TOLONO, IL — From inside his John Deere combine, Jeff Fisher can see for miles across the Illinois farmland his family has worked for generations. Row by row, the 61-year-old farmer navigates through the corn here harvesting each stalk of corn that he'll eventually sell to keep this massive farming operation afloat.
For everything Jeff Fisher loves about farming, there are also plenty of years when his anxiety is higher than the stalks here. As the 2022 growing season wraps up American farmers are still bringing in near-record prices for their crops. But diesel fuel, labor and equipment costs are eating up much of that profit.
"Our expenses are sky high. I’m choking in expenses. When I write checks for the bills, the bills are sometimes double and triple what they were a year ago, year and a half ago," Fisher said.
In Champaign County, Illinois, where Fisher lives, there are an estimated 1,214 farms spanning some 582,000 acres. This part of the country has also been the proverbial bullseye to an unprecedented American drought.
Where, if you listen closely you can hear just how dry things have been with each rustling stalk of corn.
"It’s stressful. It’s definitely worrisome. I’m getting more gray hairs because of it," Fisher added.
Because of the drought, many farmers thought that the corn they produced was going to be much smaller than it should’ve been. But years of genetic research seem to have prevented some of that.
"The yields are absolutely impressive. I don’t know how we can have this good of yields being this dry in 2022," Fisher said holding an ear of corn in his hand.
Andrew Leakey is a researcher at the University of Illinois and he's helping to develop and deploy new imaging tools for studying crops.
"As we push the limits of heat that causes more water use and get more variable rainfall, the need to stretch that water supply out for as long as possible is really crucial," Leakey said.
The goal of Leakey's team is to help breed and engineer crops that are better at conserving water without sacrificing quality. The practice has been ongoing for years and is starting to show just how successful it can be.
"We’re trying to reduce the amount of water plants need to grow to the same size," he added.