Montana Farmers Union Frustrated by Legislature's Failure to Act on Right to Repair

March 2, 2023

When the Montana Legislature Tuesday tabled two bills related to right to repair agricultural equipment, they missed an opportunity to lead the nation. Instead, they continue to deny farmers and ranchers the right to repair their own equipment.

Montana Farmers Union supported both HB 475 and SB 347 because of grassroots member-written policy that demands farmers and ranchers be given the right to fully repair their equipment, and MFU President Walter Schweitzer called the committee actions disappointing.

“Myself, farmers, ranchers and other right to repair advocates made compelling arguments, but they fell on deaf ears. We need more legislators who understand agriculture and will support their farming neighbors,” Schweitzer said.

Both the bills were about fair access to the software and tools necessary for farmers, ranchers, and independent repair providers to fully repair equipment.

Three main manufacturers -- two of them foreign owned -- produce the majority of farm equipment sold in the U.S. Manufacturers largely deny access to the necessary diagnostic and software tools for producers and independent repair technicians to troubleshoot and fully repair equipment.

Currently, if equipment owners replace a part, they must still pay a manufacturer-approved technician to program the part for equipment to return to full functionality. 

Both HB 475, sponsored by Rep. Tom France, and SB 347, sponsored by Sen. Willis Curdy, would have changed that, but both were tabled on party-line votes in their respective ag committees. By tabling the bills, the ag committees’ members effectively killed the bills by removing them from further consideration during the Legislative Session.

In the House Agriculture Committee, representatives Marty Malone, Julie Dooling, Fred Anderson, Paul Green, Kenneth Walsh, Brad Barker, Casey Knudsen, Braxton Mitchell, Greg Kmetz, Zack Wirth and Josh Kassmier voted to table, with representatives Dave Fern, Marvin Weatherwax, Katie Sullivan, Melissa Romano, Frank Smith, Bob Carter and James Bergstrom voting against the move. Tony Brockman was absent.

In the Senate Agriculture Committee, only senators Ellie Boldman, Susan Webber, Shane Morigeau and Shannon O’Brien voted against tabling the bill. Senators Mike Lang, Bruce Gillespie, Dan Bartel, Dennis Lenz, Wendy McKamey, Daniel Salomon and Jeff Welborn voted to table the bill during the voice vote.

“I appreciate that my own republican representative James Bergstrom stood firm in representing what his constituents wanted by facing down the corporate monopolies. Democrats on the committee also supported right to repair for American farmers. Unfortunately, it was not enough to overcome the majority,” Schweitzer said.   

“I think it’s very unfortunate that the ag committees missed the major point. This should not be a partisan issue,” said Ron Harmon, who owns Big Equipment in Havre and is currently building tractors that are fully repairable without a manufacturer.

The lack of competition between the manufacturers who sell most of the agricultural equipment in the U.S. gives those manufacturers almost exclusive control of the parts and service business.

In other words, a producer who buys a new tractor also locks themselves into repairs and service for the duration of that ownership, Harmon said.

However, other types of equipment, including mining and trucks, are not subject to the same repair limitations.

Imagine an over-the-road truck breaking down and being stuck until a manufacturer-approved technician was able to come and read a code and then return later with the correct parts to fix it, Harmon said, adding it’s tough to imagine because it doesn’t happen, thanks to enough competition amongst manufacturers.

That same scenario, though, plays out time and time again for ag producers.

“It’s a ruse. It has nothing to do with farmers not being capable enough to hire an independent mechanic or fix it themselves. [Manufacturers] are not giving them the right to even try,” Harmon said.

Worries about producers tampering with emissions controls and proprietary software have been used as reasons not to allow full right to repair. A tractor or combine is no more complicated than an over-the-road truck, which also is subject to emissions regulations but is able to be repaired independently, Harmon said.

“It’s wrong, it’s not true, and I hope that we will make this a non-partisan issue moving forward and allow the farmers to be in control of this very expensive equipment that they’ve purchased,” he added.

Source: Montana Farmers Union