Livestock are dying in the heat. This little-known farming method offers a solution.

This story is part of Record High, a Grist series examining extreme heat and its impact on how — and where — we live.

Josh Payne planted chestnut trees six years ago. The rows of nut trees haven’t fully matured yet, but he’s banking on the future shade they’ll provide to shield his animals from sweltering heat. 

“We started with that largely because we want to get out of commodity agriculture,” Payne said. “But also because I’m worried that in our area it’s getting hotter and drier.” 

Payne operates a 300-acre regenerative farm in Concordia, Missouri, an hour outside of Kansas City, where he raises sheep and cattle. By planting 600 chestnut trees, he is bracing for a future of extreme heat by adapting an agriculture practice known as silvopasture. Rooted in preindustrial farming, the method involves intentionally incorporating trees on the same land used by grazing livestock, in a way that benefits both. Researchers and farmers say silvopastures help improve the health of the soil by protecting it from wind and water, while encouraging an increase of nutrient-rich organic matter, like cow manure, onto the land. 

It also provides much-needed natural shade for livestock. According to the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit climate change research group, chunks of America’s heartland — including Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri — could experience at least one day with temperatures of 125 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter by 2053. 

When temperatures rise above 80 degrees, the heat begins to take a toll on animals, which will try to cool themselves down by sweating, panting, and seeking shelter. If they are unable to lower their body temperature, the animals will breathe harder, becoming increasingly fatigued, and eventually die.

Research shows that as the planet warms, livestock deaths will increase. Last year, when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees in southwestern Kansas, roughly 2,000 cattle in the state died; the Kansas Livestock Association estimated each cow to be worth $2,000 if they were market-ready, equaling an economic loss of $4 million. And so far this year, the trend is continuing, with livestock producers in Iowa already reporting hundreds of cattle deaths in the latter half of July alone.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, the ideal temperature for beef and dairy cows ranges between 44 and 77 degrees. Above those temperatures, heat stress causes cattle to produce less milk and decreases their fertility. 

Payne’s family farm is a microcosm of American agriculture’s monocrop past and its changing future. He inherited the land from his grandfather, who spent decades tearing trees out of the ground in favor of growing corn and soybeans, using chemical fertilizers for years. His family was hardly alone in doing so: Along with cattle, corn and soybeans make up the top three farm products in the U.S., according to the industry group American Farm Bureau.

Missouri produced nearly $94 billion of agricultural products last year — an economic driver under threat from climate change, which has brought more intense floods and droughts to the state. Last year, the Mississippi River, which flows through Missouri, reached severely low water levels in the face of a historic drought, stopping the barge travel that supports the country’s agricultural economy. When Payne spoke to Grist in July, he was hoping for rain to come soon amid the humid 98-degree heat.

To prevent harm to his 600 sheep and 25 cattle, Payne currently uses portable structures to provide artificial shade while he waits for his chestnut trees to mature. This technology acts like a big umbrella that can be moved as a herd moves, but it doesn’t protect animals from reflected heat and sun rays from the sides the same way a tree canopy can. 

In addition to the shade his future nut trees will provide, they’ll be a source of income, too. Payne said it’s likely he’ll make more money on 30 acres of chestnut trees than he would on 300 acres of row crops like corn.

“We’re rethinking the farm process based on climate predictions,” Payne said. “Here we are planting trees in our pastures, so that in 10 to twelve years we can have dappled shade.”

Planting trees in a field seems almost too simple as a way to keep livestock safe and healthy in a hotter world. But Ashley Conway-Anderson, a researcher at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, knows better. She said of all the USDA’s land management systems used to blend forest and livestock, silvopasture is the most complicated, as it requires a delicate balance between planted trees, natural forests and brush, and livestock. 

But she will admit the practice is common sense. 

“Trees provide shade. That’s the place where you want to be when it’s hot, right?” Conway-Anderson said. “The idea behind a well-managed silvopasture is your taking that shade and dispersing it across the field.”

Conway-Anderson said farmers are adapting their land to silvopastures at a time when agriculture as a whole is wrestling with its role in climate change. The sector accounts for roughly 11 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the USDA. 

In addition to mitigating extreme heat risks and promoting soil health, trees planted on pastures and fields act as a way to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Project Drawdown, a nonprofit known for its expansive list of practices to prevent further climate harm, estimates that silvopastures could sequester five to 10 times the amount of carbon than a treeless pasture of the same size. 

Notably, however, while carbon accounts for the main source of human-caused greenhouse gasses, agriculture’s role in a warming planet largely comes from methane produced by livestock and their waste. But silvopastures help combat that — animals that move around to graze end up trampling on their waste, working it into the soil where it’s repurposed as a natural fertilizer; in contrast, most farm operations pool all livestock waste together in large ponds from which a concentration of methane is then emitted. 

Conway-Anderson said agroforestry and silvopastures aren’t always a one-size-fits-all solution. She said farmers are having to “get big or get out,” and aren’t always able to invest the time or money in planting trees or revitalizing woodland they might already own. 

“We’ve created an economic system where we have incentivized and subsided specific crops, products, and ways of doing farming and agriculture that has really sucked the air out of the room for smaller, diversified operations,” she said.

On the other hand, she said silvopasture practices can be successful because of their flexibility. Farmers can use trees they already own. They can graze goats, pigs, sheep, cattle, and more under the shade of nut trees, fruit trees, and trees whose trimmings and branches can be harvested and sold to the lumber industry. 

“Silvopastures are not a silver bullet,” Conway-Anderson said. “But at this point, I don’t think we have any silver bullets anymore.”

At Hidden Blossom Farms in Union, Connecticut, a rural town located near the border of Massachusetts, Joe Orefice has been methodical in his implementation of silvopasture. 

Orefice, a Yale School of the Environment professor of agroforestry, raises tunnel-grown vegetables, figs, and roughly two dozen grass-fed cows that enjoy the shade of apple trees on a 134-acre farm. He said there are currently only two acres of fruit trees the cattle use for cover. 

Despite the small acreage, Orefice said, he has focused primarily on soil health, a key aspect of silvopasture management. Without properly maintained grasses and soil, trees won’t grow, and there wouldn’t be any shade for his cattle. 

“You need to manage the grasses so young trees will grow,” he said. 

In addition to land management and soil health, Orefice said the animal welfare benefits of shade were top of mind. 

“I don’t want to eat a big meal if I’m sitting in the sun on a hot and humid day, and we want our cattle to eat big meals because that’s how they grow or keep their calves healthy by producing milk,” he said. 

Orefice said a common misconception about silvopasture leads to farmers just taking livestock they own and putting them in the forest without any additional management. He said this can damage soil when livestock, especially pigs, aren’t routinely moved. While it might seem counterintuitive, he said one of the first steps of creating a proper silvopasture from an existing forest is to trim trees and till the soil.

While he only raises 25 beef cattle, Orefice said he’s seen larger farms begin to implement silvopasture practices. He said raising tree crops, like nuts or figs and other fruits, is a boon for farmers who switch to more diversified crop operations versus large, concentrated animal-feeding operations. 

For example, Orefice noted that if farmers in the Corn Belt, who are facing continued droughts and an extreme heat future, switched to tree crops, the upfront costs might be expensive and hard. Still, they would eventually make more money on tree crops than on corn or soybeans. The problem, as he sees it, is there is no incentive or safety net for farmers to begin to adopt these practices at the same rate as they have mainstream ones. 

“The question isn’t really, ‘Is silvopasture scalable?’” Orefice said. “The question is, ‘Does our economy allow us to scale pasture-based livestock production?’” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Livestock are dying in the heat. This little-known farming method offers a solution. on Aug 15, 2023.

Facing high fertilizer costs, farmers still struggle to use less

This is the fifth and story in a series, “The Price of Plenty.”

As a young boy in the late 1950s, Frank Glenn knew the soft, freshly-tilled brown dirt lining his family’s fields signaled the start of another planting season.

“Back when we were young buckaroos, we would plow and disc and get a crop of weeds to come up [and then] knock them down,” Glenn said.

Frank and his younger brother John would hop on the tractor and start pulling their blue plow through the fields in February and March. Then they would go back with a tiller and turn over the topsoil before planting corn, soybeans, wheat and oats.

Today, the Glenns are still running their family farm in Columbia, growing corn, soybeans and hay. But about 25 years ago they transitioned to a majority no-till operation, no longer digging up the first few inches of soil before planting. Their fields are now filled with big clumps of dirt and old roots from previous harvests.

No-till farming helps decrease erosion and runoff. It’s one of several regenerative farming methods that help farmers’ fertilizer stay in fields and not run off into nearby waterways.

Rob Myers, director of the University of Missouri Center for Regenerative Agriculture, said less than half of Missouri farmers are using a regenerative method such as cover crops, no-till or integrating crops and livestock. Cost is one of the factors holding farmers back, Myers said.

Farmers use fertilizer to build their soil’s fertility and help increase crop yields. But less than half of the nitrogen fertilizer applied is taken up by the crops. These excess nutrients wash into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a dead zone where fish and shrimp cannot live. But nutrient pollution is not just an environmental problem – it’s a business one.

Farmers are responsible for the cost of implementing alternative practices, and they bear the risk if it doesn’t work. Bruce Shryock, a corn, soybean and wheat farmer in Auxvasse, said farmers are stuck between science and the economy.

“If you spend more and then don’t make any more, then you’re in trouble,” Shryock said.

Matthew Backer spreads anhydrous ammonia onto a field on April 4 at Wise Bros Inc. in Kingdom City, Mo. (Photo by Kate Cassady/Columbia Missourian)

Farmer finances on the line

A report from the University of Missouri found that net farm income in the state is projected to decrease by 14% this year, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture anticipates national farm income to fall by a fifth. Meanwhile, farmers’ input costs have increased 55% since 2020.

Fertilizer accounts for about a third of these annual costs, and it now costs farmers nearly 73% more than it did in 2020. But farmers continue to buy it because it offers a good return on investment, said Ray Massey, a professor in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

“The economics said that you can make more money if you have higher yields,” Massey said.

Farmers also must factor in other input costs like seed, pesticide, equipment and fuel. Crop revenue has increased but the prices for inputs have continued to rise, so their margins have stayed about the same, Frank Glenn said.

 “It seems like they (the ag industry) don’t want farmers to make any money,” he said.

Some farmers coped with the price increases by cutting back on the amount of fertilizer they apply. Glenn said he and his brother went from applying 180 pounds an acre to 120 pounds last year. He said they were lucky crop prices were high or they might have not been able to survive the fertilizer price hike.

“Jesus, it makes you wanna puke,” his brother John Glenn said. “It’s so expensive.”

Frank Glenn plants corn in a minimum-till field on April 11, 2023 at Glendale Farm and Stables in Columbia, Mo. That day, Glenn had tuned into a country music station during his drive through the fields. (Photo by Maya Bell/Columbia Missourian)

Promoting intentional fertilizer use

Because fertilizer is expensive, farmers want to get the most bang for their buck, said Andrea Rice, director of research, education, and outreach at the Missouri Fertilizer Control Board.

The agency enforces Missouri fertilizer laws, conducts nutrient research and helps farms implement alternative farming methods.

Rice said high costs and current profit margins discourage farmers from applying more than the recommended amount, noting that farmers lose money if the fertilizer washes off their fields.

Heavy rain or snow melt washes fertilizer into waterways, polluting water and creating toxic algae blooms in lakes and rivers. Ultimately, some of this pollution travels downstream to the Gulf of Mexico and creates a hypoxic area called the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River where water oxygen levels plummet. Any wildlife in these areas must move or suffocate.

“The Gulf hypoxia situation – that’s not something that any farmer would want to cause,” Rice said. But she said the problem did not appear overnight and is going to take time to solve.

Farmers have several ways of measuring how much fertilizer they need to apply to their fields. This includes soil testing and looking at past harvests to compare their yield to the amount of fertilizer they applied.

The Glenns use a satellite to create a grid of their fields and take samples from each block on the grid. They can see how their soil structure varies and pinpoint the exact nutrients each block needs.

Miscalculations such as applying too much fertilizer, applying it on frozen ground or overwatering fields will increase the runoff potential.

Sarah Carden, a senior policy advocate at Farm Action, an advocacy group opposing corporate influence in agriculture, said the industry is set up to support conventional farming, which disincentivizes alternative practices.

It’s easier for conventional farmers to qualify for crop insurance, Carden said, but it gets harder when a farmer wants to decrease the amount of fertilizer they use.

“It becomes a lot riskier for a farmer to participate in alternative forms of production,” Carden said.

Matthew Backer wears a gas mask as he spreads anhydrous ammonia onto a field on April 4 at Wise Bros Inc. in Kingdom City, Mo. (Photo by Kate Cassady/Columbia Missourian)

Making change happen

One method farmers can adopt to minimize the harmful effects of fertilizer is to plant cover crops, which help decrease erosion, hold moisture in the ground and reduce weeds.

Integrating cover crops was a learning experience for Shryock, the farmer from Auxvasse. In his first year planting cover crops, a wet spring spurred his rye to grow to about 8 feet tall. Getting that tall rye out of the field was a challenge, as it wrapped around his planter shaft and damaged the bearings on his equipment.

“I cussed it that first year,” he said.

Shryock has since learned to kill rye when it’s about 2 feet tall. He saw the benefits of cover crops after that first year as it helped his soil and decreased runoff.

Shryock also no-tills in addition to cover crops. These practices take more time, he said, but they’ve been worth it. He cut back on the amount of fuel he uses, but he still has to buy seed and pesticide and must spend time planting the cover crop. Shryock thinks more people would plant them if there was an incentive to help cover their costs.

Rice said education can help increase the adoption of cover crops, though some farmers are used to doing things the way they and their families always have.

She first advises new clients to do soil sampling. Then, she discusses the type of fertilizer they are using, the amount, application times and if they are using cover crops.

“If we take those things and we do a little bit at a time and we keep encouraging and keep educating over time, there will be a big impact,” Rice said.

The MU Center for Regenerative Agriculture has recently been awarded two grants: $25 million to offer financial incentives for farmers to implement regenerative practices and $10 million to research how to improve varieties of cover crops.

The grant will pay farmers to adopt grid sampling, cover crops and livestock grazing systems to decrease nitrogen runoff. It also will fund programs to help farmers learn about these methods and their benefits.

“It takes time to keep making changes and improvements in agriculture,” Myers said. “But I think we’re headed in the right direction with these practices.”

This story is part of The Price of Plenty, a special project investigating fertilizer from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and the University of Missouri School of Journalism, supported by the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative and distributed by the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.

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DOJ: Minneapolis police discriminated against Native Americans

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that federal investigators found, for the first time ever, a U.S. police department discriminates against not only Black people, but also Native Americans.

The Justice Department also made another first-time finding: the Minneapolis Police Department discriminates against Black and Native people by disproportionately using force during stops.

A two-year federal investigation sparked by George Floyd’s 2020 police murder found MPD routinely uses excessive force and discriminates against people based on race.

Investigators reviewed five years of data — about 187,000 traffic and pedestrian stops from November 2016 to August 2022 — and found MPD searches and uses force on Blacks and Native Americans more frequently than during stops of white people, even when they behave similarly.

“This is the first time we have made a finding that the police department unlawfully discriminates by using force after stops against Black and Native American people,” said Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, during a Friday news conference.

Garland launched the investigation into MPD shortly after he took office in the spring of 2021, and found MPD recklessly, routinely uses excessive force, is inadequately trained and rarely held accountable for misconduct.

Mike Forcia, a Native activist who works at a homeless shelter for Native Americans, said the finding “wasn’t shocking in the least.”

“They spent all that money to come up with what we’ve been saying for years,” said Forcia, who is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Yohuru Williams, a history professor and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas, said, “It was good to see that named. I think it was very important to have those experiences validated for the indigenous community, particularly.”

Police brutality is one of the reasons the American Indian Movement was formed in Minneapolis in 1968.

It’s the reason Arthur Cunningham, head of the NAACP in Minneapolis, accused the MPD in 1975 of declaring war on Blacks and Indians, he said.

And it’s the reason why in the 1980s, Native Americans said they were being targeted by police, who justified it by saying they were drunk and disorderly, Williams said.

In 1975, when the state Department of Human Rights held hearings on police and the Black community, Indigenous people said, “that’s us too,” Williams said.

“It’s a longstanding problem with the department,” he said.

Even though Minneapolis has a large number of Native Americans, their allegations of disparate treatment in traffic stops and excessive force get less attention, he said.

“Indigenous folks are still invisible in our community as a whole, even now,” Williams said. “We just don’t — for a host of reasons, all of which are not flattering to our community — recognize the disproportionate impacts on Indigenous people.”

Before Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara was hired, Forcia took him to Little Earth, a housing complex that serves mostly Indigenous people, and explained how the American Indian Movement started. O’Hara asked Forcia to speak at his ceremonial oath of office event.

Forcia agreed, and during the event, he talked about how they were planting seeds of trust, transparency and community — but planting is the easy part. The hard part, he said, is cultivating and pulling weeds.

Forcia told O’Hara he knows what it’s like to have the knee of a Minneapolis cop on his neck: He was paid a $125,000 settlement after getting beaten in 1999 by police who thought he stole a car because “I was a Native American with a jean jacket and ponytail running from the scene.”

One of the officers who assaulted him, Brian Sand, was later promoted to be internal affairs commander.

Last year, Forcia worked with Sand for a May Day Parade. Sand apologized.

“I forgave him,” Forcia said.

This article was originally published in the Minnesota Reformer

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Religion News Service

Millets — ancient drought-resistant grains — could help the Midwest survive climate change

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Midwest is known for its rows and rows of corn and soybeans that uniformly cover the landscape.

But in central Missouri, farmer Linus Rothermich disrupts the usual corn and soybean rotation with Japanese millet. He has been growing it since 1993.

“Golly, I have to think how far back that is,” he said. “I was a young man and I was looking for alternative crops to grow to make more money. We just weren’t making a lot of money in agriculture then.”

Compared to his corn and soybean crops, he spends a lot less on Japanese millet. Because its growing season is shorter, it fits perfectly into the rotation of the crops he already grows. It’s working so well for him that he wants to keep the grain to himself.

A farmer harvests proso millet in Matheson, Colorado. Proso millet is currently mostly grown in states like Nebraska, Colorado and South Dakota.
(Photo courtesy of Bailey Sieren, Dryland Genetics)

“I have recommended it to other farmers, as long as it’s not my Japanese millet,” he joked, pointing out prices likely would drop if a lot of other farmers start growing it.

But these humble grains soon may garner more attention after the United Nations declared 2023 the International Year of Millets. It’s part of an effort to encourage more awareness and a bigger market for millets, which the UN points out are extremely sustainable, weather resilient, nutritious and could help diversify the global food system.

However, the grains have not gotten nearly the same level of policy and research attention compared to corn and soybeans in the United States, or even compared to other crops in the global market.

“Millets had gotten sort of marginalized in its place, and therefore, it didn’t get the same investment and research attention that maize, wheat and rice have received over the last decades,” said Makiko Taguchi, an agricultural officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “so in that sense we consider millets as one of the sort of neglected crops.”

She said that millets have an opportunity to assist with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and that hopefully will bring these climate-friendly grains more attention — similar to the success of the UN’s International Year of Quinoa in 2013.

Farmer Jeff Taylor started growing proso millet on his farm outside of Ames, Iowa, around 6 years ago. He uses much of the same equipment that he uses for his corn crop. (Photo by Katie Peikes, Harvest Public Media)

A climate-friendly crop

There are several different kinds of millets. In addition to Rothermich’s Japanese millet, there is pearl millet, foxtail millet, proso millet and more. Sorghum can also be considered a millet.

Millets tend to need less fertilizer and are more resistant to insects and diseases (although sometimes birds like to eat them). Farmers can also use most of the same equipment for millets as they do for corn and soybeans. And while, so far, millets don’t produce the same yields as those commodity crops, Rothermich says it’s worth it.

“It’s not as high-yielding, but it also has lower inputs on it,” he said.

Perhaps more important today in parts of the Midwest and Great Plains, many types of millets are known to be incredibly drought resistant.

Matt Little, a farmer just outside of Arnett, Oklahoma, started growing proso millet last year. He expected the crop to burn up alongside his wheat crop during the extreme heat and the drought, but he managed to harvest and sell the crop.

“I’m really impressed with it. I’ve never seen a crop that stood the heat and stood the drought and still made me money,” he said.

Japanese millet survives hot humid conditions and is often used for planting in creek bottoms to support wildlife. (Photo courtesy of Linus Rothermich)

Millets are also getting attention at the University of Missouri’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture, which is providing information to farmers on the grains.

The center’s director, Rob Myers, said that millets are versatile. Proso and pearl millet would do well in drier states like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Japanese millet survives hot humid conditions and is often used for planting in creek bottoms to support wildlife.

“We see millets being used in some of those areas because of concerns about the supply of irrigation water,” he said.

Other millets would be better in places that are prone to flooding like the Missouri and Mississippi River bottoms. That includes the Japanese millet Rothermich grows in Missouri.

The market for millets is not a large one in the United States, except for its use as songbird seed. However, millets could be used for livestock feed, cover crops and even biofuels. Myers said that they could even become a more popular food option as people look for gluten-free alternatives.

“I expect the market opportunities to continue to expand, but it’ll be incremental,” said Myers.

Research and policy investment

Because the market is not as large, millets are not as well-known as other crops in the United States.

Ram Perumal, the head of Kansas State University’s millet breeding program, said millets don’t get the same level of federal protection as corn and soybeans.

“Those are all cash crops: They have insurance; the prices; the market is there; commodity grant support is there,” he said.

Proso millet does not require a lot of water, which also makes it a good cover crop option because it won’t take as much moisture from the other crops. (Photo by Katie Peikes, Harvest Public Media)

While there is insurance available for proso millet, it is only available in certain parts of the country. Perumal said that lack of support and protection also makes it harder to get research grants. He’s hoping the UN Year of Millets will help highlight the importance of millet science.

More research is needed to really advance millets, said Myers of the University of Missouri.

“If you spend an extra $1 million on corn research, you don’t necessarily advance the state of corn science very much,” he said, “but if you spent a million dollars on millet research, you might suddenly create a whole lot of new information that we didn’t have before.”

For example, millet yields would be easier to improve than getting corn to take up less water, according to James Schnable, a professor at the University of Nebraska. He and his father, Patrick Schnable, a professor at Iowa State University, co-founded the start-up, Dryland Genetics. A lack of funding for research is partly why they started a company to research and breed proso millet.

“(Proso millet) is in this weird hole in the federal funding schemes, which is part of why we ended up using private money to start Dryland Genetics. Because it’s a grain, it doesn’t qualify for a lot of the specialty crop grants,” said James Schnable.

In Ames, Iowa, farmer Jeff Taylor said he started growing proso millet about six years ago, with the help of Dryland Genetics. He thinks more farmers would try new crops if federal programs would shoulder some of the risk.

“It would be wonderful if crops like proso millet were researched more and there were some incentives for farmers to consider planting alternative crops outside of just corn and soybeans,” he said.

This story was produced by Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest, and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report For America.

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Black Farmers Looked to Cash In on the CBD Industry. Now, Hemp Is in Decline.

When Brendalyn King and her partner, Osei Doyle, quit their jobs and left Brooklyn, New York, in 2020 to buy land, they had high hopes of entering the growing industrial hemp industry.  They moved to Salem, Illinois, to farm on a family friend’s land until they were able to buy the property. However, they never […]

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U.S. Pushes Farmers to Develop A New Crop: Energy