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"Right to Repair" pits farmers versus their machines

These tractors are being repaired at Ingram Equipment and Tractor Repair in Comanche (Phil Cross/KOKH).

If you buy something do you really own the right to fix it? It is a question that you may think you know the answer to, but in today's digital world the lines between what's really yours are getting blurred.

While technology is becoming more common place in everything in our homes, one place you may not realize is going high-tech is on the farm.

“It started out everything was manual pretty simple about down to earth,” said Richie Ingram, who has been working on tractors for more than a quarter of a century, “Now they've changed to so much electronic stuff and the technology is just unreal what they've got now days.”

Ingram now operates Ingram Repair in Comanche and fixes anything with a motor. A large part of his time is spent working on tractors, but there is only so much you can fix on a modern machine.

For the uninitiated, life on a modern farm is less mechanical and more technical. The machines are bigger and more complex than ever before. The computers and technology is intended to improve farming with a goal of improving all aspects of farm production.

However, when one of the new tractors or other pieces of farm equipment breaks down it is not that easy to get it back into the field.

“It is not like just get it done within an hour or so, now you may wait days,” Ingram said. “If it is an electronic part you have to order or they have to get with the dealer has to get with the main manufacturer to find out what's going on.”

When it comes to farming, a lost day during the harvest could result in losing an entire crop.

“The crops now, the margin of profit is so slim that it don't take much and you're in the hole already,” Ingram said.

Something as simple as a blown fuse can sideline a tractor. Even if the fuse is replaced it can still require the dealer or manufacturer to plug in a computer to reset the system. That can mean waiting until your dealer or the company that made the machine can come out to your location because the computers needed to perform the reset is not available to purchase by farmers or even independent repair shops.

“We'd buy it,” Ingram said of his hope that manufacturers would allow more access to their computer systems. “It probably wouldn't matter too much what it cost it is one of them deals where you have to have it to stay in business.”

There was right to repair legislation filed this past year in the Oklahoma House, but it never made it past committee. The representative who sponsored the bill said he now thinks it may be an issue the United States’ Congress will ultimately have to get involved with in order to find a solution that protects both farmers and manufacturers.

While some may think if you buy something you have the right to say how and who fixes it, for dealers and manufacturers it's an issue of safety.

“The ability to repair is one thing, the ability to modify is different,” said Kyle Kennedy, the vice president of Livingston Machinery in Chickasha.

“We've seen more changes in the last five years than we've seen in a long time,” Kennedy said. “Technology every year advancing it takes more and more computers more and more software to make these tractors operate every year.”

Livingston Machinery has not had to deal with many of the frustrations felt elsewhere over the “Right to Repair” issues that have been popping up around Oklahoma and the rest of the nation. Kennedy believes his company’s 24/7 service plans that it offers to its customers which puts more mechanics out to get farmers back to work faster.

“We know that a customer's downtime is crucial so anytime they are operating in a field seconds matter, hours matter, days matter on getting a crop out of the field,” Kennedy said.

However, the right to repair fight is complicated. At the extreme, some proposed repair laws could allow overriding safety shutdowns which could result in death if a tractor's computer doesn't remember stop.

“Bypassing any safety feature would be the biggest safety concern we have,” Kennedy said.

The Equipment Dealers Association and the Manufacturers Association, which represents the big farm machinery companies, have offered a compromise solution to right to repair. That compromise would allow tractor owners to diagnosis their own equipment and provide more options when it comes to doing their own repairs. The proposed changes would still keep owners from overriding anything that would impact emissions or safety functions.

However, some farmers aren't waiting for the changes to be implemented. In Oklahoma and around the country some farmers have purchased Russian-based software that allows them the ability to “hack” their own tractor’s software. Hacking a tractor can allow them to manipulate the on-board computers without waiting on a manufacturer. That software though can cost up to $20,000 and is not guaranteed.

Ingram believes farmers who are sidelined by the technological problems are desperate for solutions. In fact. Those that are have not turned to computer hacking have found another way around the computerized combines.

“I've seen a lot of them take and get rid of the newer stuff and go back to the older stuff,” Ingram said.

In his shop, Ingram is replacing the motor in an older-model tractor. The motor is a $10,000 purchase, but the rest of the tractor is not computerized. Ingram says farmers are increasingly returning to classic tractors that have few electronics.

While some of these old work horses have been show pieces, the demand for a tractor without the bells and whistles is growing as farmers revolt against technological controls in favor of the equipment that worked as hard as they did.

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