It has been nearly three years since I first wrote about right to repair as an emerging issue.
A lot has transpired since then in legislatures and the industry, so it seems an appropriate time to revisit the issue with an update about the progression of this issue, where we are today and where we see this issue going.
Where we are
The stakeholders remain largely the same. The Repair Association persists as the instigator of right to repair legislation in state legislatures across the U.S., and recently expanded its intentions to pass legislation in Canada. Manufacturers and dealers continue to be aligned on the topic with their respective associations engaging with policymakers and producers throughout the country. And producer groups represented by state Farm Bureaus and various commodity organizations have played a central role in the development of this issue as well.
When right to repair legislation regarding agricultural equipment first appeared on scene, activists supporting legislation took direct aim at the heart of farm country. In 2016, legislation was first introduced in Nebraska. Right to repair legislation spread to 11 states in 2017, including Kansas and Missouri, with efforts to pass a bill stalling at the committee level. By 2018, the right to repair issue seemed downright trendy with 20 states introducing legislation including Oklahoma, Iowa, California and a slew of others.
While many of these bills primarily targeted household consumer electronics, wording related to agricultural equipment was included in every single bill and was the main target in farm country. However, the 2018 legislative sessions closed out with not a single bill passing the chamber of origin.
But then something happened in 2019 to reverse the tide. Much to the dismay of right to repair advocates, nine states that had previously introduced right to repair legislation did not reintroduce legislation during this year’s legislative session. Of those nine states electing not to pursue right to repair legislation again, the heartland states made up the vast majority. After three years of continuously combating legislation, repair advocates failed to reintroduce legislation in several farm country states. What changed?
Progress through partnership
Although members of the Repair Association take a cynical view of why legislation targeting farm equipment was not reintroduced in several key farming states, attributing it to corporate lobbying pressure, the answer is much simpler – right to repair is bad policy.
In my first article on this issue, I wrote that at first blush right to repair sounded simple, but once you peeled back the layers it quickly became complicated. That is a line I have frequently used to start conversations with policymakers and stakeholders over the past three years. Realizing early on that the key to defeating this legislation was education, we have spent countless hours informing legislators about the pitfalls of this unnecessary legislation and the unintended consequences it would have. As legislators increasingly come from urban backgrounds without even a tenuous relationship to agriculture, the need to educate them about the difference between a smartphone and a combine has become even greater. And we have done just that.
One of the most effective methods of communicating our message has been through dealer demonstrations. By hosting policymakers at dealerships and physically walking them through the process of diagnosing and repairing farm equipment, we have opened many eyes to what capabilities are currently available and the challenges we face in increasing uptime for a dealer’s customers. Dealer demonstrations also give us the forum to discuss safety, emissions, data security, and liability issues that are directly related to right to repair legislation.
But we have not limited our scope by working solely with legislators and hosting dealer demonstrations for them. If not more important is the work we are doing with the producers themselves. Change is jarring sometimes and not having a voice in the process of that change can exacerbate problems.
Through meetings with Farm Bureaus across the country to discuss right to repair, it became evident that the tremendous amount of farm equipment technology put into the field over the past two decades was creating changes and challenges that were not always welcomed. The inability to quickly diagnose and perform repairs caused consternation among some producers.
By bringing together producers, manufacturers and dealers, we have created a forum for producers to have their voices heard outside of the legislative arena. Several dealer demonstrations have focused on hosting producer groups, such as state Farm Bureaus, where we can discuss issues in depth. What producers have found is an audience that is receptive to hearing their concerns about factors that increase downtime, such as the lack of rural broadband that makes remote diagnostics nearly impossible or the inability to download software updates.
By and large, producers also understand the challenges dealers face with workforce development and the scarcity of skilled technicians dealerships need to service all their customers in a timely manner. We’ve also heard from producers that they don’t want to jeopardize new investment in farm equipment technology by allowing third parties to reverse engineer proprietary information and sell it, which would disincentivize future manufacturer investment.
Out of these partnerships with producer groups, the equipment industry has developed its own voluntary commitment in response to the concerns of producer groups. The Association of Manufacturers unveiled an industry commitment that by 2021, manufacturers would make available certain diagnostic tools, specialty tools, manuals and product guides available to customers for all new equipment. Some manufacturers already have much of those tools currently available.
Where we go from here
With 2019 legislative sessions winding down, there has yet to be a right to repair bill passed in any state. It is likely that bills will continue to emerge around the country. However, if the past few years are any indication of future expectations, we will see the desire for this legislation wane once we educate policymakers and stakeholders about the issue.
Through partnerships with producer organizations, dealers and manufacturers have created a working relationship that creates real solutions to problems. The old adage that united we stand, divided we fall is certainly true in this instance. By rejecting outside groups, such as the Repair Association, and listening to each other, the agriculture industry is working together to maximize uptime for producers while avoiding the dangers of opening up access to secure, proprietary information and allowing modifications that create serious safety and environmental concerns.
We are also working together on policies that will have a much greater impact on increasing uptime, like expanding rural broadband, which we will actively be advocating for in any proposed federal infrastructure package. Another is sharing our message about workforce development. WEDA has done an immense amount of work partnering with educational institutions to provide quality technician training. And dealers have contributed not only their time but resources to fund the WEDA Foundation that provides scholarships and funding for students and institutions. We must continue with our commitment to that endeavor.
Finally, we have to continue sharing our message. At least two democratic presidential candidates have come out in support of a national right to repair law, specifically for farm equipment. Over the course of the next year and a half, it is highly likely that others will adopt this policy so they have something to talk about in the important primary state of Iowa. Like the state legislators and producer groups we have shared our message with already, it will be equally important to carry our message to these campaigns and educate them about the issue.
While it’s not easy to create understanding in others, it is essential to advocate for good policy. We have a track record now that proves, with a lot of hard work, it can be done. The outcome is achieving our mission of creating good public policy that benefits successful dealers.
Podcast By Eric Wareham
ERIC WAREHAM is the vice president of government affairs for the Western Equipment Dealers Association. He is a graduate of the Willamette University College of Law and Augusta State University. Eric may be reached by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.