Imagine purchasing equipment that is critical to the success of your business that costs you tens, if not over a hundred thousand dollars, but you’re not allowed to make repairs on the equipment yourself.
That is the reality that farmers in North Carolina and across the country face.
Patrick Brown, a fourth-generation farmer in Warren County says the inability of farmers to repair their own equipment can be burdensome from a productivity and financial standpoint.
“We have to be able to plant on time, and if we have tractors that are down, that can factor in whether or not we will have a good yield and whether or not we will be able to recover, even if we are able to put the crops in the ground,” Brown told Cardinal & Pine.
Most modern farm equipment renders the farmer unable to make repairs to their own machinery, and often requires them to have it serviced by the dealer they purchased it from.
“To have to send it to a retailer to work on it is detrimental to us because we may not even get it back in the time that’s needed,” Brown added. “We don’t even purchase equipment if we can’t fix it, or if it doesn’t offer a warranty where our local dealers can come out to our farm and get it back right.”
A ‘Right-to-Repair’ Would Save Farmers Money
The inability to repair their own equipment is a burden to farmers across the state and country.
Estimates show that a lack of a so-called “right-to-repair” costs the nation’s farmers on average $3,348 per year. This amounts to over $3 billion in losses for all American farmers, assuming they’re each faced with similar costs.
Brown says that it can become very costly for farmers to have maintenance work done by the manufacturer.
“You’re talking about $150-$175 per hour for diagnostics if you’re able to take that tractor to the dealer. If the dealer comes out to you, you’re going to pay a travel fee of up to $180-$200, plus the hourly rate once the maintenance tech gets on your farm to start the work,” Brown said.
While these costs are most initially passed onto farmers, consumers ultimately pay the price for this system when they purchase vegetables and meats at the supermarket.
“Anything that costs farmers more money, is inevitably going to be pushed down the chain. If it costs the farmers more money to get the crop in the field, and get the crop out of the field, they’re going to have to sell it for more to make up the difference, which means that the distributors are going to pay more, which means the produce in the stores is going to cost more.” Franklin County farmer Wesley Wheless told Cardinal & Pine.
Wheless operates a small, 11-acre farm that includes an orchard with blueberries, grapes, and apples. He also grows vegetables and has some livestock. He says the right-to-repair and the cost of repairs is a big concern to him and to other farmers.
“The last large piece of equipment I bought, I got a smaller piece of equipment than I would have liked, simply because of the fact that if I were to go up to the next size, I would have had issues with the right-to-repair,” Wheless said.
He said that if he had gotten a larger piece of equipment—which he wanted to do—he would have been unable to perform repairs, despite actually owning the machinery.
“It would have gone from analog gauges to digital. I would not have been able to even change my own hydraulic filters or check fluids or anything without a computer hookup,” Wheless said. “I had to buy equipment that was smaller than what I really needed just so I could be able to work on it myself.”
The Future of North Carolina Farming
In addition to costs, having equipment out of commission for days at a time can be detrimental to the operation of a farm.
State Representative Eric Ager of Buncombe County is a farmer, and says that timing is essential to any farm’s success.
“When it’s time to harvest, it’s time to harvest. You can’t wait a week. When it’s time to plant, it’s time to plant, it can’t wait a week. When it’s time to pick up the hay, it’s time to pick up the hay,” he said.
The lack of “right-to-repair” is emblematic of the uncertain future local farmers face.
North Carolina has historically been an agricultural state, but the number of farms and the amount of farmland has declined in recent years. From 2007 to 2018, the state lost 6,500 farms.
As the state’s urban areas continue to grow, the amount of farmland is expected to continue declining. By 2040, estimates show the state could lose 20% of its 8 million acres of farmland to continued development.
Earlier this year, Commissioner of Agriculture, Steve Troxler, expressed his concerns about the outlook for North Carolina farmland.
”It’s an issue that does keep me up thinking at night,” Troxler said. “If we don’t have the natural resources, there’s no way we can produce the food supply we need, not only for North Carolina, but for the rest of the nation and the world.”
While North Carolina is not the farming state it was half a century ago, the industry remains important to the state’s success and future. The farming industry in the state is currently valued at over $100 billion.
However, as farmers have made clear, the inability to repair equipment is placing further pressure on North Carolina’s farmers.
There was initially a ‘right to repair’ provision in the Senate version of the 2022 Farm Act in North Carolina, but it ended up being removed from the bill.
Right to repair laws have passed in states across the country, including Minnesota, Colorado, California, and New York. These bills allow farmers to repair their own equipment.
In September, Democrats in the US House of Representatives introduced a bill that would establish a farmers’ right to repair their equipment. It would also require the manufacturers to provide farmers with the necessary tools or information to make repairs, and give the Federal Trade Commission the ability to enforce these reforms if signed into law.
While none of the North Carolina farmers Cardinal & Pine spoke to believe the lack of a right-to-repair law is solely responsible for the decline in the number of farms, Wheless believes that having that right could encourage new farmers to enter the industry.
“I think it would be very attractive, not only for local farmers that are here now, but for younger people who maybe have gone to school for agriculture, and are looking to open a farm, or start a new farm, to come to a state that does have the right to repair,” he said. “If it didn’t help the older generation to stay in business, I think it could help the younger generation get into that business and keep small farms alive in the state,” he concluded.
Patrick Brown believes farming is still vital to North Carolina, but also worries about its uncertain future.
“We’re just dwindling away… It’s important that we continue to farm, and to help the younger generation to understand how important it is to continue to carry the torch of farming,” he said. “It’s one of the most rewarding professions a person can have.”
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