Right to repair: Nerds get their revenge in the farm field

The next time you meet with one of your ag customers, please thank them on behalf of your IT department. By adding their political clout to a much broader technical issue, farmers have helped achieve a Federal Trade Commission policy breakthrough heretofore unreachable: The right to repair. If the FTC follows through properly with its new directive, this will help your perennially struggling ag customers’ bottom lines — as well as perhaps lower your bank’s computer equipment costs over time. 

Farmers and technology pros and consumers had wound up with the same problem: Their equipment was no longer repairable by the owner or an independent third party. This lack of competition costs us all money. Ag bankers know how thin profit margins can be for them and their customers. Everything counts. For farmers, major equipment manufacturers had essentially formed monopolies around controlling how farm implements could be repaired. 

For banks that see tech costs rising every year, buying computer equipment that can be repaired rather than replaced is nothing to sneeze at. This covers servers to ATMs. 

How did we lose the right to repair? The deal, at least the computer, was sealed on January 9, 2007 when Steve Jobs unleashed the iPhone. The next decade would see an explosion in minimalist design goals. 

Apple’s concept of the “walled garden” took hold quickly. The programs you could install on your device were tightly controlled. Cellphones were never exactly something people got repaired, but soon even replacing the battery was impossible. IT departments had long enjoyed a large market of swappable parts. Computers were something one could fix. But Apple’s design aesthetic and philosophy quickly spread to laptops, then to desktops. Their massive success drove others to follow. 

The saga of repairing ag equipment began before Apple’s emergence, but as equipment became more technologically advanced, and technology was becoming walled off, farmers found themselves in the same place as IT departments. The soybean field had become something of a “walled garden.” We no longer determine the lifespans of the machines we buy. The manufacturers will handle that now, thank you. 

Planned obsolescence and repair monopolies have made many billions of dollars for tech companies. Same with farm equipment makers. “For [John] Deere and its dealerships, parts and services are three to six times more profitable than sales of original equipment,” according to a Bloomberg Business Week report citing Deere company filings. No wonder people started to feel ripped off.

A handful of years ago, IT folks from across business sectors began to organize asking for designs and warranties that allowed for repair flexibility. They didn’t get far. Farmers were losing the same lobbying battle and were reportedly being outspent 28-1 when it came to finding sympathy in Congress. The die seemed cast. 

As bankers, you might know the feeling. 

But sometimes Washington listens when the right voices converge. Tech-focused groups like The Repair Association have been important to the fight. So has the National Farmers Union, which threw its weight behind the fight. As someone who had followed this movement from the tech side, I myself had no idea until a couple of years ago IT had such a powerful ally in trying to solve the repair problem. 

Last November, the political winds changed. In July, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order “Promoting Competition in the American Economy.” It’s a lengthy collection of policy changes, one of which directs the Federal Trade Commission to fix “unfair anti-competitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment.”

Okay. Wow. While farmers were singled out by example, this doesn’t exclude any sector, from laptops to medical equipment. Legislation is always preferred, but this order is a breakthrough for many across an array of industries. 

We can thank the farmers, if you ask me. They already do enough by, you know, feeding us. If it takes hold, this new directive should save repair time and money — and cut back on e-waste. 

Farmers aren’t known as complainers, but they do have some political capital, and by spending it on this issue it looks like the garden walls are now going to have gates.