In farm circles, “right to repair” refers to the ability to fix machinery hardware as well as software. The concept has been hotly debated in recent years, in Canada and the United States, and legislation granting farmers the privilege has been tabled in a variety of jurisdictions.
Why it matters: Tinkering with digital tools can bring unforeseen risks but farmers still need the ability to operate when issues arise. Right to repair legislation needs to balance both concerns.
The challenge lies in balancing an owner’s right to maintain vital and expensive farm equipment against manufacturers’ major investment in developing the increasingly complex digital machines.
At the federal level, Canadian Liberal MP Bryan May introduced a private member’s bill in February that would enshrine the right of Canadians to repair things they own. While the bill focuses on much more than farm equipment, notably smartphones and other smart devices, the impact may reach to the provincial level.
Regardless, some in the agriculture sector say the goal should be finding a balance between what equipment manufacturers and dealers need and what farmers require. Achieving that balance means that what once was a protest movement is now becoming a slow legislative slog.
Altering copyright law
May’s bill, which has received first reading in the House of Commons, seeks to amend Canada’s Copyright Act so individuals can fix their own electronic devices.
This includes a variety of technologies, including cars and other vehicles, and has obvious implications for agriculture, says Keith Currie, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and zone 13 director for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA).
If the bill passes, the provinces will have the choice of implementing further repair rights.
Striking a balance
Currie agrees that some protection is needed to maintain the integrity and safety of equipment. As digital tools are incorporated more intensely, trained technicians will be required to manage precisely engineered machines.
Every farmer knows it is fundamentally important to continue operations, especially during peak times in the crop year. Being unable to trouble-shoot digital tools or other parts of a tractor without voiding the warranty, for example, is a problem, and one that Currie experienced when his planter broke down last year.
“I called the dealer and figured it out via Bluetooth. It worked because the technician was in the shop that day. I just happened to have the phone out there with me … I probably would have done some investigating on my own if that wasn’t the case,” he says.
Currie adds it’s important to remember dealers don’t often have their own team of technicians. If farmers or repair people not affiliated with a specific brand are unable to remedy problems, and the certified technician is busy elsewhere, the impact of down periods can quickly compound.
All factors considered, striking a balance with practical in-field needs is critical.
“Will we get to the point where we can’t change our oil in our own machines? When does it get to the point where all we do is sit in the seat, turn it on, and drive forward? Even going in to shut things off so we can do things manually, we just want to make sure we have the ability to do that,” Currie says.
“It’s the old ‘we got to make hay when the sun shines’ thing. It’s not to say we’re all IT specialists, but the more we use this stuff, the more we can do the basics. To do that I think is very important for the farm community.”
Farmers’ frustration with right to repair issue not going away
Recently on RealAg LIVE!, host Shaun Haney was joined by Curt Blades, senior vice president of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.
There’s always going to be instances where machines go down, there’s an error code, and the farmer can’t clear it, but the positive side, says Blades, is that equipment manufacturers are working hard to make sure uptime is maximized and that those occurrences that stop production are as rare as possible.
As Haney mentions, though, it will be hard for manufacturers to ignore growing frustration from farmers over the shortage of components and alternative fuel sources — issues that are out of farmers’ hands.
The question remains: will manufacturers hide behind regulatory compliance or will they try to make their customers happy?