I squatted down in the dirt and took stock of my inadequate tools. Over my left shoulder a massive John Deere tractor loomed. I came here to fix that tractor. So far, things weren’t going as planned.
I’m a computer programmer by training, and a repairman by trade. Ten years ago, I started iFixit, an online, DIY community that teaches people to repair what they own. Repair is what I do, and that I was being rebuffed by a tractor was incredibly frustrating.
I tossed my wrenches and screwdrivers. The conventional tools of my trade had no power here. This job called for something different. Armed with wire, alligator clips, a handful of connectors, and a CANbus reader, I launched myself back into the cab of the tractor. Once more into the breach, dear friends!
The family farmer who owns this tractor is a friend of mine. He just wanted a better way to fix a minor hydraulic sensor. Every time the sensor blew, the onboard computer would shut the tractor down. It takes a technician at least two days to order the part, get out to the farm, and swap out the sensor. So for two days, Dave’s tractor lies fallow. And so do his fields.
Dave asked me if there was some way to bypass a bum sensor while waiting for the repairman to show up. But fixing Dave’s sensor problem required fiddling around in the tractor’s highly proprietary computer system—the tractor’s engine control unit (tECU): the brains behind the agricultural beast.
One hour later, I hopped back out of the cab of the tractor. Defeated. I was unable to breach the wall of proprietary defenses that protected the tECU like a fortress. I couldn’t even connect to the computer. Because John Deere says I can’t.
Dave is a DIY kind of guy. But Dave would like to do more than just change his tractor’s oil. He’d like to be able to modify the engine timing. He’d like to harvest the information that his tractor collects to learn more about how his crops grow. He’d like to troubleshoot error codes. Most of all, he’d like to be able to repair his equipment himself—because it’s what he’s been doing all his life.
In the tech industry, we tend to talk about the exploding Maker Movement as if tinkering is something new. In fact, it’s as old as dirt: farmers have been making, building, rebuilding, hacking, and tinkering with their equipment since chickens were feral. I’ve seen farmers do with rusty harvesters and old welders what modern Makers do with Raspberry Pis and breadboards. There’s even a crowdsourced magazine, Farm Show, that’s catalogued thousands of clever farming inventions over the past three decades.
Of course, the world is changing, and that’s especially true in the world of agriculture. Most problems can’t be solved with duct tape and baling wire anymore. Regulations are stricter, agribusiness is more consolidated, resources are more scarce, and equipment is infinitely more complicated and proprietary. Small family farmers like Dave face challenges that even the most industrious Maker would find hard to “hack.”
What used to be done by hand is now managed at scale by giant machine. And that equipment is expensive—equivalent to the price of a small house (Dave’s mid-ranged tractor is worth over $100,000). New, elaborate computer systems afford the kind of precision and predictability that farmers 20 years ago couldn’t have even imagined. But they’ve also introduced new problems.
Aside from using it, there’s not much you can do with modern ag equipment. When it breaks or needs maintenance, farmers are dependent on dealers and manufacturer technicians—a hard pill to swallow for farmers, who have been maintaining their own equipment since the plow.
“[DIY repair] is cheaper than calling out the technician. But that information is just not out there,” Dave explained to me.
The cost and hassle of repairing modern tractors has soured a lot of farmers on computerized systems altogether. In a September issue of Farm Journal, farm auction expert Greg Peterson noted that demand for newer tractors was falling. Tellingly, the price of and demand for older tractors (without all the digital bells and whistles) has picked up. “As for the simplicity, you’ve all heard the chatter,” Machinery Pete wrote. “There’s an increasing number of farmers placing greater value on acquiring older simpler machines that don’t require a computer to fix.”
The problem is that farmers are essentially driving around a giant black box outfitted with harvesting blades. Only manufacturers have the keys to those boxes. Different connectors are needed from brand to brand, sometimes even from model to model—just to talk to the tECU. Modifications and troubleshooting require diagnostic software that farmers can’t have. Even if a farmer managed to get the right software, calibrations to the tECU sometimes require a factory password. No password, no changes—not without the permission of the manufacturer.
John Deere, in particular, has been incredibly effective at limiting access to its diagnostic software. Which is why I wouldn’t have been able to tweak the programming on Dave’s tractor, even if I had been able to hack together the right interface. John Deere doesn’t want me to. The dealer-repair game is just too lucrative for manufacturers to cede any control back to farmers.
After a second swear-word-inducing attempt to monkey around in the code that fuels Dave’s computer, I started wondering how other farmers were dealing with the increasingly cloaked and proprietary nature of modern farming.
My failure with Dave’s tractor got me fired up. I started lurking in ag forums, talking to my farmer friends, and hanging out in diesel repair shops. I found out that farmers aren’t taking the limitations lying down. There’s a thriving grey-market for diagnostic equipment and proprietary connectors. Some farmers have even managed to get their hands on the software they need to re-calibrate and repair equipment on their own—a laptop purchased from some nameless friend-of-a-friend with the software already loaded on it. There are even ways to get around the factory passwords that block access to the tECU to effect repairs.
But under modern copyright laws, that kind of “repairing” is legally questionable.
Manufacturers have every legal right to put a password or an encryption over the tECU. Owners, on the other hand, don’t have the legal right to break the digital lock over their own equipment. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act—a 1998 copyright law designed to prevent digital piracy—classifies breaking a technological protection measure over a device’s programming as a breach of copyright. So, it’s entirely possible that changing the engine timing on his own tractor makes a farmer a criminal.
Instead of wrestling with proprietary systems, other farmers are starting to go open source. Dorn Cox has been working the land most of his life. After a break to work in tech start-ups, he took over a 250-acre farm in Lee, New Hampshire. In 2010, he co-founded Farm Hack, an online community of farmers, designers, developers, and engineers “helping our community of farmers to be better inventors, developing tools that fit the scale and their ethics of our sustainable family farms.”
“Knowledge wants to be free,” Cox told me.
So Farm Hack is setting it free. Together, members are building an open-source library of farming tools and knowledge. They hack together solutions that work for them. Projects range from the classically low-tech (a farm bicycle that lets users pick ground crops like strawberries without destroying their backs) to the decidedly tech-savvy (a remote-controlled, Arduino-powered compost monitor).
“The main thing, from a hacker’s perspective, is that we’re not dependent on something to create the tools for us,” Cox explained. “We are actually adapting and taking ownership.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to modifying existing equipment—like Dave’s tractor—it’s that same idea of ownership that’s most contested. Dave paid for the tractor; he owns what’s tangible: the wheels, the metal chassis, the gears and pistons in the engine. But John Deere owns everything else: the programming that propels the tractor, the software that calibrates the engine, the information necessary to fix it. So, who really owns that tractor?
Even if he could, would it be legal for Dave to fix his machine? Right now, we don’t know; and that ambiguity is disturbing. So, we’re trying to find the answer. In conjunction with USC and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, we’ve asked for a DMCA exemption for farmers who want to modify and repair their equipment. We’ll find out if it’s legal for farmers to tinker with their own equipment when the Copyright Office reviews the latest round of exemptions.
Until then, Dave’s tractor remains a locked box—and neither Dave nor I are allowed to pry it open.
Want to speak out in support of this DMCA exemption? Tell the Copyright Office that farmers should be able to repair and modify their own machinery. You’ve got until February 6 to make your voice heard.