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Michigan hopes to be the second state to give farmers the 'right to repair'


At the start of the year, a law in Colorado went into effect that allows farmers to repair their own equipment. Now Michigan is considering a similar proposal. Modern-day tractors and combines are basically like computers on wheels, and for years, there's been a battle between farmers and manufacturers over who should have access to the information needed to repair them. Equipment manufacturers have made some concessions in order to avoid new laws. Some farmers say that's not enough. Michigan Public's Lester Graham reports.

LESTER GRAHAM, BYLINE: About an hour south of Detroit, Mark Metz and his father farm 1,800 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. He says a computer error showed up on his dashboard in his tractor. With no access to information about the tractor software, he had no choice but to ask the dealership to send someone out to look at it.

MARK METZ: We deal with a dealer that's a little over an hour away. And, of course, you're paying for their road time. So I mean, we pay a good two to 2 1/2 hours of just road time just to get them here.

GRAHAM: The dealership's guy found it was just a wire that had come unplugged. He plugged it in. The initial bill for that repair was $800. Metz says, had it been his truck, he could have taken it to a nearby auto parts store.

METZ: Usually for free, you know, they'll bring out a computer and plug it in, like, oh, yeah, yeah, you need this, you know, no big deal. Well, for us, there is no option for a third party, let alone ourselves, to plug into the computer system of the tractor and just say, you know, hey, it's just something simple.

GRAHAM: That's why Metz submitted testimony to the Michigan House agriculture committee supporting right-to-repair farm equipment legislation. There's a national right-to-repair movement. Several states have passed laws requiring service information about some products. Farm equipment has typically been excluded. Despite the growing movement, there's still opposition. Dave Worthams is with the Michigan Manufacturers Association. He says the groups pushing for the legislation don't understand what's at risk.

DAVE WORTHAMS: The organizations really have this really big belief that once you buy a product, it should be your right to do whatever you want with that product. Well, that's not necessarily helpful in terms of safety or in terms of environmental controls.

GRAHAM: Farming equipment manufacturers like John Deere are also concerned about intellectual property rights. The American Farm Bureau Federation is the country's largest lobbying group for farmers and ranchers. It says it's reached an agreement with the farm equipment manufacturers. It's persuaded more than two-thirds of the manufacturers, including John Deere. A memorandum of understanding allows some access to tools and diagnostic software. In a statement, the Farm Bureau says its membership favored a private-sector solution instead of a law. The group says the agreements, quote, "have established a direct path for our members to reach a manufacturer to immediately resolve any repair issues that arise."

Bob Thompson is with the Michigan Farmers Union. He says a memorandum of understanding is not enough. There's nothing binding if there's a disagreement.

BOB THOMPSON: An MOU is nothing more than a gentleman's agreement between two parties, and you have one farm organization and one manufacturer. And either one of them can walk away from it on a heartbeat, and so then that leaves everybody else hanging.

GRAHAM: So now some lawmakers back making right to repair Michigan law. As the state considers legislation, the White House has already voiced support for a national right-to-repair law. The Biden administration says it would increase competition in repair markets and make it easier to repair everything from grills to motorcycles and, yes, big farm equipment. For NPR News, I'm Lester Graham in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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Lester Graham
Lester Graham is with Michigan Watch, the investigative unit of Michigan Radio.