Rian Wanstreet of Motherboard Vice discusses how modern technology has impacted American agriculture. Precision Agriculture and Big Data are now all the rage- it is slated to grow to $43.4 billion by 2025. But all of this new technology has a bigger cost than just the price tag. Farmers have access to so much more information when it comes to their farm operations, but this often means that the agriculture corporations do also. Farmers can get locked in to vendors, and are limited by seemingly endless restrictions.
Farmers should be able to fix their tractors. This seems so obvious, that the very idea that corporations like John Deere are telling farmers that they can’t resonates as a gross violation of fair play. Indeed, the right of anyone to fix, tinker, modify, or even just access their own stuff—their phones, cars, washing machines—seems basic, yet it’s something that has been quietly eroded by corporations trying to corner the lucrative repair market.
What I’m learning is that the more farming equipment goes high-tech, the greater the potential implications for farmer independence, financial agency, and even national security. Prohibiting farmers from repairing their machines is simply a manifestation of a larger systemic tightening of control.
Americans are starting to realize just how important these rights are, which is why we’ve seen a boom of state legislative initiatives tackling the issue in recent years.
The American Farm Bureau helped start the “Privacy and Security Principles for Farms Data,” in order to address the issues of of data ownership, portability, use, and sharing. Often companies also have End User License Agreements (EULA), that can obscure the original intentions of the guidelines.
When you turn that key on your new John Deere tractor, the EULA forbids repair and modification, but also protects the company against law suits from you for any one of numerous reasons.
Equipment manufacturers know their customers will find it almost impossible to leave their precision agriculture data platforms once they’ve joined, and almost as hard to stay away. The discourse trumpeting the usefulness of precision agriculture tools has so much momentum, adoption is being described as inevitable. Promises in efficiencies and production is touted to outweigh any potential problems.
The general belief is that those who buy-in to a precision data platform will have no choice but to stay in, and as more come onboard, the more it will seem that everyone has to join. Think about it like Facebook, but for agricultural equipment. Farmers can choose not to buy into big data tools, but their friends might think they’re crazy.
But these dependencies aren’t just about software adoption. Deere’s large precision ag machines can cost upwards of $500,000; very few farmers own them outright. The leaseholder is often Deere itself, as the company has become the fifth largest agricultural lender in the sector, loaning money not only for machinery but seed, fertilizer, chemicals, and fuel (some of which also happens to be sold by Deere.) It’s a “cyclical industry” or a “vicious cycle,” depending on who you’re asking. And the farmers themselves are already questioning if it’s worth buying into the cycle at all.
Most people know that once a device is connected to the internet it is at risk of being hacked. If you break your John Deere EULA by tampering with your tractor, they could give it a kill signal and shut it down. If this happened at a critical time for your operation, the implications could be devastating.
Disappointingly, there aren’t many alternative paths for farmers to take. But Wanstreet isn’t losing faith.
If the right to repair fight is showing us anything, it’s that farmers epitomize resiliency and ingenuity. If any community can implement new technologies and innovate upon them, it’s them.
Image courtesy of Jason Koebler and Motherboard Vice