ERIE, CO - APRIL 7: Farmer Paul Schlagel drives his tractor planting and fertilizing sugar beets on this 80 acre parcel on April 7, 2020 in Erie, Colorado. Schlagel works some 1,500 acres in irrigated row crops including these sugar beets, as well as corn and barley. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

When Dale McCall’s hay balers were malfunctioning in 2019, he went to the manufacturer for support. Over the course of around three weeks, McCall said he spent $6,000 for the manufacturer’s technicians to come and work on the balers to no avail. In that time, deadlines for harvesting the hay passed and McCall nearly lost contracts due to the delay. 

With the situation now dire, McCall’s son spent days negotiating with the manufacturer to give them the codes needed to access the balers’ software. Once they finally got the codes, McCall said it took his son and grandson less than two hours to get the balers operating again.

“We lost money because we couldn’t get the baling done,” McCall said. “On these simple things, we need to be able to diagnose and repair. We ought to be able to have the opportunity.”

Colorado lawmakers are trying to address this issue with House Bill 1011, which seeks to grant Coloradans the right to repair their agricultural equipment.

If passed by the state legislature, the bill would require manufacturers to sell tools, parts and digital access to farmers and independent repair ships to diagnose and fix problems with equipment, beginning in 2024. Modern agriculture equipment often runs on advanced computer software and, currently, some manufacturers prohibit access to these systems, or do not provide information on how they work. 

Bill sponsor Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, said forcing farmers to wait and pay for a manufacturer’s technicians or authorized repair shops when equipment malfunctions puts their livelihoods at risk. 

“With drought and climate and weather and pests, we don’t need another obstacle in their way,” Titone said. “We have over 38,000 farms and ranches and that’s why Colorado is one of the top 10 states for the production of over 20 different commodities. This bill is going to help them get their work done.”

The House Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee advanced the bill Monday, following nearly three hours of testimony from farmers and agricultural manufacturers.

Manufacturers stood in strong opposition to the bill, arguing that it would give individuals the ability to tamper with equipment beyond repairs. Russell Ball — representing 21st Century Equipment and the Far West Equipment Dealers Association — argued that farmers would take advantage of the bill to increase a machine’s horsepower or bypass emissions control systems. 

“We oppose this bill as it goes well beyond the normal scope of repairs,” Ball said. “The bill would give access to manufacturers' intellectual property and would allow the reprogramming of controllers, which could lead to illegal tampering.”

Farmers maintained that they’re not interested in making difficult and advanced alterations to the machines, but simply want to be able to make small fixes to equipment they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to own.

Danny Wood, a farmer in Peetz, said that, when his tractor malfunctioned, the manufacturer charged $8,500 to repair it, only for the tractor to break again two days later. This time, Wood said they only needed to enter a code to unlock the machine, but it took three days and another $950 to do it. 

“We just want to be able to fix the small things,” Wood said. “When you buy this stuff with this kind of money, you should get access to that.”

The committee voted, 9-4, in support of the bill Monday. The vote hewed along party lines, with Democrats in favor of the bill and Republicans opposed.

Republican opponents raised issue with regulating the actions of private businesses.

“I am a strong proponent of the inalienable right to contract and the ability of the free market,” said Rep. Stephanie Luck, R-Penrose. “My concern is that the government is stepping into an area it shouldn’t be stepping into, infringing on that inalienable right to contract.”

Luck also pointed to the agreement that manufacturing company John Deere reached with the American Farm Bureau Federation, saying the private sector is already figuring the problem out. Last month, the company announced a private agreement in which it promised to offer farmers and independent repair shops access to purchase software, manuals and other information needed to service their equipment. 

Critics have said there is no enforcement provision to the agreement and argued it was only reached to avoid federal and state legislation requiring the right to repair agricultural equipment, pointing to a provision in the agreement that allows John Deere to pull out if any right to repair legislation is enacted.

In July 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order calling for the Federal Trade Commission to make rules cracking down on manufacturers that limit users and third-party companies from repairing their electronics. That year, 27 states also considered individual right to repair legislation.

While no Republican committee members supported the bill, Republican Rep. Ron Weinberg of Loveland signed on as a co-sponsor. Weinberg said every farmer he’s spoken to said not being able to repair their own equipment is impeding their jobs, with one even admitting to using illegal third-party software providers to fix their machines. 

“Everybody was in agreement with this one. Very frustrated and irritated that the machinery they’re paying for, they can’t fix,” Weinberg said. “They feel ripped off. This is a problem. The farmers are in desperate need of help with this one.”

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