5080 words • 22~36 min read

Dear John: Farming and technology in the near future.

I wrote this story a couple of years ago and have been trying to find a home for it ever since. As the issue of proprietary software’s relationship to agricultural technology is back in the news, I figure it’s time to stop shopping this short science fiction story around and put it in front of a real audience. For some real-world background reading, see:


DEAR JOHN.

It started with the tractor. Or, rather, it stopped with the tractor. John Willis climbed down from the cabin of his dead machine and removed the cowling. Everything looked fine. The diesel engine shined, its green accents still brilliant.

After years trading his skill with a wrench and a soldering iron for access to his neighbors’ equipment, he finally owned a tractor of his own. The latest model, too. Not ostentatious, but with just enough comforts to make up for the last ten years. The tractor was new, bought debt-free through the Farm Act and a decade of careful planning and backbreaking labor. Expensive, but built to last.

Except it didn’t last. For the third time in an hour, the engine seized, the wheels locked, the console went dead. Willis sighed. He had acres to till and he wasn’t in the mood to spend a day stripping the engine, hunting for some tiny defect. He could send it to the service yard, but he couldn’t afford to wait for an authorized repair. The quote alone would set him back a week.

He couldn’t afford another late planting. Not this year.

He started the tractor. It roared back to life, the engine purred but the console beeped and flashed with panic, a thousand different alarms. The manual, a massive, multi-gigabyte document, was sitting on his work computer, back in the barn. For whatever reason, he couldn’t get it to download to his field tablet. He put the tractor in gear and continued down the field.

Fifteen minutes later, the tractor was dead again.

Well, he thought to himself, at least there’s a rhythm to it. He limped down the rows in quarter-hour bursts.

There was nothing wrong. Willis knew his machines as well as he knew his own soil. It was perfect.

He resigned himself to an hour on hold, waiting for a service agent.

“Yes, sir. How can I help you?” Willis described the problem. “Ah, I understand, sir. What probably happened is you triggered the anti-theft program. It prevents someone from stealing the hardware. You might have tripped it on boot up, or maybe you triggered it while plowing. Are you using only fully compatible attachments?”

“I use the T7 tiller head, if that’s what you mean.”

“Yes, sir. Very good. A classic but still compatible with our outdrive. Are you interested in upgrading to the T16?”

“No, I just want my tractor to work again.”

“Certainly, sir. Is the tractor’s data uplink active?”

“I think so.”

“Excellent, sir. Let me bring up your file and take a look at what is going on. Please hold.” Another 10 minutes lost.

“Ok, sir. I’ve just pulled up the tracking map for the last day, and it looks like you left the designated operational area at 7:32 this morning.”

“The designated what?”

“Sir, the way the anti-theft system works is that when you leased the tractor we assigned the boundaries of your property to the onboard computer. That way, if anyone tries to take the equipment out of those boundaries, they won’t get very far. It’s state-of-the-art theft protection. We provide it as a free service to you.”

“Stop. First off, I didn’t lease the tractor, I bought it, free and clear. Second, how am I supposed to work my fields if the damn thing shuts off every time I leave my property?”

“Yes, sir. I see that you’ve purchased the tractor, but you license the software that runs the tractor from us, so that we can keep it updated and make sure that the machine is working perfectly.”

“But it’s not working perfectly. Shut it off.”

“I understand your concern, sir. But as a safety feature, you cannot turn off the anti-theft. It’s there to protect you from criminals and hackers.”

“Who in the heck would hack a tractor?!?”

“You would be surprised, sir, our equipment is valuable and there are many misguided activist in the world that want to do farmers harm.”

My equipment!

“Yes, sir. And our software. The anti-theft protects us both.”

Willis sighed. He had already wasted half a day on this and wasn’t ready to waste the rest.

“Just tell me how to fix it so I can finish tilling my fields.”

“Of course, sir. What I’ll do is add a half-mile buffer around your property. That way, the next time you wander too far from your designated area, you’ll have a bit more room to get back on track.”

“Wait, hold on. What happens when my neighbor borrows my tractor?”

“All users of our tractors, earth movers, lawnmowers, and other heavy equipment must purchase their own license to use our software. Unauthorized use is not permitted. If your neighbor want to use the tractor, he’ll have contact us for an additional software license. It’s all in your user agreement.”

What?!”

“I’m sorry, sir, but this is all clearly spelled out in the licensing agreement you signed when you leased the tractor. You are, however, permitted to let other users operate the tractor within your designated operating…”

Bought! I bought this tractor. I own it and I can do whatever I damn well please with it.”

“Yes sir, of course. We respect the rights and self-determination of America’s small farmers, you are free to do whatever you wish with the tractor. But you cannot interfere with our software. It’s there for your safety, security, and convenience.”

“And if I choose to take the software out?”

“Unfortunately, our tractors are far too complex to run without our proprietary software, removing it would not only permanently disable the equipment, but would void the warranty.”

That is insane.”

“I understand your concerns and will make a note of them in our customer feedback database. I have unlocked the tractor and extended your buffer. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“I doubt it.” Willis terminated the call. He briefly wished for the old days, when he could slam the handset back down on the base with a satisfying clunk. Thumbing a virtual button on the touchscreen just didn’t have the same effect.

 

Willis spent the rest of the week tilling and planting without incident. It was still, all things considered, a very good tractor.

 

It was early Sunday morning when the police came. John Willis was getting dressed for church while Shana, his wife, slept in. They broke down the door and swarmed the house, guns drawn. Willis was handcuffed and marched outside, forced to sit in his underwear on the cold ground while they searched his home. The commanding officer, who identified his team as the DEA anti-opium task force, shoved a folded warrant into Willis’s hands, already locked behind his back. His wife was escorted to a police car, where she sat alone and cried.

Satisfied, after an hour of ransacking, that there was nothing to find, the CO sat down with Willis and questioned him.

“How long have you been growing neOpium?” neOpium, a designer drug, the product of chemical and biological engineering. Like crack, oxy, and meth before it, neOpium was the alleged scourge of rural communities. John Willis had never seen a neOpium plant.

“neOpium? I’ve never grown neOpium. I’d never!”

“We have data traces that say otherwise. We know you put down seedlings last month. If I have to go tromping through your fields to find them, I’m going to be very unhappy. You’re better off telling us now.”

“There isn’t a shoot of neOpium anywhere on this farm! These fields are all salt-inundated. The only thing that grows here is salt-corn and tomato bramble.” The CO arched an eyebrow.

“And how would you know the salt tolerance of neOpium?”

“I don’t.” Willis shut up.

The CO wave his officers over. “Search the fields.”

“You seem like a nice guy, Mr. Willis. Why don’t you just tell me who provides you with salt-tolerant neOpium? It’ll will make everything so much easier for you.”

Willis just stared.

“Suit yourself.” The CO stood and wandered over to Willis’s well house. “Water pump, very nice, very off-the-grid. Just what I’d want to keep the government from finding out how much water I needed to feed my neOpium crops. Nice panels, too. District energy not good enough for you?”

Willis stayed silent.

 

Hours later, the officers returned. They found nothing.

Shana was let out of the car and Willis was freed from his cuffs. He rubbed his wrist and started to open the warrant. The CO stopped him.

“We’ve got our eyes on you, Johnathan Willis.”

 

TILLAGE PATTERN CONSISTENT WITH PLANTING OF NEOPIUM SEEDLINGS DISPERSED AMONG MORE CONVENTIONAL PLANTS. EXCESS INTEREST IN PROPRIETARY FIRMWARE. NO PRIORS BUT MENTIONED HACKING IN RECORDED CONVERSATION. CONSIDER LOW-PRIORITY COMPREHENSIVE SEARCH OF PROPERTY AND ON-SITE QUESTIONING.

APPROVED: APRIL 2, 2021

 

Willis couldn’t make any sense of the warrant. When had he ever talked about “hacking” and what the heck was firmware? His house was a wreck. Every drawer had been dumped on the floor, every piece of furniture upturned.

“We’ve got bigger problems, John.” Shana came in from her investigation of the field. “They trampled everything. The entire spring planting.”

Willis sunk into his chair. They’d have to take out a loan just to cover the replanting. And their harvest would be late, again.

“What the fuck just happened?”

 

The message came later that week:

 

Dear John,

I’m a reporter with the blog Digital Observer. We’re working on a story on software copyright, digital rights management, and farm equipment. I understand you recently had an unfortunate encounter with the DEA due to a report filed by your service agent. I would like to come out and talk to you about the encounter. Would it be alright if I visited your farm later this week?

Sincerely,

Anode Innis

 

“Well,” Shana began, “it’s nice that some people still know how to format a letter, properly. What are you thinking?”

“I don’t know, a blog? Are those still even around? I figured they went the way of the teletype.”

“Don’t be a snob, John. Old media is still media. Besides, maybe she can tell us something about what happened.”

“I think it generally works the other way with reporters.”

“So you’ll invite her out?”

“Sure, what the heck could go wrong? But let’s at least do a social search on her first. We don’t need more crazies coming out to the farm.”

 

Anode Innis arrived later that week, on the Richmond/Oakland Loop. Willis met her at the station.

“Thanks for picking me up, John.” Anode climbed up into the passenger seat of his truck.

“It’s Willis, actually. Only my wife calls me John.”

“Apologies, Willis. So how much do you know about what happened last week?”

“I know that someone told the feds I was growing neOpium, and then a bunch of state-sanctioned thugs kicked down my door, trashed my house, and wrecked my crops.”

“So you really don’t know why, then?”

“Honestly, we were hoping you might be able to shed some light on that.”

“You’re in luck. I’ve been chasing this story for a few months now, and I think I have a pretty good idea about what happened.”

“Let’s hear it.”

Willis drove in silence as Anode outlined the chain of events that resulted in his farm being raided.

“I’m guessing you got a new tractor sometime in the last year. The newest ones, they’re loaded with proprietary software that no one wants you to tinker with, at least, no one from the service center. They’ve got GPS tracking now, and their own data uplink, it’s on whether you give it permission or not. I’m sure you figured this out, but they won’t even let you run your equipment on someone else’s field unless they also license the software—and if you haven’t checked, that license cost almost as much as the actual machine.

“The GPS unit is bad. They went cheap on their security features, because those features aren’t really there for your security, so your tractor thought it was being used on an unlicensed field and locked you out. Now they aren’t complete monsters, you can still drive it, it just shuts down every 15 minutes. I’m guessing you figured that one out on your own. Are you still with me?”

Willis slowed down as they merged onto the highway. “Yep, that’s pretty much how my first day of the season went.”

“So here’s where things get interesting. Because when the tractor company put in their security system, they also provided a backdoor into the software for the NSA. A backdoor means they can access the software without telling anyone about it. For the last year or so, they’ve been pulling all the route traces, looking for suspicious planting patterns. You want to guess what it looks like when someone tries to hide neOpium seedlings among freshly tilled fields?”

“I reckon it looks like stopping every quarter hour during a full day of tilling.”

“Exactly. So the NSA gets you tractor traces, flags it as suspicious, pulls up you customer file, finds the recording of your service call, looks for keywords—any keywords on their list, whether or not it has anything to do with neOpium…”

“The warrant said I mentioned hacking.”

“And I’ll bet the service agent mentioned it first, when justifying the security features.”

“I don’t remember, but he probably did.”

“So here’s where it gets really interesting. Up to this point, no human has touched this case. It’s all been handled by algorithms. There’s no one looking over things and thinking ‘hey, this isn’t really that weird’. So the computer spits out a case file, and rather than investigating themselves, the NSA lumps all of the ones flagged as neOpium and hands them over to the Drug Enforcement Agency. Now the DEA has no access to the NSA’s info, all they have is the case file. And at this point, the NSA closes the file. As far as they’re concerned, they’re done with it. No one ever looked at it, and no one ever will look at it unless the case makes it to federal court.”

“So, you’re telling me that my tractor reported me to the feds for growing drugs, and they got a warrant to wreck my home without a single breathing human being checking the case?”

“Pretty much, yeah, until it reached your regional DEA office. But here’s the thing, it’s not just you. The bad GPS units went in all their new tractors. Since then, nearly four hundred small farms across the country have been raided for the exact same reason. And not so much as a sprout of neOpium was found.”

“Jesus.”

“I’ve interviewed about two dozen farmers in the last month, all of them have the same story. All of them are like you, hardworking women and men that just want to work the land and grow food.”

“So what do I do? Can I just pull the software out and run it like a normal tractor?”

“No, and here’s the really insidious bit. The company owns the software that runs your tractor, and if you do anything to modify that software, they’ll shut it down, permanently. It’s like a brain with nerves running all over the machine, remove any one nerve and the whole thing is dead.”

“So, if I try to change the software, or remove the GPS, or make the tractor not report my daily routine directly to the feds, the tractor dies?”

“Exactly. And, just to add insult, the company will probably come after you for hacking, or have you arrested for circumvention.”

“Circumvention?”

“Basically, the software is encrypted, it’s got a lock on it, and you’re not allowed to decrypt it, even though you own the tractor. If you manage to break the crypt, then you’re guilty of circumventing the security that the company put in place. You can be arrested as a software pirate even if you never actually did anything with the software.”

“But this is a goddamn tractor! We’re not talking about kids stealing music or downloading movies. And it’s my tractor.”

“Movie, coffee maker, tractor, it’s all the same.”

“Ok, so what the heck do we do about it?”

“Well, Willis, I’m glad you asked.”

 

Anode Innis wasn’t there to write a story. That was clear by the time they pulled into the gravel lot by Willis’s farmhouse. Shana Willis was waiting for them, a pitcher of sun tea in hand, eager to meet the reporter. That sat on the porch, drinking tea and talking about the miscellanea of the farming life. At five, John excused himself to tend to the evening chores. Shana led Anode inside.

“We’ve got a guest room made up for you on the second floor. The only bathroom is here, by the kitchen, though. You’ll have to be careful coming down when it’s dark. The stairs are steep. You need a hand with you bags?”

“Thank you, I think I’ve got it.” She only had one small duffle and a Pelican case with her.

“Any food ethics I need to worry about? We can cook everything from apivore to vegan.”

“Apivore? I’ve never heard of that one.”

“They only eat produce pollinated by live, native bees. No microbots, hand-labor, or genetically-engineered pollinators. My cousin’s one. More work than it’s worth if you ask me.”

“Fascinating. But no, nothing like that. I eat local if I can help it.”

“Now that we can handle.” Shana smiled. “You’ll be hard pressed to find anything in my kitchen that didn’t come from this county.”

Willis came back in with a clutch of blue catfish from the greywater pond. After confirming that Anode could eat fish, he set to work gutting and filleting. Shana and Anode retired to the sitting room while Willis worked on their meal.

“So,” Anode asked, “what do you do?”

“Web development, mostly. Basic stuff. Setting up pages for the local farms, getting CSAs organized, sorting out the back-end for e-commerce. Nothing fancy, but out here, people don’t want fancy. They want something simple that works.”

“So you’re the techy, then?”

“You could say that. John’s pretty handy around electronics. He made it about halfway through an electrical engineering degree before his father passed and left him the old farm.”

“But he still keeps up with it? He knows his way around a circuit board?”

“Why do I get the feeling that you already know this?”

“Well, I guess there’s no reason to hide it. I didn’t just pick this farm randomly out of the hundreds that were hit in the last few months. I wanted someone who would know what I was talking about.”

“I think you’ll find, dear, that there are few farmers out there that wouldn’t know exactly what you’re talking about. You don’t run a successful farm without knowing how everything works.”

“I didn’t mean to imply that. I meant that you two might have just the right set of skills to do something about it.”

“Whatever you’re planning, you best not be betting our farm on it.”

 

“So here’s the plan,” they were gathered around the kitchen table after a heavy breakfast. “You aren’t allowed to touch the software. You can’t modify it, delete it, repurpose it, or shut it off. If you do anything like that, you’re a ‘pirate’ in the eyes to the company and the feds. But, and this is the loop-hole, the company has emphatically stated that you own the hardware. The hardware is yours, the software is theirs. You can do whatever you want to the hardware, but if you do something that affects the software, they can shut you down. If you don’t want them tracking you so you remove the GPS or datalink, the tractor shuts down. If you don’t like the engine timing so you tweak the program, the tractor shuts down. If you don’t want them watching you, so you black out the cabin camera…”

“Wait. What?!”

“Yeah, sorry, there’s a camera in the cabin. Probably more than one. That’s not listed in the manual. If you black it out, the tractor shuts down. Any of a thousand little sensors that have nothing to do with running a tractor will shut it down. And most of the time, they won’t tell you why it shut down. They’ll just have you bring it out to a service agent. Or you can pay to have a service agent sent to you. But no matter what, the tractor won’t run without software.”

“Well that sounds like we’re pretty well up the creek, already, then.” Willis, stood up, frustrated, and paced the kitchen.

“Make me some coffee while you’re up. So, Anode, what’s your fix?”

“The tractor won’t run without software, but it doesn’t care what software. So we take out the whole computer and replace it with our own.”

Anode Innis opened her Pelican case. Inside was a stack of single-board computers.

“These are Goldboards. They’re cheap. They’re fast. And they’re open source. Anyone can make them, if they want.” She held up one, painted green and yellow. “This is a tractor. An openTractor. It’s all the software you need to run the equipment and nothing else. We don’t have to touch the company’s software, we take out the hardware that runs the software.”

“And the company went out of its way to insist that we own the hardware.”

“But aren’t we still circumventing their software? How does this help us?” Willis was skeptical.

“We aren’t circumventing the software. We’re just choosing not to use it. If you only use your entertainment console to play music, that doesn’t mean you’re circumventing the movie encryption.”

“I don’t know,” it was Shana’s turn to be skeptical. “None of this sounds legal.”

“It’s not legal or illegal. There’s no laws for something like this until somebody takes it to court.”

“And if you brick my tractor for good? What then? You go home and I’m out $150,000?”

Anode Innis pulled out her tablet. “I’ll give you $75,000 right now. If it works, you pay me back. If it doesn’t, I’ll pay for the rest. Deal?”

Shana flashed a nervous smile. “Sweetie, if this doesn’t work, you’re going to be working these fields by hand. We’ll charge a premium for the non-mechanized harvest.”

 

John and Anode set to work stripping the real tractor while Shana started poking around the virtual one.

“So, here’s our first problem, we have to disconnect everything without the CPU noticing or reporting to the cloud, but take a look here,” John pointed to one of a dozen non-descript black boxes. “It’s a distributed system, you can’t just cut power to the whole thing, and you can’t mess with one component without the other components getting wise.”

“And,” Anode added, “If you just cut the data antenna, the computer will lock you out.” She took a photo. The camera whirred.

“Is that… film?”

“Not exactly. It’s a digital sensor I built to slot into older cameras. It doesn’t write exif data and it definitely doesn’t upload to the cloud. You even need my personal key to decrypt it. No one gets to see my pictures until I want them to.”

“Smart. And there’s the solution.” John gestured towards the old metal barn where a pile of copper pipes and sheeting was stacked in the corner. “We go old school.”

Anode smiled. “A Faraday cage.”

 

With the tractor isolated from the data link, they began pulling out the power supplies, one by one, splicing each one back into the main battery, discharging capacitors as they went. At each step they checked to see if they had tripped any security features, but the tractor was quiet. Anode carefully documented every step.

Finally, the last backup was out and Willis cut the main battery. Nothing. The tractor was still.

“I think we did it.” Willis wiped his brow.

“Now for the fun part. We get to go through every system and find out what they hid in here.”

“First, I think Shana has some lunch for us.”

 

Anode, Willis, and Shana returned to the tractor for the real teardown. They started with the obvious pieces—the GPS antenna, the datalink, the WiFi sniffer.

“You know when we’re done you won’t be able to use the auto-drive?”

“My ’76 harvester never had auto-drive and it worked just fine.”

They kept going. The engine sensors came out—“we’ll need to add our own later, for safety.” Then the hydraulic sensor; the control servos we generic, as were the hydraulic pumps. They could stay. Finally, then tore out the cameras sitting in the cab. There were a dozen of them, all pointed at the driver.

“What the hell were the looking for?” Shana asked, incredulously.

“Anything. Everything. Who knows?”

Willis stomped on one of the little cameras. It made a tiny, satisfying crunch.

 

Three days later, they were confident that everything had been removed from the tractor. Anode and Shana held their breaths while Willis connected the new computer and powered everything on. The tractor roared back to life, the control console was silent. Willis climbed into the cabin and put the machine into gear.

“Everything works.” He sighed.

 

Anode retired to her room to begin writing. Willis went out to work his untended fields. If he hurried, he could have something in time for the mid-summer market.

 

Anode’s article went up Thursday evening. How to hack your tractor without breaking the law was an instant hit in the agroverse. She went home the next night.

 

A man from the tractor company arrived on Monday. It wasn’t hard to track them down, every tractor had subtle variations in its paint scheme, invisible to the human eye but just enough for a computer determine the serial number. He came wearing a nice suit and carrying an empty briefcase. Shana offered him tea.

“We’re disappointed that you chose to downgrade your tractor. You know that the license agreement you signed affirms that you’ll only use our software in you tractor.”

“Actually,” Shana chimed in, “the agreement only says that the software can only be used in one of your tractors. The tractor itself can run whatever we want.” The man grimaced.

“Regardless, we have no intention of pursuing a legal solution. I’m here to recover the CPU and rescind your software license.”

“That’s it?” Willis asked.

“That’s it. We respect the rights and self-determination of America’s small farmers. We’re only disappointed that you’ve opted to turn your machine into an inferior product. All of the systems you removed were put there for you benefit.” Shana held back a laugh.

“And how exactly do you justify the cameras?”

“Last week one of clients had a heart attack in one of our tractors. Were it not for the cameras, he would have died. As it was, we had paramedics in the field within minutes.”

“Well, isn’t that decent of you.”

“Yes, it was. I’m hoping you’ll reconsider.”

Willis did not reconsider. The man recovered his CPU and left, graciously.

“Well, John, what’s next?”

 

Willis went into town to buy fresh seed later that week.

“License?” the cashier asked.

“License?” No one had ever asked him before.

“New partnership. Consolidated Agriculture only sells to clients who’ve licensed from one of a dozen different equipment providers. Keeps people from flooding the market with inferior crops and environmentally destructive farming practices.”

“I’ve been buying seeds from you for 15 year, Ken. I have some of the greenest fields in the county. And you read the news, you know I don’t have a license, anymore.”

“We have a dispensation program if you’re running an older tractor, but we explicitly forbid jailbreaked machines. You know that’s what all the neOpium harvester use now.”

“So you’re not selling me seeds? You’re the only salt-corn supplier in the region!”

“I’m sorry, John. Those are the breaks.”

 

It wasn’t just the corn. Everywhere he went the same story. No one would sell him crops. He called Anode, furious. Her number was disconnected. He checked the Digital Observer for her contact info, but she was no longer listed. Her article was offline. It wasn’t even archived. Shana sent her a ping, but she never responded.

 

The summer wore on and the farm ground down. They still had their chickens, their catfish, and a few surviving tomato-bramble plants, but they had no buyers. Even the farmer’s markets had been taken over by industry co-ops, controlling who could sell by how they licensed their equipment. Winter came, and the last of their crops died.

 

Spring arrived early. John Willis powered up his unlicensed, unregistered, unmonitored tractor. He loaded the hopper with scrub-hay, a near worthless crop but the only one he could still buy. As he tilled the back field, he paused every 15 minutes to place a delicate neOpium seedling.


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