Columns

Holinger: A Deere in the headlights

When a kid, riding my bike I took my share of spills. I’d get up, check for scratches (on the bike, not my legs), straddle the front tire, straighten the handlebars and go on.

What if the bike’s manufacturer wouldn’t allow me to fix them? What if I had to haul my bike to the dealer and wait my turn, missing the baseball games my friends were playing?

Now imagine a John Deere Combine Model 9660STS with bent handlebars – or something commensurate. Weighing 30,681.7 pounds (www.tractorhouse.com 4/3/20), it might not fit in my Prius.

In fact, it costs anywhere from $600 to $1,500-plus to transport (each way) a tractor to the dealership (usship.com). Think of dropping $2,000 just to talk to your vehicle’s service manager!

You’ve probably heard of Right to Repair (R2R) related to your Apple iPhone or laptop.

However, if you care that two-thirds of U.S. farmers work part time (needing second job incomes) and worry that 54% of harvested croplands are leased by someone other than the landowners (www.usda.com 7/29/21) who may show little interest in their fields’ condition, then listen up.

My cousin, Willie Cade, is the grandson of Theo Brown, longtime John Deere board member and receiver of more than 150 patents – 31 related to the manure spreader. Willie, loquacious and passionate, begins his R2R speeches, “A good amount of my grandfather’s genius was spent on spreading dung; some people think it’s genetic” (pointing to his mouth).

When Willie first understood that “John Deere controls its software, can make any changes it wants, and the farmer can’t do anything about it,” he began working with state legislators to get Deere to relinquish its stranglehold. “The farmer may need permission from John Deere corporate to repair the equipment he owns; the dealer technician is merely the conduit.”

“The Right to Repair movement is helping farmers … fix their own farm equipment without facing legal repercussions,” foodtank.com (1/1/21) explains. R2R “advocates for guaranteeing property rights, obtaining equal access to information, nondiscriminatory pricing of parts and tools, and unlocking software. ... ‘We’d like … to repair and modify our tractors just like our dad, grandfather and great-grandfather did years ago,’ said Kevin Kenney, an alternative fuel systems engineer.”

Responding to R2R, “John Deere argues that R2R puts farmers’ safety at risk and violates intellectual property rights. In response … farmers are using the auto industry’s Memorandum of Understanding to show … in 2014, car manufacturers voluntarily agreed to make … information and tools they provide to franchised dealers available to independent repair shops. Kenney asks, ‘If you can fix your car or truck, why not your tractor?’ ” (foodtank.com 1/1/21)

After one lecture on R2R, Willie received this email: “Thanks for saying … stuff I can’t really say without bringing harm to my family. ... We grow corn and it used to be enough to live, all right. Used to be the equipment wasn’t too bad on price. Now it seems like all we do is pay for it. Seems like we just rent our lives from John Deere until they decide they want a new tenant.

“I’m sorry I can’t go on record. Just don’t want things to get worse than they already are. Thanks Willie.”

“Do we want our food supply to be this fragile?” Willie questions rhetorically. “Especially now, with COVID, we have a tenuous farm system.

“A good friend told me recently, ‘I have mine, so I don’t have to worry.’ That’s just wrong. We need to think about society, not just ourselves.”

Willie might be echoing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech before giving his life for his vision: “Be concerned about your brother. ... [E]ither we go up together, or we go down together.”

• Rick Holinger’s book of poetry, “North of Crivitz,” and his collection of humorous essays about life in the Fox Valley, “Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences,” are available through local bookstores, Amazon, or richardholinger.net. Contact him at editorial@kcchronicle.com.