Guest Opinion: Farm equipment ‘right to repair’ hearings begin

Published 10:01 am Sunday, October 9, 2022

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By Colin Campbell

Kicking off a series of public hearings to study “right to repair” legislation for farm equipment, state legislators heard a detailed presentation last Wednesday from a John Deere dealership and several other equipment companies.

The hearings stem from a controversial provision that got removed from the annual farm bill during the short session. As agricultural equipment gets increasingly complicated with electronics, some farmers complain that they aren’t able to make minor fixes and instead have to haul machinery to a dealership.

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Proposed legislation would change that, but equipment dealers and manufacturers say the change could lead to major safety concerns. After one hearing at the legislature earlier this year, farm bill sponsor Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, agreed to delete the provision and hold further hearings on the issue.

The first of those hearings was Wednesday morning, September 28 as the Agriculture and Forestry Awareness Study Commission traveled to the small town of Plymouth in eastern North Carolina. Bryan Dobson, CEO of Quality Equipment, one of the state’s largest John Deere dealers, detailed the concerns and his company’s efforts to improve the repair process for farmers.

One issue, Dobson said, is that it’s difficult to tell when equipment has been modified by the owner, but modifications can sometimes trigger a hefty fine if the equipment is traded and resold.

Dobson said his company has struggled to fill technician positions due to labor challenges, but it’s building a new training center that could help ensure he has the staff to quickly complete repairs.

Only one farmer spoke at the hearing: Bill Sexton, who’s also a Washington County commissioner. “I’ve had to work most of my life on used equipment,” he said. “What I’m seeing now is that the equipment is getting more computerized. I just have to shut down and wait until somebody comes out to repair the tractor.”

One commission member lamented the lack of farmers at the meeting, which he said might be due to poor timing given the season and incoming hurricane. But Jackson, who chaired the meeting and is also a farmer, responded that “I don’t know that there’s a better time any time of the year” for people who work in agriculture.

The N.C. Public Interest Research Group, which has been involved on the issue, also had concerns about representation at last Wednesday’s meeting. “We’re glad that Sen. Jackson and the committee are responding by investigating this issue,” state director Katie Craig said in a news release. “But if we are going to reach an outcome that provides North Carolina producers with needed repair relief, we need to hear from farmers themselves—not just tractor manufacturers and their dealerships.”

Another member of the commission questioned whether emissions regulations are the root of the problem, given that equipment dealers are worried that do-it-yourself repair jobs could result in emissions violations. But those regulations are set by the federal government, not the state legislature.

The commission headed to Greensboro on Monday for its next hearing on the issue.

Colin Campbell is editor of the North Carolina Tribune, a daily newsletter that covers the intersection of business and state politics.