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Ag Equipment Right To Repair Headed To Governor’s Desk in Colorado
The Colorado House voted 44-16 on a final version of a state law granting a right to repair agricultural equipment, sending the bill to Governor Jared Polis to sign.
Note: this story was updated to add comments from Colorado State Rep. Brianna Titone. PFR 4/14/23
In recent years, farmers in the U.S. have become the poster children of a global right to repair movement. Their struggles to keep equipment operating in the face of manufacturer software-enforced monopolies on service and repair have become fodder for countless news articles documenting long waits, stratospheric costs and the many contortions farmers endured - from paying a premium for decades-old “dumb” machinery to buying black market versions of administrative software like John Deere’s Service Advisor.
Despite that, efforts to liberate farmers with state laws granting a right to repair agricultural equipment have failed time and again. But now, after years of efforts, farmers in one state can see light at the end of the tunnel. On Tuesday, Colorado’s House of Representatives voted 44-16 in favor of an agricultural equipment right to repair bill approved by the State Senate. That cleared the way for the bill to make its way to Governor Jared Polis’s desk, where he is expected to sign it into law.
Ag right to repair: ‘sweeter than summer corn’
The vote puts the nation’s first right to repair law for agricultural in sight of the finish line and was celebrated as a major victory by right to repair advocates.
“This victory is sweeter than summer corn,” tweeted Kevin O’Reilly, of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), one of the organizers of PIRG’s national right to repair campaign.
Right to repair legislation focused on agricultural equipment like tractors have been a mainstay of right to repair campaigns for nearly a decade, but have failed to gain traction in state houses in the face of staunch opposition from agricultural equipment makers like John Deere.
That included Colorado, where opponents of an agriculture right to repair bill enlisted the support of a former governor, Roy Romer - who at one point owned one of the largest John Deere dealerships in the country - to testify against a right to repair law in 2021. That bill failed to clear a committee vote - the fate of close to 100 right to repair bills nation-wide since 2014.
The tide turns
But the tide began to turn in 2022.
That’s when a bipartisan coalition of Colorado legislators passed a narrowly tailored right to repair law for power wheelchairs, after hearing heartbreaking testimony in 2021 by wheelchair users in the state about the difficulty of getting their equipment serviced and repaired.
That was followed by the passage of an electronics right to repair bill in New York State in June of 2022 - another landmark victory that was subsequently watered down by New York Governor Kathy Hochul, lobbied heavily by technology industry groups, before being signed into law.
O’Reilly of US PIRG cited a number of factors that contributed to the agricultural repair bill clearing both the Colorado House and the Senate this year with strong bi-partisan majorities. “For one, the partnership between Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, a number of in-state commodity groups, and CoPIRG proved to be incredibly successful,” he said, referring to the Colorado branch of US PIRG. “Each one played a key role in getting this done.”
The support of Colorado State Rep. Brianna Titone -an architect of the successful wheelchair repair bill and a passionate supporter of repair legislation - also helped, O’Reilly said.
“Finally, the national coalition for agricultural Right to Repair never stopped organizing, laying out the facts, and pushing for change at every level of government.”
That included people like Willie Cade, a member of the Repair Coalition and the grandson of Theo Brown, a celebrated inventor of agricultural equipment who spent his entire career working for John Deere. Cade has been a mainstay of the movement to win an agricultural right to repair, and often invokes his grandfather in talking about the transformation of companies like Deere from business models based on empowering farmers to abusive monopolies intent on beggaring them.
At a committee hearing in March, Senators heard from Cade, as well as Colorado farmers like Harrison Topp, a first generation farmer in Hotchkiss, Colorado, who cited the difficulty of obtaining parts and technicians to do repairs as a major obstacle to small scale farmers and ranchers.
“We are becoming captive to machinery dealers,” he told the Senators.
Kyler Brown, another Colorado farmer testified to the Senate committee from the cab of a Case IH tractor that had a lift pump fail shortly after harvest. Brown had to wait 2 1/2 weeks to get the pump and a sensor on the tractor repaired and said he was just lucky that the part didn’t fail during his harvest. “I pay about $3,000 a day in labor during harvest season,” Brown said. “I can’t afford to have a tractor down.”
Manufacturers’ restrictions on service and repair - and the resulting equipment downtime - cost the average farmer more than $3,000 annually, according to a new PIRG report. That adds up to more than $3 billion in damage to agricultural producers in the U.S. each year, PIRG estimated in a new report on the cost of agricultural repair restrictions.
A PIRG analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data shows that farmers’ repair costs have nearly doubled over the past two decades for soybeans and corn, two commonly grown crops. These increases coincide with the trend of increasing amounts of software and software-linked parts in farm equipment—a major mechanism through which manufacturers restrict independent repair.
O’Reilly said that the drum beat of facts and testimony highlighting the dire conditions faced by farmers succeeded in moving legislators from “no” to “yes” on the agricultural right to repair bill.
“Right to Repair is an idea thats time was come—it was a matter of when, not if,” he said.
In an email statement, Colorado Representative Titone said that passage last year of the wheelchair right to repair bill helped clear the way for the success of the agriculture bill this year. “(The wheelchair repair bill) put the statute language we needed for future legislation into law and made it easier to justify adding Ag equipment,” she wrote. “When I ran HB23-1011 (the agricultural equipment right to repair bill), we were amending current law which has been used effectively and not facing (sp) any legal challenge. We also had a turnaround of legislators who were more open to the concept over the last couple of years.”
Up next: enforcement
With Governor Polis expected to sign the bipartisan legislation in the coming days, the question is now how manufacturers like Deere will respond, how broadly Colorado’s Attorney General Phil Weiser will interpret the law and what steps he will take to enforce it.
The law designates failure to comply as an anti-competitive practice. It will fall to Colorado’s Attorney General to pursue such cases, seek damages and force compliance with the terms of the law.
The focus also shifts now to other states that are considering agricultural right to repair bills. Sixteen states introduced such legislation in 2023. While many of those bills have stalled, legislation is still active in a number of states, including Minnesota and Vermont.
Titone said that she’s proud of the work Colorado’s legislature has accomplished this year and hopes other states can also pull right to repair laws over the line. “I'm happy to help them do so,” she wrote.
“I think that this Colorado bill was the crack in the damn that we needed,” said O’Reilly. “Other states should follow its footsteps and make sure that farmers have everything they need to fix their equipment.”
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