farmers don’t want access to the computer programming. They simply want to be able to diagnose and fix the problem so they can get their equipment back to the fields.”

One important aspect of the MOU is that it binds the Farm Bureau to “refrain from introducing, promoting, or supporting federal or state ‘right to repair’ legislation,” or else John Deere can withdraw from the agreement.

Brandt said that despite some complaints about the MOU, he will give the agreement “a chance” before re-introducing any legislation.

A year ago, time ran out for the senator’s right to repair proposal, Legislative Bill 543. It was advanced from the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on a 5-2 vote in the face of fierce opposition by lobbyists representing John Deere and other farm equipment manufacturers.

But the bill received only a brief, symbolic debate in the waning hours of the 2022 session of the State Legislature and did not come up for a vote to advance from first-round debate.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.