Australia has relied on agricultural innovation to farm our dry land. We'll need more for the uncertain years ahead

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Thursday, September 22, 2022

ShutterstockSince European colonisation, Australia’s farmers have had to pioneer new technologies to adapt agriculture to this dry land. Think of innovations such as the world’s first mechanical grain stripper, which saved workers from the tedious task of stripping wheat from the stalk, or the stump jump plough, invented to avoid ploughs constantly breaking when they hit mallee roots on newly cleared ground. The pace of innovation hasn’t slowed, and has led in part to Australia becoming an agricultural powerhouse. We produce enough food for 75 million people, according to the Australian Food and Grocery Council, and export around 70% of the food we produce. We will need more innovation to cope with the changing climate – which will make water supplies more uncertain and add heat stress to livestock – as well as other environmental issues such as nutrient runoff from too much fertiliser. In future, expect to see farmers go high-tech, relying more on drones to optimise fertiliser and water use, on harvest robots to tackle challenges with labour shortages, and on sensors to measure the health of the soil. The stump jump plough was an early Australian innovation designed to stop mallee roots breaking ploughs. State Library of South Australia, CC BY We need agricultural innovation, now more than ever It’s impossible to overstate the importance of agricultural innovation. By some estimates, close to half of the world’s population owes its existence to the Haber-Bosch process, which pulls nitrogen from the air to produce fertiliser. The famous mid-20th-century Green Revolution that introduced high-yield varieties of crops also paved the way for major boosts in food security – and population. Now we face a less certain future. Hunger is growing again. Last year, around 828 million people went to bed hungry every night. For farmers, it has been a difficult few years. COVID travel restrictions and supply chain disruption coupled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine have caused global uncertainty – and major increases in costs for farmers. It’s become harder to find workers. Fertilisers have become more expensive, as have herbicides, insecticides, seeds and fuel. Some of the increases are huge: fertiliser costs shot up from A$380 a tonne to a whopping $867 a tonne in just two months, between December 2021 and January 2022. We will need ways of optimising how we farm and making the most of our farmland, if we are to make farming more resilient to climate shocks, more efficient users of water, fertilisers and chemicals, and keep food affordable. Read more: Robot farmers could improve jobs and help fight climate change – if they're developed responsibly Luckily, innovators are responding. By 2030, high-tech agricultural approaches are expected to add up to A$20 billion a year in farm production, according to the Australian Farm Institute. If these new approaches deliver on their promise, it would take us most of the way to the industry’s goal of $100 billion by the end of the decade. At present, we produce $71 billion worth of food a year. Precision agriculture is about optimising farming and producing more with less. Shutterstock What does high-tech farming look like? Traditionally, farmers have relied on common sense and experience to gauge the health of their soils and how well their crops are growing. Increasingly, though, it’s becoming possible to get real-time information on a field-by-field basis using agricultural sensors. Sensors can measure soil moisture, temperature and salinity. If you deploy sensors throughout your fields, you can find out about issues early and respond quickly. Broader technological advances are proving their worth for farmers too. Drones can give farmers an eye in the sky, which, coupled with AI image recognition, can detect and classify issues affecting plants. Think of getting a notification if telltale signs of an insect pest or destructive fungus are spotted on your farm. Farmers are already using drones to spot feral pigs. Drones can even apply fertiliser or agrochemicals in hard-to-access places. For livestock farmers, drones offer a much faster way to count stock. Soon, drones may even be able to muster sheep or cattle. For plantation managers, drones can be used to plant trees by firing bundles of seeds and nutrients into the ground. Farm robots and vertical farms New advances in robotics are similarly useful. Many farmers were hard-hit by labour shortages due to COVID-linked lockdowns and restrictions on travel. In response, some are turning to the fast-developing field of farm robots. These robots can fertilise, apply pesticides, mow and are even becoming capable of picking fruit and vegetables. Here, too, Australia has innovators such as Queensland’s SwarmFarm, which makes robots able to accurately spray weeds with herbicide and other routine tasks. As one farmer told the ABC, the robot has cut his use of chemicals by fully 80%. Overseas, robots are even being used to speed up the breeding of new crop hybrids. The capabilities of farm robots are growing rapidly. Shutterstock Vertical farming – indoor farms done in vertical layers – has the potential to slash water use, food miles and boost climate resilience. Queensland’s Vertical Farm Systems is one of the leaders making vertical farm systems cheaper, which has long been a challenge slowing uptake. Their automated leafy green growing farms are now exported to countries such as Canada and the United Arab Emirates. Inventing and applying advanced technologies helps Australian farmers make decisions backed by hard data, to boost productivity and profitability. Some new technologies can also help prevent the overuse of fertilisers and other agrochemicals, and help make the wider environment cleaner. Chemical overuse in farming is a well-known problem, with effects ranging from dangerous blue-green algae blooms linked to nitrogen fertiliser run-off from farms, human health issues from chemicals leaking into groundwater and watercourses, and direct consumption by humans, such as traces of pesticides on foods. What these agricultural innovations have in common is a focus on precision, where key inputs like fertiliser and herbicides are applied as needed – no more, no less. Similarly, real-time data makes it possible for farmers to make the most out of their crop by fine-tuning irrigation and fertiliser as the plants require. We will need all of these innovations – and more – to meet the challenges ahead. Read more: 3 technologies poised to change food and the planet Sam Rudd works as a researcher at the University of South Australia and is a co-inventor on a Joint patent and co-author of joint publications with Sentek Sensor Technology. Sam is currently on a SIEF Ross Metcalf STEM+Business Fellowship, supported by the Science and Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF) and Sentek to facilitate the development of a world-first sensor based on the joint patent.Drew Evans works as a Professor and Professorial Lead at the University of South Australia. He receives funding from Sentek Sensor Technology, is co-inventor on a joint patent and co-author on joint publications with Sentek staff. Drew is a current member of the National Committee for Materials Science and Engineering under the Australian Academy of Science, and executive member of the Australian Materials Research Society.

To maintain our role as a global food bowl, Australia has to keep innovating in agricultural technology.

Shutterstock

Since European colonisation, Australia’s farmers have had to pioneer new technologies to adapt agriculture to this dry land.

Think of innovations such as the world’s first mechanical grain stripper, which saved workers from the tedious task of stripping wheat from the stalk, or the stump jump plough, invented to avoid ploughs constantly breaking when they hit mallee roots on newly cleared ground.

The pace of innovation hasn’t slowed, and has led in part to Australia becoming an agricultural powerhouse. We produce enough food for 75 million people, according to the Australian Food and Grocery Council, and export around 70% of the food we produce.

We will need more innovation to cope with the changing climate – which will make water supplies more uncertain and add heat stress to livestock – as well as other environmental issues such as nutrient runoff from too much fertiliser.

In future, expect to see farmers go high-tech, relying more on drones to optimise fertiliser and water use, on harvest robots to tackle challenges with labour shortages, and on sensors to measure the health of the soil.

stump jump plough
The stump jump plough was an early Australian innovation designed to stop mallee roots breaking ploughs. State Library of South Australia, CC BY

We need agricultural innovation, now more than ever

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of agricultural innovation. By some estimates, close to half of the world’s population owes its existence to the Haber-Bosch process, which pulls nitrogen from the air to produce fertiliser. The famous mid-20th-century Green Revolution that introduced high-yield varieties of crops also paved the way for major boosts in food security – and population.

Now we face a less certain future. Hunger is growing again. Last year, around 828 million people went to bed hungry every night.

For farmers, it has been a difficult few years. COVID travel restrictions and supply chain disruption coupled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine have caused global uncertainty – and major increases in costs for farmers.

It’s become harder to find workers. Fertilisers have become more expensive, as have herbicides, insecticides, seeds and fuel. Some of the increases are huge: fertiliser costs shot up from A$380 a tonne to a whopping $867 a tonne in just two months, between December 2021 and January 2022.

We will need ways of optimising how we farm and making the most of our farmland, if we are to make farming more resilient to climate shocks, more efficient users of water, fertilisers and chemicals, and keep food affordable.


Read more: Robot farmers could improve jobs and help fight climate change – if they're developed responsibly


Luckily, innovators are responding. By 2030, high-tech agricultural approaches are expected to add up to A$20 billion a year in farm production, according to the Australian Farm Institute.

If these new approaches deliver on their promise, it would take us most of the way to the industry’s goal of $100 billion by the end of the decade. At present, we produce $71 billion worth of food a year.

Sheep from above
Precision agriculture is about optimising farming and producing more with less. Shutterstock

What does high-tech farming look like?

Traditionally, farmers have relied on common sense and experience to gauge the health of their soils and how well their crops are growing.

Increasingly, though, it’s becoming possible to get real-time information on a field-by-field basis using agricultural sensors. Sensors can measure soil moisture, temperature and salinity. If you deploy sensors throughout your fields, you can find out about issues early and respond quickly.

Broader technological advances are proving their worth for farmers too. Drones can give farmers an eye in the sky, which, coupled with AI image recognition, can detect and classify issues affecting plants. Think of getting a notification if telltale signs of an insect pest or destructive fungus are spotted on your farm. Farmers are already using drones to spot feral pigs. Drones can even apply fertiliser or agrochemicals in hard-to-access places.

For livestock farmers, drones offer a much faster way to count stock. Soon, drones may even be able to muster sheep or cattle. For plantation managers, drones can be used to plant trees by firing bundles of seeds and nutrients into the ground.

Farm robots and vertical farms

New advances in robotics are similarly useful. Many farmers were hard-hit by labour shortages due to COVID-linked lockdowns and restrictions on travel. In response, some are turning to the fast-developing field of farm robots. These robots can fertilise, apply pesticides, mow and are even becoming capable of picking fruit and vegetables.

Here, too, Australia has innovators such as Queensland’s SwarmFarm, which makes robots able to accurately spray weeds with herbicide and other routine tasks. As one farmer told the ABC, the robot has cut his use of chemicals by fully 80%. Overseas, robots are even being used to speed up the breeding of new crop hybrids.

farm robot
The capabilities of farm robots are growing rapidly. Shutterstock

Vertical farming – indoor farms done in vertical layers – has the potential to slash water use, food miles and boost climate resilience. Queensland’s Vertical Farm Systems is one of the leaders making vertical farm systems cheaper, which has long been a challenge slowing uptake. Their automated leafy green growing farms are now exported to countries such as Canada and the United Arab Emirates.

Inventing and applying advanced technologies helps Australian farmers make decisions backed by hard data, to boost productivity and profitability. Some new technologies can also help prevent the overuse of fertilisers and other agrochemicals, and help make the wider environment cleaner.

Chemical overuse in farming is a well-known problem, with effects ranging from dangerous blue-green algae blooms linked to nitrogen fertiliser run-off from farms, human health issues from chemicals leaking into groundwater and watercourses, and direct consumption by humans, such as traces of pesticides on foods.

What these agricultural innovations have in common is a focus on precision, where key inputs like fertiliser and herbicides are applied as needed – no more, no less. Similarly, real-time data makes it possible for farmers to make the most out of their crop by fine-tuning irrigation and fertiliser as the plants require.

We will need all of these innovations – and more – to meet the challenges ahead.


Read more: 3 technologies poised to change food and the planet


The Conversation

Sam Rudd works as a researcher at the University of South Australia and is a co-inventor on a Joint patent and co-author of joint publications with Sentek Sensor Technology. Sam is currently on a SIEF Ross Metcalf STEM+Business Fellowship, supported by the Science and Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF) and Sentek to facilitate the development of a world-first sensor based on the joint patent.

Drew Evans works as a Professor and Professorial Lead at the University of South Australia. He receives funding from Sentek Sensor Technology, is co-inventor on a joint patent and co-author on joint publications with Sentek staff. Drew is a current member of the National Committee for Materials Science and Engineering under the Australian Academy of Science, and executive member of the Australian Materials Research Society.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

An Indigenous reservation has a novel way to grow food – below the earth’s surface

Underground greenhouses are helping people to take back control of their nutrition and ease farming amid the climate crisisNear the southern border of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a curved translucent roof peeks out a few feet above the dusty plains. It’s a blustery November afternoon and the last remaining greens outside are fading fast. But below ground, at the bottom of a short flight of stairs, the inside of this 80ft-long sleek structure is bursting with life – pallets of vivid microgreens, potato plants growing from hay bales and planters full of thick heads of Swiss chard and pak choi. Two people bend over the pallets, using scissors to harvest delicate sprouts of microgreens.This is an underground greenhouse, or walipini, and the harvesters are members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. It is one of at least eight underground greenhouses that, over the past decade, have been built or are being constructed on the reservation – which has one of the highest poverty rates in the US. Some hope they can help solve the interconnected problems of the lack of affordable, nutritious food and the difficulties of farming in the climate crisis. Continue reading...

Underground greenhouses are helping people to take back control of their nutrition and ease farming amid the climate crisisNear the southern border of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a curved translucent roof peeks out a few feet above the dusty plains. It’s a blustery November afternoon and the last remaining greens outside are fading fast. But below ground, at the bottom of a short flight of stairs, the inside of this 80ft-long sleek structure is bursting with life – pallets of vivid microgreens, potato plants growing from hay bales and planters full of thick heads of Swiss chard and pak choi. Two people bend over the pallets, using scissors to harvest delicate sprouts of microgreens.This is an underground greenhouse, or walipini, and the harvesters are members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. It is one of at least eight underground greenhouses that, over the past decade, have been built or are being constructed on the reservation – which has one of the highest poverty rates in the US. Some hope they can help solve the interconnected problems of the lack of affordable, nutritious food and the difficulties of farming in the climate crisis. Continue reading...

Can This Chicken Company Solve America’s Food Waste Problem?

Inside, large, green bins were filled with surplus food from 450 supermarkets in the region. Soon, a conveyor belt would move them toward a giant metal claw. As the claw lifted each bin, the lid would swing open. Bruised apples, watermelon rinds, unsold hot dogs, and stale bagels would fall into a chute, initiating the […] The post Can This Chicken Company Solve America’s Food Waste Problem? appeared first on Civil Eats.

“Welcome to how we solve food waste in this country,” said Do Good Foods co-founder and co-CEO Justin Kamine, as he led a tour of the company’s eastern Pennsylvania factory. Inside, large, green bins were filled with surplus food from 450 supermarkets in the region. Soon, a conveyor belt would move them toward a giant metal claw. As the claw lifted each bin, the lid would swing open. Bruised apples, watermelon rinds, unsold hot dogs, and stale bagels would fall into a chute, initiating the process of turning grocery store waste into chicken feed. Since the first package of Do Good Chicken hit retail shelves in April, the company estimates it has kept 11 million pounds of food out of landfills—and they’re just getting started. Two additional facilities are in the works—in Fort Wayne, Indiana and Selma, North Carolina—and Kamine said he plans to eventually build one “in every major metropolitan area.” In September, Compass Group, one of the country’s largest institutional food service companies, announced it would start serving the chicken in cafeterias for businesses that include Google and Condé Nast. And food-world celebrities are also lending their star power to the brand: former White House chef Sam Kass is Do Good’s chief strategy officer and Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio participated in the launch events. One of the food waste bins that Do Good Foods use to create chicken feed. (Photo credit: Lisa Held) Kamine and his team describe Do Good’s model as the first scaled-up solution to a vast, urgent problem: About 35 percent of food produced in the U.S. is wasted each year, and much of it ends up in landfills, where it emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Despite a 2015 pledge to halve its food waste by 2030, the U.S. has since increased it instead. At the same time, climate experts are now emphasizing the fact that cutting methane emissions is a critical piece of avoiding catastrophic climate outcomes. And with its plan to capture a portion of the estimated 3 million tons of food waste retailers send to landfills to eventually feed hundreds of millions of chickens each year, Do Good appears poised to make a real dent. However, an industrial-scale solution to an industrial problem is likely to raise questions among those who believe a better food system requires a deeper transformation. For example, preventing food waste does much more to cut emissions and reduce overall resource use than capturing it, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) confine chickens indoors and can cause air and water pollution that harms people and the environment. As more companies make big climate promises, Do Good also presents a test case for how consumers will be able to make sense of their claims. Without a third-party life-cycle analysis, numbers that show greenhouse gas emissions reductions are hard—if not impossible—to parse. “We applaud corporations making real, genuine climate commitments,” said Karen Perry Stillerman, deputy director of the Food and Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), speaking to the growing landscape of “climate-friendly” foods. “But the commitments have to be made with transparency, and then the companies have to meet them.” From Food Waste to Chicken Feed Fifteen years before Kamine started talking about the age-old link between food scraps and chickens, Ariane Daguin, the founder and CEO of D’Artagnan Foods, was figuring out how to get carrot peels and scallion trimmings from New York City restaurants to Amish chicken farmers in central Pennsylvania. “There was nothing creative about it,” she said, referring to the origins of Green Circle Chicken. “It was just remembering how things are done in the country, where nothing is wasted, the chickens are running around on the farm, and you give them everything that comes out of the kitchen.” D’Artagnan Foods has long provided high-profile chefs in the Northeast with meat from small, family farms that use slower-growing breeds and raise their animals outdoors. About a decade ago, Daguin’s team set up a complicated system that moved buckets filled with food scraps within their existing supply chain, from restaurants to the warehouse to the slaughterhouse and back to the farms, where farmers simply scattered the scraps in the pasture to supplement the birds’ diet. Chefs loved that they could serve chickens fed on their own kitchen scraps, but the system involved too many moving parts, and buckets kept getting lost. “In the country . . . nothing is wasted, the chickens are running around on the farm, and you give them everything that comes out of the kitchen.” Two years into the effort, D’Artagnan settled on a simpler approach. A truck loaded up the fruit and vegetable waste left over at one large market in Pennsylvania and brought it to the surrounding farms instead. Today, that system is still going strong, and the company sells about 15,000 Green Circle Chickens from 17 Amish farms each week. Daguin has never measured how many pounds of scraps her chickens have gobbled up, how many acres of corn and soy were displaced as a result, or whether the overall system has reduced greenhouse gas emissions. She believes implicitly in the closed-loop system and she swears that chickens that eat fruits and vegetables taste better. It’s one of many reasons that although Green Circle Chicken is being produced in the same state as Do Good Foods, any other resemblance stops at the grain silos in the factory parking lot. Situated in the same industrial park as Metals USA and Future Foam, Do Good’s facility cost $170 million to build. “You’ll notice this is almost like a [human] food manufacturing facility, with stainless steel and the epoxy coated floor,” Kamine said. “And it’s fully automated from start to finish.” The exterior of the Do Good Food facility in eastern Pennsylvania. Grain silos in the background hold the feed for distribution to farms. (Photo credit: Lisa Held) After the food scraps move through the initial chute, they are sorted and assessed for quality along a conveyor belt, ground into small pieces, and then moved into huge, heated tanks that look like stock pots made for hungry giants. In the tank, a massive metal arm stirs the mixture constantly as it cooks, turning it into a nutrient-rich broth. If you’re standing over the tank breathing in the steam, it smells like a brewery. Eventually, after the excess fats in the mixture are removed via a centrifuge, the nutrient stew is pumped through a system of white pipes until it comes out as flaky sheets that become a powder when you crush them in your hand. The final product that will get loaded into the grain silos and then into a tractor trailer. Once it reaches the farms, Kamine says, the growers turn it into pellets and add it to the chickens’ feed as a supplement to their usual corn- and soy-based diet. To a human, the powder tastes like a salty processed snack, or, as Kamine describes it, “like Raisin Bran.” As the machinery hums along, Do Good employees sit in an elevated command center in front of rows of screens that show video footage of the different steps. In a lab set off the factory floor, others test each batch of feed to make sure the nutrient levels are optimized in each batch. But Do Good is not just a feed company. It also sells chicken in supermarkets. And although Kamine was eager to show off the innovative technology involved in the operation all the way through to the feed being loaded into the silos outside, once the conversation turned to how the company operates at the farm level, it became harder to get clear answers. He said the company works with existing chicken producers located in Delaware (a state with one of the most concentrated industrial poultry footprints in the country), but was vague about what the farms looked like. A representative described the grower supply chain as “a network of co-manufacturers” and declined Civil Eats’ requests to visit a farm. When asked about climate-conscious consumers who might also be concerned about factors like pollution from CAFOs or animal welfare, Kamine pointed to the claims that appear on the product’s labels: natural and cage-free. However, the current U.S. Department of Agriculture standard for “natural” does not apply to farm practices in any way. Cage-free is also meaningless when applied to chickens raised for meat, as cages are only used in egg production, a fact Kamine acknowledged after it was pointed out. The Potential—and Real—Impact Overall, UCS’s Stillerman emphasized that for any company making climate claims, transparency is key to gaining consumer trust. While Do Good is starting out with a climate mission, she’s been tracking larger chicken companies like Tyson that are attempting to clean up their images after decades of causing environmental damage. “They are a case study in corporate sustainability pledges gone wrong,” she said. In 2018, Tyson pledged that it would shift 2 million acres of the cropland used for its animal feed to “climate-smart” practices by 2020. But by 2021, only 370,000 acres were enrolled in a pilot program, and the deadline was pushed to 2025. It also wasn’t clear what the company meant by “climate-smart practices,” Stillerman said. “Even if you assume that they’re trying to support really good, regenerative practices on farms, our research showed that they have a huge footprint of farm acres. Nine to 10 million acres of corn and soybeans every year is what their supply chain requires.” But the number of acres required to feed Tyson’s animals also points to a place where Do Good could have a significant positive impact. While the chickens fed food waste still also eat grain, they need a lot less. And Kamine is excited by the chance to free up corn and soy acres, since land use for row crops has significant climate and other environmental impacts. How many fewer acres Do Good chickens require is not a number the company has calculated yet, but there are other numbers that the team shares frequently. Kamine calculates that if 1 in 5 chickens eaten in the U.S. was produced by Do Good, supermarket food waste would be solved. And he believes that trajectory is possible, with plans to build 50 factories across the country. Based on the company’s math, for example, in just the first six months of operation, the Pennsylvania factory prevented about 950 metric tons of greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of taking about 400 cars off the road (although the comparison isn’t perfect since methane acts differently in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide). That calculation was made using the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s WARM model, Kamine said, and takes into account variables like the energy it takes to convert produce into feed and transportation emissions within the supply chain. Kamine also calculates that if 1 in 5 chickens eaten in the U.S. was produced by Do Good, supermarket food waste would be solved. And he believes that trajectory is possible, with plans to build 50 factories across the country, each of which could process 60,000 tons of waste per year, equal to the 3 million tons that grocery stores currently throw out. Those same factories would then provide supplemental feed to around 1.62 billion chickens—or about 1 in 5 of the approximately 8 billion consumed by Americans annually. “It goes back to: We need to solve these environmental problems as quickly as possible,” Kamine said. Do Good Chicken is on sale at an Acme supermarket near the Do Good factory; the supermarket is one of many that also provides food waste to the company, and sells their chicken. (Photo credit: Lisa Held) There might also be additional benefits. Preventing food waste before it happens eliminates the need for a wide array of resources. But Roni Neff, director of the food system sustainability and public health program at Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future, said that in general, collecting and measuring food waste “can lead to noting that the food exists and therefore sending the signal back” to those producing the waste, leading to efforts to improve prevention. To that end, Kamine said Do Good is sending supermarkets reports that show how much waste they’re regularly sending to the factory. Of course, it seems to follow that giving supermarkets tools to prevent food waste altogether would ultimately eliminate the need for Do Good’s business at a time when they’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars in scaling up. Kamine does not seem worried: While stores might reduce waste, he said, it’s impossible to completely eliminate it, especially in terms of trimmings and scraps. In other words, Do Good doesn’t just take bananas and melons no one purchased, it also takes all the peels and rinds created when store employees make fruit salad for the deli case. Neff also said that given the urgency around the climate crisis and methane’s immediate impact, any chance to cut emissions at a meaningful scale has real potential, and each individual food system solution can’t be expected to solve every problem. “That doesn’t mean all the other issues [in chicken production] aren’t important,” she said. “One way of thinking about this is: If right now we have this surplus, we can act on it while also working towards and thinking about broader solutions, but we always have to be weighing benefits, harms, and unintended consequences across all the dimensions.” The post Can This Chicken Company Solve America’s Food Waste Problem? appeared first on Civil Eats.

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