Colorado farmers may soon have the ability to repair their high-tech equipment without needing scarce, expensive dealership technicians under a new bill on its way to the state Senate.
House Bill 23-1011 would require manufacturers of equipment like tractors and combine harvesters to sell the tools, parts and digital information to farmers and independent shops so they can make their own diagnoses and repairs.
“Market prices, weather, pests, drought – there are all these things outside the control of a farmer trying to do their job. The last thing they need is for a piece of equipment to break and that becomes an additional barrier,” bill sponsor Rep. Brianna Titone, an Arvada Democrat, told Colorado Newsline. “They have all these other things they have to deal with and respond to, and fixing their equipment shouldn’t be one of those things.”
Titone sponsored the bill alongside Republican Rep. Ron Weinberg of Loveland in the House. It is sponsored by Democratic Sens. Nick Hinrichsen of Pueblo and Janice Marchman of Loveland in the Senate.
Titone successfully ran Colorado’s first consumer right to repair bill last year – that law affects people who use powered wheelchairs. She said farmers are another consumer group where a right-to repair-law would have a profound impact.
The bill made it through the House on Tuesday with a 44-17 vote, mostly along party lines. Democratic Rep. Shannon Bird of Westminster voted against it while Republicans Weinberg and Rod Bockenfeld of Watkins voted in favor of it.
Democrats hold strong majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly this session.
“They feel ripped off. Every farmer I talked to doesn’t feel like they own their tractor,” Weinberg said earlier this month during the bill’s committee hearing. “They buy this upwards of half a million dollar tractor. They use it to do their job. A sensor or part can’t get replaced, and they’re stuck. That’s a problem.”
Republicans who voted against the bill said they worried about hurting dealerships who rely on repair service revenue. Those businesses are “already becoming scarce in this state,” said Minority Leader Mike Lynch of Wellington.
“I really believe this is a free market issue that we as a state need to not step in the middle of,” he said on the House floor during debate on second reading of the bill.
As farm equipment becomes more computerized, the diagnostics and repair procedures are increasingly reliant on coding and specialized knowledge from the manufacturer.
For Dale McCall, who farms with his son and grandson in Yuma, waiting for a technician to come enter the necessary code to fix some broken-down balers cost $6,000 and two weeks of productivity. It also nearly cost him a lucrative hay bale contract for the next year.
“I don’t understand the difference between embedded code and source codes, but the dealer was able to come out and give us the code to get in and fix those balers. It took about an hour and a half for my son and grandson to get the balers back in operation. I don’t understand all those things, but I do know that in my case it cost us a lot of money,” he told a panel of lawmakers.
He said that technician visits can cost between $500 and $1,800 per visit.
Kyler Brown, who ranches and farms potatoes and barley in the San Luis Valley, told lawmakers about the scarcity of manufacturer technicians who can fix broken farm equipment. There is just one in the valley. The closest dealer that can service his Case IH tractor is in Pueblo, more than two hours away and over the La Veta Pass.
“We just want all our tools in our tool basket – being remote people – to try and work on things. If that’s a five-digit code, then we can move light years. If it’s a technician, then it’s a technician. If it’s a service guy from Idaho who has to come here, then we’ll work that. We’re just trying to get a crop out of the ground, and time does matter,” he said.
Opponents of the bill, primarily the manufacturers and dealers of this equipment, say the legislation could allow farmers to exploit the system to sidestep regulations.
“Manufacturers have spent millions of dollars meeting government emission standards, as well as making current machines smarter because of the lack of skilled labor. All of these gains would be negated once access to embedded software is granted,” said John Shearer, the owner of a John Deere dealer with nine Colorado locations.
The solution isn’t a right-to-repair law, he said, but instead adding more trained technicians in the workforce.
“Access to tools, information and parts are only valuable when they’re in the hands of trained technicians,” he said.
Manufacturers testified to lawmakers that farmers who have access to the equipment’s software could toy with specific settings like the horsepower or emissions output, and some said they’ve had customers already come to them asking how to do just that.
“We do not support their right to modify them as it relates to safety, horsepower and clean air. We feel that is really the purpose of this legislation,” said Russell Ball, who owns another John Deere dealer with eight locations in the state.
The bill, as passed by the House, has provisions baked in to deter that type of manipulation.
“The fact of the matter is that illegal stuff is still illegal,” Titone said.
Opponents also say that farmers already have access to the information needed to service their equipment. Earlier this year, the Farm Bureau and John Deere signed a memorandum of understanding that the company will share some parts, diagnostic and repair codes, and manuals with farmers.
Titone said she was a bit surprised by the Republican opposition to the bill, and she said she suspects some bowed to industry pressure.
“Being on the (Agricultural, Water and Natural Resources Committee), I’ll hear Republicans pound their fists, saying we need to support the ag industry. We need to support rural Colorado. That’s exactly what this bill does. And now a lot of those same people are wavering in their support for their constituents, who happen to be Republican,” she said.
The bill now heads to the Senate. Last year’s wheelchair bill vote had a similarly partisan vote in the House, but more bipartisan support in the Senate.
President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, is supportive.
“Colorado Democrats are committed to doing everything we can to ease the burden on hardworking folks just trying to make ends meet. For our agricultural community, HB23-1011 is a key part of that work. With this legislation, we’re empowering farmers and ranchers to do their own repairs on the equipment they use every day, helping them avoid steep repair costs and long delays for essential fixes,” he said in a statement.
Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is also excited to get the bill on his desk to sign into law, Titone said.
The bill is supported by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and the Colorado growers associations of corn, wool, wheat, fruit and vegetables.