The 2016 harvest ended months ago, with truckloads of grain shipped to elevators, and now – weeks before spring work is expected to start – farmers are busy fixing fences, researching effective systems and taking soil samples, meeting with seed dealers and bankers, and maybe planning to attend the 48th Annual Ag Mech Farm Expo Feb. 10 at Western Illinois University in Macomb.
They’re also trying to clean and repair equipment, but such winter maintenance is more challenging with End User License Agreements (EULA) limiting their work.
Long with EULAs, meatpackers virtually monopolizing markets and an overriding agriculture routine that’s transformed family farming into Big Ag mean that non-farmers, city dwellers and progressives all should be concerned enough to take action.
Tractor companies including New Holland, Deere and Caterpillar feature EULAs that unilaterally assert that companies retain control of equipment’s software. The “proprietary rights” to the “intellectual property” essentially prohibit farmers from fixing their own equipment. Also, private corporate “laws” claim manufacturers cannot be sued for losses such as crops, profits or use of the equipment.
“Congress has passed no laws barring buyers from opening up, ripping out, adding in, fixing, rewiring, upgrading or tying bells onto stuff they’ve bought,” said author Jim Hightower, former Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner. “Deere’s claim to have a controlling power over people who own its products is a ridiculous perversion of language, logic and law.
“Deere’s claim of a proprietary right to control the repair of your tractor is no more grounded in law than the snake oil flim-flammers of yesteryear were grounded in science.”
A few lawmakers are trying to address that situation.
“The people of Illinois have a chance to guarantee their right to repair their equipment, like tractors,” said Kyle Weins, chair of Reuse Alliance. “It’s yours. You own it. You shouldn’t have to beg the manufacturer for permission to fix it when it breaks. The [General Assembly’s] Digital Fair Repair Act (introduced by State Reps. David Harris, R-Mount Prospect, and Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield) is simple. It requires manufacturers to provide owners and independent repair businesses fair access to service information and affordable replacement parts. So you can fix the stuff you own quickly – and get on with your life.
“Manufacturers don’t like that idea,” Weins continued. “When your tractor breaks, they want to be the only people who can fix it. And they get to set whatever prices they want for parts and service.”
Meanwhile, McLean County farmer Mark Willsey notes other problems, such as the country’s two-crop system dominating agriculture while corn and soybeans aren’t for direct human consumption but for livestock feed, ethanol and other byproducts. The Carlock farmer also criticizes the rise of huge farms that reduces many farmers to tractor jockeys.
“Cows do not naturally process corn, and it turns out, corn syrup is not great for humans either,” Willsey said in an article posted on his blog, “Epic Adventures on the Farm – Small Farm Advocate.”
“Farm animals have been bred over the years to deal with the food we give them, and it has required more and more chemicals to keep them healthy on this diet,” he continued. “Cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys would all be better off if they were allowed to graze naturally for their food. All this fertile land is being wasted on feeding animals food that they would be better off without, rather than feeding humans food that we desperately need.”
Another consequence is the devastation of rural communities with far fewer farm jobs in areas where dozens of families used to make a living on land now consolidated in massive acreage.
“If I were to go to any city manager and present the following business plan, it would not go well: ‘We would like to take 20,000 acres of your most valuable resource and we will employ 10-12 people. We will pay some taxes, but we will need most of it back in subsidies in order to stay in business. We will also need you to make your citizens use our product, even though it’s not good for them,’”
Willsey suggests the government stop underwriting Big Ag, plan a better business model, encourage family-farm ownership and return to sustainable practices and family operations.
Elsewhere, meatpacking companies are exploiting their farmers/suppliers, a dispute at the center of a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture by the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), a small-farmer think tank in Nebraska.
The suit, filed in December on behalf of OCM by the watchdog group Democracy Forward, charges USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and his agency with “arbitrary and capricious” behavior in rolling back two Obama-era rules to protect individual livestock farmers.
Meatpacking regulations go back decades, but the recent regs – the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration – were set up to promote fair and competitive practices in the industry. Large meatpackers lobbied against them, claiming that they’d let farmers sue meatpackers for anti-competitive behavior and invite costly litigation, resulting in higher consumer prices. And the Trump administration complied with Big Ag’s demands.
The original 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act has been steadily weakened, according to Barbara Patterson of the National Farmers Union.
“Over time, the courts have slowly eroded that original intent,” Patterson said, speaking to National Public Radio. “The fear in the countryside on this is palpable.”
“Four packers control 82 percent of the market,” says OCM director Joe Maxwell, “and they’ve carved the country into regions and don’t compete with each other. Farmers feel threatened by packers because in their area, there’s only one choice.”
As Hightower said, it’s not logical. It’s greed.
Preventing farmers from fixing their equipment, Weins says, “is like saying locking up books will inspire kids to be innovative writers, because they won’t be tempted to copy passages from a Hemingway novel.