Saturday, June 03, 2017

Begun, The Agrarian Software Wars Have

First, thanks to all of you who waited patiently during my hiatus from this blog, as Lesley and I sold a house, packed up, and drove (very slowly, it seemed) to our new home in Depoe Bay, OR. A few people had asked if I had intended to get back to The Geekly Weekly, and—in spite of some freelance commitments—I have been anxious to return to blogging. (Because, frankly, it's fun. Also, my publisher says that this is a good way to sell books.)

And now, let's talk about farmers.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn't know much about farms or farmers. I figured that eggs just . . . well, showed up, somehow naturally and neatly deposited in those tidy, clean cardboard cartons. Milk was magically placed in bottles, at first, and then later on in cartons and plastic jugs. Meat was from an animal, I knew, but I liked to think of it as it came to me: clean, sanitary, packed in cellophane and Styrofoam. (And I preferred to think that nothing had died just so that I could enjoy that juicy ribeye; or that if something did have to die, it was a quick, painless death to which the animal had stoically been looking forward.) I thought of farming as something simple, elemental, and pastoral, in a Rockwellian sort of way. Farmers were close to the earth, literally and figuratively; it was, I thought, a simple, peaceful way to make a living.
A modern John Deere tractor. Image by Wikimedia user HCQ,
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike
3.0 Unported license.

When I moved to Nebraska, I discovered that I was wrong about some (perhaps most) of this. I got to meet many farmers, and I worked with many men and women who had grown up on farms. They were quick to disabuse me of my naïve notions.

Farming, it turns out, is hard. It's a lot of work, and it's work that never really ends: If a farmer is not planting something, he's selling it, or tending to it, or harvesting it, or preparing the fields for the next planting. If he's not on a tractor or other piece of equipment, he's fixing or maintaining that equipment. There's almost nothing on a farm or ranch that doesn't involve some arcane set of skills and a whole lot of work. (I once accepted an invitation to go "baling hay" with a friend. It sounded like fun. It's not. It's hot, scratchy, seemingly endless work in the fields for which my puny, citified muscles were not at all prepared, and there's no rest, because the flatbed truck or trailer on which you're supposed to toss the bales—which easily weigh 870 pounds apiece—keeps moving down the field, whether you're ready or not. The woman on the trailer upon which I was attempting to toss bales of hay got a good deal of enjoyment, I'm sure, out of watching me struggle and pant. She could throw those bales around as if they were nothing; I couldn't move for days afterward.)

Farming is also expensive these days. It requires sophisticated equipment to plow, fertilize, plant, and harvest crops. (It also requires some specialized knowledge to operate such tools.) A Missouri farmer I interviewed for Leveling the Playing Field showed me a large outbuilding in which sat several large pieces of equipment: tractors, a combine, cultivators, a backhoe, etc. The farmer to whom I was speaking reckoned that he had "a few million dollars" invested in this equipment. (Of course, this is on top of the cost of land, feed, seed, fertilizer, manpower, and so on.)

The cab of a modern combine can look much like the
cockpit of a jet. Image courtesy of Challenger/Caterpillar,
So, now we know two important things about farmers: They work hard, and even the small-scale "mom and pop" farms (of which there are frighteningly few left) cost a fair amount of money to operate.

There's something else about farmers, too: They can do, fix, build, repair, or maintain just about anything. They are the ultimate in self-reliance. They have to be. If a tractor conks out, someone has to fix it, and it has to be done now, not in a few days or weeks. If a farm truck breaks down, someone needs to get it running again, and fast. If a fence is down, someone has to rebuild it. If something falls off of a piece of complicated equipment, the farmer needs to understand how the piece is supposed to work and then find a way to reattach it in such a fashion that it once again can function, at least temporarily. Trust me, if there's ever a zombie apocalypse, you want to be very good friends with a farmer. (In fact, it wouldn't hurt if you were to find a deserving farmer right now and send him a bottle of good bourbon. You know, just to pave the way before the apocalypse actually starts. Or send me the bottle, and I will see that it gets to a deserving farmer. Sooner or later.)

The bottom line is that you don't want to piss off a farmer. But that's exactly what John Deere seems intent on doing.

The issue has to do with software. (See? Technology—you knew I'd get to this.) Many of the newer machines, even the supposedly "simple" ones, like tractors, use software. Software feeds GPS signals from the cab of a tractor to its steering and determines when to turn and where to begin the next row. When fertilizing, software consults a database, downloads data, and determines how much fertilizer to use on a given piece of land, based on how much was used last season and the resultant yield: If this piece of land didn't perform as well as expected, perhaps it gets an extra blast of fertilizer; another field may get less fertilizer than it got last year, if it didn't really seem to need as much. (Fertilizer is expensive, folks. Farmers try to use it wisely.) If the machine has mechanisms through which grain or other substances flow, that output is metered by software so that the flow remains constant, efficient, and measurable.

What this means is that when a farmer buys, say, a tractor, he's also buying a lot of software.

People have been plowing for a very long time. No software here.
Image in the public domain, compilation copyright held by Zenodot
Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free
Documentation License.
Except that he's not. Not buying the software, that is. Technically, he's licensing the software, just as you and I do when we "buy" a copy of Microsoft Excel or Adobe Photoshop. We don't really own that software; we've simply licensed the right to use it under certain conditions. (A couple of those conditions being that we're not allowed to tinker with the software, say, or make copies to sell to our buddies.)

And just as we cannot look at, reverse-engineer, or otherwise fiddle with the software we've licensed, John Deere is telling its customers (read: farmers) that they cannot repair or modify—or have their local fix-it guy repair or modify—their equipment. If your John Deere tractor breaks down, you may not be allowed to fix it, even if you know how to fix it. And you may not be able to let your cousin Warren fix it, either, even though Warren has been repairing tractors all over the county for 30 or 40 years. You might have to send the machine 100 miles away or wait for an authorized technician to get out to your farm in order to get the machine repaired.

Unsurprisingly, this does not sit well with many of the farmers—the work-hardened, self-reliant men and women who A) are used to repairing equipment right there in the field, if need be and B) don't like to be told what to do in the first place.

Who could have predicted that software and farming would collide in such a manner?

It doesn't look good for John Deere, by the way. First, in a recent court case, the Supreme Court determined that if someone buys a Lexmark laser printer, Lexmark has no right to stop the buyer from refilling toner cartridges or from buying cartridges refilled by someone else. In other words, if the buyer bought the printer, he bought the whole thing, and could do with it whatever he liked. (In the Court's words: "Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that a patent does not confer unfettered control of consumer goods to the patent owner.") It's not difficult to imagine the Court reaching a similar decision about the software that makes your tractor or combine work.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, farmers are a sturdy, realistic lot, and they don't take well to being bullied. If competing heavy machinery companies are smart, they'll simply start offering equipment that does allow the farmer or rancher more freedom to tinker, repair, or modify equipment they've bought. Many of these farmers lease new machines every year; it will not bother them one bit to be seen in a combine that happens to be Case red, Caterpillar yellow, or Kubota orange, rather than one in the more traditional John Deere green.

Don’t piss off farmers, especially when they’re your best customers.


  1. Good luck to you and Les in your new home!
    Fascinating post.
    Tell my Dad he can't fix his tractor? I don't think so!

    1. Yeah, your dad's not likely to go for this! :) It is pretty interesting, isn't it? Technology and its ramifications seem to have become a part of just about everything.

  2. There is still a group of farmers who can out produce per acre more crops than those with all the new technology, (software). Amish.

    1. Well, if that's true, then even better - let's make friends with an AMISH farmer!

  3. People are feeling this way about their cars now, too. They can't tinker, they can't fix problems themselves.
    In my region of the country there are many 'new' farmers - people who grow plants or animals and sell them at the local farmers' markets or co-op food stores.

    1. Yep, cars too! And I would assume that the issue will become more and more common over the next few years. That IS kind of a nice development, isn't it? Farmers' markets, co-ops, and the like? It's good to see that going on; I hope it continues to grow.