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The Hassle of High-Tech Farm Equipment

5/11/2018 9:44:45 AM by Carissa Shaul


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 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 (A mid-ranged tractor can be 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.

High-Tech Tractors Are Increasingly a Liability

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.

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. The dealer-repair game is just too lucrative for manufacturers to cede any control back to farmers.

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 ECU 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.”

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).

Unfortunately, when it comes to modifying existing equipment—it’s that same idea of ownership that’s most contested. If you paid for the tractor; you 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?

In conjunction with USC and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a DMCA exemption has been requested 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.