Farmers, Hackers or Both?

The backlash against complexity starts with agriculture.

Today’s farmers are facing a significant technical challenge: larger, more expensive machines that can only be serviced by factory-trained technicians. With an urgent need to keep equipment running, many farmers are hacking equipment software to do the repairs themselves. Equipment manufacturers can monitor system access and may void warranties or even brick the equipment. Will right to repair legislation return control to the equipment owner?

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Episode Transcript:

It isn’t easy being a farmer. Growing food or raising animals is like playing poker—you can do everything right, and the cards may simply not fall your way. Weather, disease and most importantly market prices, can make the difference between winning and losing.  

One result of this over the last century has been the shift from small acreage family farms to much larger operations. The equipment has grown, as well, with larger tractors pulling larger implements and specialty harvesting, spraying and crop handling machines now needed. This has made farms more efficient, but the move away from multiple smaller machines to larger, high-tech equipment adds risks as well.  

There are now two levels of complex electronics essential for modern farming. One is built into the hardware, notably diesel engines and the hydraulic controls all over equipment like tractors and combines. The second is the technology that enables precision farming, from GPS machine guidance to satellite imaging of crop health.  

But it’s the machines themselves that are driving a quiet revolution.  

Like autos, more and more tractor and combine systems are software controlled and are networked back to the manufacturer, and the ability of farmers to service the equipment themselves is decreasing all the time. Code is often locked, and the nature of farming makes this a real issue.  

There is a narrow window of opportunity to plant and to harvest, so naturally at those times, the equipment is used intensively—frequently around-the-clock. Just as naturally, that’s when the equipment is likely to break, and many farmers report that with their equipment locked into mandatory dealer-only servicing, they can wait weeks for a service call. This is obviously disastrous in many circumstances, so farmers must borrow, rent or even buy backup equipment to get the crop in, or off.  

The lack of user serviceability is serious enough that hackers have cracked many proprietary systems, and their Eastern European sources for pirated tractor firmware. Of course, there is real risk for farmers going this route, as well. Unauthorized code in a system may cause a major manufacturer to walk away, or potentially even brick the equipment. Added to these problems are increasingly stringent EPA emissions requirements which make the diesel engines themselves subject to complex, co-driven issues. The trucking industry has been facing this problem for years, but strangely, given the importance of agriculture to a secure food supply, agricultural diesels have not been exempt from tightening emissions regulations.  

Add a general labor shortage, and you have a perfect storm for farmers: incredibly expensive equipment which they can’t service themselves, even when downtime must be avoided at all costs. Larger acreages under cultivation, necessary to keep operations profitable and a general labor shortage meaning multiple, smaller tractors and combines just aren’t an option for many farms. All this means that the equipment is bigger, more expensive, more complex, yet more vulnerable than ever before.  

A few open-source equipment projects are underway, and there is talk of tougher right to repair legislation, but the simple fact is that farmers may have to become coders going forward to keep their wheels, and tractors, turning.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.