Agreement aims to speed tractor repairs


Issue Date: September 12, 2018
By Ching Lee
California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson, left, and Far West Equipment Dealers Association President and CEO Joani Woelfel, right, sign a “right to repair” agreement as Assembly Member Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, watches. The memorandum of understanding says equipment dealers agree to provide manuals, service guides and other information needed to help farmers diagnose and fix machinery.
Photo/Dave Kranz

When the engine on his tractor started to heat up and went into emergency shutdown, San Joaquin County farmer David Strecker could see what the problem was: a $40 fan belt that took him less than an hour to replace. Still, he had to wait six hours for a technician to come out and get his tractor back up and running.

"It was a very simple problem," he said. "But since the tractor had gone through an emergency shutdown, it had to be unlocked. Time is money, and downtime can make or break a season."

As farm equipment becomes more high-tech and computerized, diagnosing and fixing even simple problems often requires farmers to rely on equipment dealers' shops to do the work, resulting in longer downtimes and lost productivity.

An agreement signed last week by representatives of California farmers and farm-equipment dealers aims to streamline that process by making it easier for farmers to perform basic maintenance and repairs while protecting manufacturers' proprietary software and intellectual property.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson and Far West Equipment Dealers Association President and CEO Joani Woelfel signed the memorandum of understanding at an equipment dealership in Stockton.

Under the "right to repair" agreement, equipment dealers in California commit to providing access to service manuals, product guides and on-board diagnostic and other information that would help a farmer or rancher to identify or repair problems with the machinery. Equipment owners will be able to buy or lease diagnostic tools through authorized agricultural dealers.

"Reliable farm equipment is crucial to the success of any farming operation, and farmers have long depended on their ability to make repairs quickly in order to keep their equipment running during harvest and other key times," Johansson said. "This agreement gives farmers the information they need to do just that, even as equipment has become increasingly complex."

California is the first state in the nation to have such an agreement, said Assembly Member Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton. Earlier this year, she introduced legislation known as the Right to Repair Act that would have ensured consumers of a wide array of electronic products would receive access to manufacturers' diagnostic and repair information.

Although the bill didn't advance in the Legislature, Eggman said it encouraged Farm Bureau and Far West to "come to the table" and work out an agreement that would "allow people to work on equipment without giving up (manufacturers') proprietary rights." She added she hopes the agreement becomes a model for other states also grappling with right-to-repair issues, particularly those pertaining to farm equipment.

"We're hoping we'll be able to show it can be done," she said. "We don't want people sitting six hours in the field during crunch time when you've got workers out there standing around. We know farmers by nature are tinkering kind of people and sometimes when you're in the middle of harvest, you don't have time to call a dealer to come out."

Woelfel said certain information and tools farmers need to make basic repairs are already available, though not all manufacturers and dealers currently have them. The agreement gives them until 2021 to get up to speed.

The agreement won't allow equipment owners to modify their machinery. For example, they won't be able to download or access the source code of proprietary software; reset an immobilizer system or security-related electronic modules; reprogram any electronic processing units or engine control units; or change equipment in ways that would affect compliance with safety or emissions regulations.

"What it really comes down to for us as equipment dealers is maintaining the integrity of the equipment," Woelfel said. "What's really important about this (agreement) is that it's an opportunity for us to work with our customers to demonstrate our commitment, to help them to diagnose and repair their equipment."

Nathan Green, president of Modesto-based Belkorp Ag, a John Deere dealer, said two of its customers already are using the diagnostic tool, which consists of a computer and the same software that the dealer's own technicians use. By plugging the computer into the tractor, a farmer could read the codes and figure out what the problem is.

"The other thing manufacturers are doing is we're going to make more codes available on the displays in the tractors, to make it easier for customers to understand what's going on," he said.

Nick Mussi, who runs a diversified custom farming operation in San Joaquin County, is one of Belkorp's customers who bought the diagnostic tool so he could do some of the repair work on his tractors.

"Before, I'd have to call service, wait for a tech to come out and tell me why the light is on," he said. "Sometimes, it's a day or more before you get the problem fixed. Now, I can hook the computer up myself to see. If it's a big problem, I still have them come out and fix it. But if it's something that I can fix, I can do it myself."

He described the process as "pretty simple," as the computer "walks you through step by step how to diagnose the problem." But he said it may not be for everyone.

"It's not cheap to get into," Mussi said. "You have to justify paying for the service and the computer. And then there's an annual fee associated with it. For us, being able to fix problems myself and not having to pay a service call, I think we can justify it."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.