Business

How a Silicon Valley trend is impacting an $8B Canadian farm industry

In Frontier, Sask., a town of fewer than 400 people, the Honey Bee Manufacturing plant looms large at 120,000 square feet.

The business, which makes headers and swathers, has grown from a two-man family operation to a manufacturer that employs roughly 200 people and ships agricultural attachments all over the world. 

But Honey Bee is now monitoring a new challenge — one more commonly associated with Silicon Valley.

Just as some devices don’t work with other companies’ charging cables, some farm equipment now comes with tech that prevents farmers from using other brands’ attachments — and companies like Honey Bee are concerned the practice is growing.

“It’s becoming more and more prevalent every day and every year,” said Jamie Pegg, Honey Bee general manager.

Farm equipment has become much more digitized, prompting some companies to use digital locks. They say this protects their copyrighted technology and prevents hacking, said John Schmeiser, president of the North American Equipment Dealers’ Association.

Jamie Pegg is general manager at Honey Bee Manufacturing. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

But that can become a problem, he said, when digital locks are also used to stop one brand’s products from working with another’s.

Canadians can’t currently bypass those locks without potentially violating the Copyright Act — and that can carry a serious penalty. 

But change could be on the horizon. 

A bill that was passed in Parliament last year and is working its way through the Senate would alter the Copyright Act, making it legal to circumvent digital locks in the interest of interoperability.

Both grain farmers and consumer advocates are watching it closely. Many see the interoperability issue as an offshoot of the right-to-repair debate, where companies use proprietary technology to stop customers from fixing their stuff on their own. 

Though companies say they’re for protecting copyright, critics say digital locks are used to stamp out competition — and to keep rivals from developing new products that work with existing ones. 

“Can you fix the thing that you own? Can you buy products that interoperate with the thing that you own? These are fundamental freedoms,” said Kyle Wiens, a U.S.-based right-to-repair advocate and founder of the iFixit online repair guide.

iPhones and harvesting combines

A man with a ball cap and a hooded sweater is pictured with a grain farm in the background.
Chris Allam is operations manager at the Allam Farms Partnership in Ardrossan, Alta. (Peter Evans/CBC)

“Interoperability” essentially means the ability of one product or system to work with another one.

Think of how Google Chrome works on an Apple device, despite being made by different companies. 

Apple has also been criticized over the issue. For years, its phones didn’t work with the USB-C connector that’s become standard for many other devices. That changed following new European Union rules, though the company has said mandating one type of connector “stifles innovation.”

Three charging cords against a black background - a white lighting charger on the left, a blue USB-C charger in the middle and a black mini USB cable on the right.
Lightning, USB-C and Micro-USB are the three most common types of connectors for mobile device charges. Apple’s new iPhone 15 will sport a USB-C charging port rather than its proprietary Lightning port after new EU rules. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Interoperability is “extremely important” in the agriculture sector, according to farmer Chris Allam. Farmers often mix and match different brands and tools for the best price or the most efficiency, but he said these days it’s not a given that one brand’s software will work with another. 

“The farmer, out of frustration, will end up spending more money just buying two things that are the same brand so they work together,” said Allam, who grows wheat, barley, canola and other crops on his farm east of Edmonton.

A man in glasses and a short-sleeved black t-shirt poses with his arms crossed.
Kyle Wiens is a longtime right-to-repair advocate. (Docs/The Nature of Things)

Wiens of iFixit pointed to John Deere’s X-9 combine, a grain harvesting machine. That combine, currently listed online for more than $1 million used, features a digital port that prevents it from being used with non-John Deere implements, he said. John Deere did not respond to an interview request. 

“They’re using [software] in an incredibly anti-competitive way.”

But legally, there’s nothing stopping it from doing so. 

Ag sector a ‘prime example’ 

Farm equipment isn’t the only industry where interoperability is a concern — it also comes up in sectors like health careautomotive and gaming.

But “it’s a prime example of the scale and the extent to which the problem reaches into domains that … we traditionally don’t think of as computers,” said Anthony Rosborough, an assistant law and computer science professor at Dalhousie University, who’s written about the issue for the Canada West Foundation think tank.

A silhouette shot of a farmer filling a seeder.
As the sun sets on the 2013 harvest, Mike Huys gets ready for the next growing season. He loads winter wheat into an air seeder as a heavy crop of chickpeas is harvested nearby. A near-perfect growing season has left many Saskatchewan farmers with bumper crops. (Paul Dornstauder)

At stake in Canadian farm implement manufacturing is roughly $2.4 billion in exports and $8 billion in annual revenue, according to the Agricultural Manufacturers of Canada.

The industry has developed by creating specialty products that are tailored to Canadian crops and topography — those products are also of interest to countries with similar conditions, like Australia and Ukraine. 

Exports to the U.S. have grown more than 50 per cent between 2011 and 2021.

“These companies have been very innovative, they’ve been very creative, and they see a lack of interoperability as a little bit of a threat,” said Schmeiser, whose association’s members sell combines and tractors along with attachments and implements.

New bill aims to work around digital locks 

There’s hope that new legislation will make it easier for Canadian businesses to deal with digital locks. 

A bill from Cypress Hills-Grasslands MP Jeremy Patzer of the Conservative Party creates a new exception under the Copyright Act.

It would allow people to circumvent technological protection measures in order to make one device interoperable with another brand’s, given the tech in question is lawfully obtained.

While the bill was written with the agriculture industry in mind, Patzer said promoting interoperability will have implications for “the entire economy.”

“Anything that involves a plug-and-play-style device, it would have an impact on that.”

WATCH | A separate right-to-repair bill is also making its way through the Senate: 

‘Right to repair’ aims to make gadgets last longer

As more people look to repair instead of replace broken products, the Canadian government is signalling that ‘right-to-repair’ legislation to help consumers could be on the way.

Wiens agrees. 

He believes the current Copyright Act is hindering all kinds of innovation — whether that’s a new header that works with another manufacturer’s combine, or a new ice machine that plugs into another company’s refrigerator. 

“We’re just missing those products right now.”

Technical ‘whack-a-mole’ still a risk

A black header with a yellow logo that says "Honey Bee" is pictured in a manufacturing facility as employees work in the background.
A header made by Honey Bee manufacturing is pictured in the company’s manufacturing facility in Frontier, Sask. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

There is some concern that a federal bill won’t completely solve the problem. 

While it should mean Canadian manufacturers no longer face a legal risk for reverse-engineering their products to work with other brands, they would still be stuck spending time and money trying to catch up with other businesses’ software updates. 

“I don’t go to jail, but I still burn $1.5 million of the company’s money making this header work with that combine,” said Scott Smith, component systems and integration manager for Honey Bee.

“That combine can go through a software update from the [mainline manufacturer] and then that’s undone and I start over — so that’s a technical whack-a-mole.”

Smith would like to see provincial legislation requiring that farm equipment be interoperable in order to be sold in Canada — similar to existing laws that require minimum warranties.

Nevertheless, the company plans to take a moment to celebrate if the bill passes the Senate. 

“We will be very, very excited,” said Pegg, the company’s manager.

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