When Zachery Emerson, a Groton-based logger, needs to fix his forestry equipment, it’s rare that he can make the repair himself or hire a local mechanic to do the work.
It’s not that they don’t know how. The issue is that, nowadays, equipment manufacturers keep a tight lid on who is able to obtain the machine parts, diagnostic tools and computer codes needed to repair modern logging and agricultural equipment, forcing owners to turn to manufacturer-certified technicians to get the work done.
“Today's equipment is totally mechanized … Whereas, back in the ’80s and ’90s, it was more mechanical and a lot more hydraulic,” Emerson told VTDigger. “Guys could work on it with wrenches and fix it, compared to today's age, where you need those technical tools to be able to diagnose any trouble that you have.”
As a result, Emerson needs to transport his heavy machinery to a dealership for work or pay for a certified technician to travel to Groton to make repairs. In a weather-dependent industry, he said, such travel takes precious time; farmers quite literally have to make hay while the sun shines. And while a local mechanic charges roughly $80 per hour for work, Emerson said a specialist could cost upward of $190 per hour.
Emerson testified as much to Vermont state legislators last Friday, when a House panel was debating H.81, a bill that would compel manufacturers such as John Deere, Tigercat or Caterpillar to offer equipment parts, manuals, codes and diagnostics to owners at a fair market value. Emerson argued that “anyone that spends the kind of money that we have to spend on this equipment should have the access to it.”
But equipment manufacturers and trade organizations vehemently disagree, claiming that the parts and equipment Emerson and his peers want to access are their intellectual property or qualify as trade secrets. And as lawmakers consider H.81, a fierce national debate around the so-called “right to repair” has arrived in Montpelier.
When Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, introduced the bill in January, she said she was braced for some pushback. But, she told VTDigger, she did not anticipate the “flood” of opposition she and other legislators working on the bill would ultimately receive.
The Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, the Northeast Equipment Dealers Association, the Diesel Technology Forum, the North American Equipment Dealers Association — all of these groups have submitted written testimony to the committee opposing H.81. Their objections range from claims that the bill is unconstitutional to concerns over farmers and loggers’ potential ability to override emissions controls or safety features built into the equipment.
The House Agriculture Committee took up the bill last week, with four days before a Friday “crossover” deadline to pass bills out of their committees of origin. And it was last week, according to Sims, that committee members saw a “deluge” of opposition from national interest groups.
According to lobbying disclosures filed with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, John Deere and agricultural equipment manufacturer CNH Industrial on Friday retained Morris Government Affairs, a Montpelier-based lobbying group, to work legislators in the Statehouse. The firm’s founder, lobbyist Bridget Morris, declined to comment to VTDigger on Wednesday.
“It just says to me that we're on to something really important,” Sims told VTDigger. “If folks are fighting, spending so much money, to prevent access to these tools and materials, there's probably a lot at stake here. And, if anything, it just reinforces to me how important it is to provide access to our loggers and farmers and local repair shops in order for them to remain competitive.”
“It's been eye-opening. I've never seen anything like it,” she said, comparing the fight to the story of David and Goliath.
Contact hasn’t been limited to lawmakers. After Emerson testified via Zoom in favor of the bill on Friday, he received an unexpected call from John Deere, he told VTDigger. The company offered to sell him a range of parts and diagnostics needed to maintain his John Deere machinery for roughly $7,000. On top of the setup cost, he would have to pay more than $3,000 annually to maintain a subscription to the necessary software, he said.
Emerson said he hadn’t contacted John Deere inquiring about the equipment. He suspected the company was watching his testimony to the committee live online. “It kind of caught me off guard,” he said after the fact.
That cost — $7,000 initially, then more than $3,000 annually — may be attainable for a large logging operation, Emerson said, but not for his small business, Emerson and Sons Logging. “I am basically a small mom-and-pop shop,” he said.
“That is really expensive for me and it would almost be a deal breaker,” Emerson said. “No, I would not do it. Unless all of my equipment was 100% John Deere, I couldn't afford that expense. That would be way too much.”
John Deere did not return multiple requests for comment on Wednesday. The corporation is currently the subject of a class action lawsuit filed by 16 farms arguing that they should have a right to repair their own equipment and alleging that the company has gained a monopoly on the equipment repair market.
After days of testimony on the bill, the House Agriculture Committee was scheduled to vote on H.81 on Friday afternoon, just in time to meet lawmakers’ deadline.
Rep. David Templeman, D-Brownington, said he took the liberty of looking up Deere & Company’s market capitalization. It was roughly $117 billion as of Wednesday evening.
“They're a publicly traded company. They’re extremely profitable,” Templeman said. “They're not like a farmer. They're not like us. It's a different scale … It's a different animal altogether.”
“I have sympathy for the little guy. I have less for the big guy,” Templeman added. “That's just my opinion.”
After the committee came to the end of its witness list and members offered some of their thoughts on the bill, Rep. David Durfee, D-Shaftsbury, the committee’s chair, closed the hearing without calling a vote.
Asked by VTDigger afterward why a vote wasn’t held in time to meet the crossover deadline, Durfee said there was still work to be done on the bill’s language.
“We got to a point where we felt like we've done what we can do today and we'll have a chance next week to continue doing that work,” Durfee said. “My sense is that the committee is generally — not uniformly, but generally — in favor of the concept. So it's a question of coming up with a final product that we're comfortable with.”
Durfee noted that there are ways for the Legislature to bypass its self-imposed crossover deadline. But asked how the specific legislative maneuvers would work to keep H.81 alive, he said, “I am not 100% sure of all of the rules, and crossover is a rule. So we'll have to see.”
Still, the chair said he was “quite confident” the committee would give the bill its stamp of approval.
“After that, I don't know,” he said. “It’s sort of out of our hands at that point.”
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