Right to Repair

The Walls Are Closing in on John Deere’s Tractor Repair Monopoly

Inside the class action lawsuit bringing federal scrutiny to John Deere's repair practices.
The Walls Are Closing in on John Deere’s Tractor Repair Monopoly
A mechanic works on a John Deere 8300. Image: Jason Koebler

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In November, federal judge Iain Johnston began an 89-page opinion by noting that the John Deere Historic Site, where John Deere the man invented the steel plow in 1837, is less than an hour’s drive from his courthouse. 

“The takeaway from a visit to this historic site is that John Deere was an innovative farmer and blacksmith who—with his own hands—fundamentally changed the agricultural industry,” Johnston wrote. “This multi-district litigation concerns allegations of non-competitive behavior by Deere & Co., a multi-billion-dollar international corporation. If—and that’s a big if—the claims against Deere & Co. are meritorious, then the Court assumes the man lionized at the historic site would be deeply disappointed in his namesake corporation.”

In that opinion, Johnston allowed a class action lawsuit against John Deere, which has already been winding its way through the courts for years, to continue forth in what he theorized would be “a long and expensive process.” 

For the last decade, farmers have been warning that John Deere, a company celebrated by farmers, country musicians, and politicians, has been doing something else very American: Concentrating power, stripping away the ownership rights of people who buy their products, and adding a bevy of artificial, software-based repair restrictions that have effectively created a regime in which farmers can no longer fix their own tractors, combines, harvesters, and other agricultural equipment. Farmers have resorted to pirating John Deere’s software and firmware on underground forums and torrent sites, and have used software cracked by Ukrainian pirates in order to simply fix the things they own. Farmers often have to wait days or weeks for an “authorized” John Deere dealership to come to their farms to repair their equipment, meanwhile their crops die on the vine. 

For years, very little happened to slow down John Deere’s march toward total control of the repair market. But interviews with farmers, activists, and lawyers, and a review of court records reveal a turn in the story: There is increased scrutiny on Deere’s repair practices not just in this class action lawsuit, but from state legislators, the White House, and a series of federal agencies. The walls on Deere’s repair monopoly may finally be closing in.

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