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Ag tech

Crops aren’t the only thing farmers are harvesting these days. Some of them are digging up software code.

Producers in particularly remote areas have taken to hacking the computer software on their own tractors rather than wait for a service technician to show up in the peak of planting season. A technical glitch can be costly.

“For producers, that’s a big issue because now they’re done. They’re dead in the field,” said Paul Gunderson, who recently retired as director of the Dakota Precision Agriculture Center at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake. 

As technology on farming equipment becomes more advanced, it often requires a dealer or authorized technician to make repairs.

But in states where agriculture dealerships are sparsely located, it may take several hours or longer before a service technician can arrive to fix the problem, Gunderson said.

Some producers are turning to websites developed in Eastern European countries where they can purchase John Deere software hacks, or what Gunderson calls “gray software,” to diagnose problems and repair the equipment themselves.

“It’s relatively new. It’s kind of exploded,” he said.

Gunderson said he’s researched some of the websites, which he said users can access with a $25 or $35 fee and then purchase software codes to download. Gunderson said he’s not sure how widespread the websites are used regionally, but he knows of North Dakota producers who use them “and they’re comfortable with them.”

“Apparently it works and it gets them through the repair stages and gives them some sense of not only ownership per se, but some sense of being able to take care of repair problems on their own,” said Gunderson, who has an emeritus appointment with the college.

Chuck Studer, director of industry relations for John Deere, said the company’s dealers understand the risks of downtime for a producer and work to minimize it.

“Replacing the software code is really only needed in less than 1 to 2 percent of repairs, and when it is, the dealership can handle a lot of that remotely,” Studer said in a statement.

The issue has become a hot topic recently as contemporary software in farm machinery is protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a federal law that protects the copyright holder of things like digital media downloads or proprietary software.

The DMCA allows companies, like farm implement manufacturers, to write software that can’t be accessed or changed except by licensed technicians.

In the case of John Deere machinery, farmers don’t legally own that software but instead license it for the duration of time they own their machine.

“You have to go through a dealer to fix your machinery now,” said Devon Russell, head of the precision ag technology department at South Dakota’s Mitchell Technical Institute. “Back in the older days, you could try to fix it yourself.”

‘Right to repair’

It isn’t just tractors at the center of this debate. Smartphones, cars and a rapidly increasing number of everyday devices come with similar caveats. That’s why several states, including Minnesota, are considering “right to repair” legislation, which would allow consumers or independent businesses to repair them.

Minnesota Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who sits on the Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee, said the measure is about fairness. It’s amazing to think that when you’re purchasing something you are actually just buying a license to use it, he said.

In the case of farmers, not being allowed to fix something that might cost them upwards of $250,000 doesn’t seem to make sense, Marty said.

"Farmers are savvy, used to fixing things on their own, and they get angry when they can’t fix their own machinery,” he said.

He added that “right to repair” laws could also spur local and regional small business growth through independent repair shops. The laws also could help the environment by preventing devices from becoming obsolete and becoming waste, he said.

The bill stalled in committee and most likely won't be considered again until the next legislative session, Marty said.

Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, who hails from a farming-rich district, said he’s heard from constituents about this issue but doesn’t think many farmers are aware of the implications to their own investments. He cites “powerful interests lined up against it” for the bill’s failure.

“You spend that kind of money on this machinery, it’s yours,” Eken said. “You should have the right to repair your own equipment.”

North Dakota Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, who works as an agricultural consultant, said he’s hearing concerns from producers who worry their farming equipment won’t be functional in the future if the manufacturer decides to no longer support the software system.

“They’re nervous about it,” he said.

The issue didn’t come up in the North Dakota Legislature this session, but Nelson said he’s monitoring it and might propose a bill in future years.

Worth the risk?

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Producers who attempt to make unauthorized repairs are taking a risk because that could void the warranty on their equipment, Russell said.

“You can make it worse if you try to do it yourself,” Russell said. “It depends on your level of knowledge of what you’re doing.”

John Deere dealers have the expertise to keep the complex machines working efficiently, often proactively fixing machines before downtime occurs, Studer said. He added the vast majority of repairs can be completed without software, and owners or third-party technicians can diagnose and initiate many repairs using publicly available technical manuals.

“Modifying or reverse engineering the embedded software poses risks to operators, bystanders, dealers, mechanics and customers,” Studer said.

But in some cases, producers could be taking a risk by waiting on repairs and losing time in the field when weather conditions give them a narrow window to work, Gunderson said.

“The marketplace is so tight in terms of cash flow, they just can’t afford to take a risk with spring planting,” Gunderson said. “They’ve got to do the work when the time is right.”

At RDO Equipment in Moorhead, Minn., technicians have been able to respond to customers within a couple of hours and store manager Mike Wollschlager said he’s not hearing complaints or reports of people using software hacks.

“The technology today is allowing us to respond quicker,” Wollschlager said.

The advancements in technology can be beneficial to a producer when the technology works correctly. For example, a dealer might get an automatic notification that something is wrong with a piece of equipment before the farmer notices it, and a technician can arrive prepared to fix the problem, Russell said.

“They’ll know exactly what’s wrong with the tractor before they leave the shop,” Russell said.

Nathan Shaw, a technician for Titan Machinery, estimates he gets 130 to 200 calls a day from customers in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.

“It is a higher level of job security every year,” said Shaw, a precision farming specialist.

About a third of the calls relate to some kind of failure or software issue, a third are related to new equipment and the final third require a simple fix such as flipping a switch, he said.

Shaw said he hasn’t heard of producers attempting to do unauthorized repairs.

“I think we do a good job of satisfying what they need,” he said.

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