A John Deere 8320R tractor sits in a field of crop stubble, under a blue sky.
John Deere 8320R tractor. Photo by IPSO Agricultura, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. CC4.0

Reality is sure complicated, isn’t it? We live entangled in a network of intersecting facts, conundrums, and consequences, which connect to each other in ways that we can’t always see. Perhaps that’s why so many of us have the primal urge to chuck it all and move back to the simple life in the countryside with a John Deere and a cool beer. Even there, though, life isn’t simple. Far from it!

What drive through America’s rural heartland would be complete without catching a glimpse of the iconic green and yellow of a John Deere tractor tilling the soil or a combine harvesting rows of corn? This America may look the same as it did in grandpa’s day, but not even grandpa can hold back change. Tractors these days are far more complex, with on-board computers and proprietary software. These make tractors far more versatile. Driverless tractors already exist, and connected with GPS and Wi-Fi, they become smart machines that can precisely apply seed and fertilizer while optimizing for individualized field conditions.

This added utility is an opportunity for farmers – and for John Deere. In a move just as American as apple pie and the profit motive, John Deere is following the lead of other tech giants and preventing end users (like grandpa) from mucking around with the tractor software. Right-to-repair advocates are asking the usual question: if you buy a tractor, is it not yours to do with as you wish? Farmers worry about the high cost of certified John Deere repairs, and even the possibility that Deere may brick their expensive equipment with no recourse. This led to the comic result of salt-of-the-earth farmers relying on cracked software from Ukrainian hackers to bypass the John Deere monopoly and EULA bait-and-switch. It’s the American way.

The global software market and maze of licensing agreements is complicated, but you know what is even more complex? The soil that these tractors plow through on the way to growing the corn that feeds us. Although smart tractors are sold as a way to produce more food on less land to feed the world, they do so by more effectively mining one of the most important of our natural treasures.

Tilling erodes soil and reduces the ability of roots to penetrate below a certain depth. Good, natural soil is full of life. Tilling the soil breaks up the biological communities of fungi, bacteria, roots, and myriad other creatures that keep the soil fertile, which enables it to digest even more organic matter. As soil loses life, it loses organic matter and moisture, which results in a downward spiral of erosion and desertification. The collapse of the living soil has brought down past civilizations, and ours isn’t looking too good either.

Long-Term Conventional and No-tillage Systems Compared, by University of Wisconsin Integrated Pest and Crop Management

Industrial farming is a major contributor to climate change. If we’re worried about feeding the world, climate change itself may make that worry a moot point in the long run. Restoring the soil with better agricultural practices that emphasize retention of carbon, water, and biological life is a huge solution that could go a long way towards saving the world. As farmers worry about hacking their John Deere products, they’re rearranging those proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic. Investing in Big Ag technology effectively prevents many folks from seeing the bigger picture, since short-term returns are more crucial to paying off expensive equipment. However, nature isn’t particularly impressed with our toys, and survival isn’t mandatory.

Related: Are Repair Cafes Bad for the Economy?


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Microbes Will Feed the World, or Why Real Farmers Grow Soil, Not Crops

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