Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm talks with American Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall in 2017, as Caleb Gerritsen pulls a group from the Maine Farm Bureau on a tour of the organic seed farm in Bridgewater. Credit: Courtesy of Ashley Rekem

BRIDGEWATER, Maine — A manufacturer’s stronghold on farmers’ rights to repair their own equipment might be easing, following an agreement signed last week by John Deere and the American Farm Bureau Federation .

The document represents a step toward resolving a long-running dispute between the company and farmers, according to the federation.

Under the agreement, Deere will provide farmers access to the diagnostic tools, product guides and parts so they can perform their own repairs.

There can be as many as 125 electronic sensors, each with its own computer brain, in today’s tractors or combines. When a sensor trips, it locks the operation, and farmers who own John Deere equipment have to wait for the dealer to unlock the machinery and make repairs. And when machinery is sidelined, farmers can lose money and crucial planting or harvesting time.

“If a farmer buys a piece of equipment, it should be understood that they are buying the totality of it, not that they are buying simply the metal and not the brains behind it,” said Bridgewater organic seed potato farmer Jim Gerritsen during congressional testimony in September.

Gerritsen testified before the House Committee on Small Business, in a hearing led by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in September. Gerritsen is skeptical about the weight of the newly signed agreement because Deere can cancel the memorandum of understanding at any time, he said Friday.

A 2022 Public Interest Research Group study reported that Deere owns 53 percent of the U.S. tractor market, with one authorized dealership chain for every 12,018 farms and every 5.3 million acres of American farmland.

During his testimony, Gerritsen referred to the former Theriault Equipment in Presque Isle, a John Deere dealership that was family owned for more than 60 years. The business was sold in late 2021 to United Ag and Turf, which owns 63 John Deere dealerships.

Though advanced technology can make aspects of farming more mechanized and precise, a failed computer chip can equal disaster. Something as simple and common as condensation in the fuel tank can trigger what is called “limp” mode, meaning the tractor is locked but can limp back to the barn from the field.

Unable to crack the computer error code, farmers are forced to wait for John Deere before they can complete time-sensitive work.

Gerritsen, 67, said that many years ago Wood Prairie Family Farm made a conscious and strategic decision to only use equipment they can repair on their own and to avoid purchasing modern electronically sophisticated tractors that contain computer chips.

“We would never choose to place ourselves into a vulnerable position of being at the mercy of malfunctioning electronic sensors,” he said. “Being involuntarily forced into limp mode and having to wait until a mechanic from the dealership came out on their own schedule to get us going again.”

Wood Prairie Family Farm owns nine tractors from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Gerritsen’s son, Caleb, who recently took over the family farm, has rebuilt several older model tractors.

A lot of farmers are finding they can buy older American-made tractors for $50,000 or less and have a tractor equivalent to a $200,000 or $300,000 piece of equipment, Gerritsen said.

The Public Interest Research Group study found that 95 percent of farmers surveyed support right to repair, 92 percent believe they could save money if they had access to independent repair or could make repairs on their own, and 77 percent indicated they bought older tractors, like Gerritsen, to avoid the software in newer models.

Last March, several farm groups, including the National Farmers Union, filed a complaint with the  Federal Trade Commission alleging that Deere has deliberately restricted access to diagnostic software and other information to repair Deere equipment.

In the last Congressional session, several right to repair bills were introduced in the House and Senate. And this year, Maine voters might get the chance to vote on a 2023 referendum regarding the right to repair for automobiles if the Maine Right to Repair Coalition obtains enough signatures to have it placed on the ballot.

In October, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows approved the coalition’s petition to collect signatures.

New laws are needed, Gerritsen said.

“By the time we have to go to computer chip tractors, I won’t be around,” he said. “We’ve got a problem for family farms and part of the right solution is to give freedom of access to repairing. It will level the playing field by decentralizing it.”

Avatar photo

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...