19 November, 2015

“Slow food” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

It’s been a while since “slow food” was the food buzzword. Buzzphrase? Anyway. These days we’re all “locavores” but I found myself contemplating the slowness of food recently as I looked around my tiny farm.

Nothing really happens quickly in the agricultural world. Things move not in the scale of days, but months and seasons and years. For instance, I planted one small test plot of einkorn wheat this fall. I’ll plant another in January or February, depending on what the weather is doing, and the last one in mid-March most likely. The test plots will tell me the fastest way to get wheat (I’m betting on the fall plot) and all of this year’s harvest will bee conserved for seed. In 2017, we may actually have enough excess for us to use some of it, but not before. There’s also oats and rye (planted in spring) and sorghum (planted in summer) to experiment with in my endless quest to find out how much of our livestock’s food we can grow. Sorghum isn’t a usual grain addition to livestock feed, but evidence suggests goats find it extremely palatable, given that several of them went over a fence and ate the grain heads the last time I grew it.

The pregnant onions also probably won’t provide a lot of food this year, although hopefully I’ll have extras to share for seed onions. Permaculture beds generally take at least a year to get established, so it won’t be until next fall that we dig some onions for eating. Meanwhile I’m nibbling the tips of the greens periodically, and they are amazing: sweet, spicy, and complex. This is a variety traditionally grown in the south in the days before it was easy to order new onion seed every spring. Our ancestors knew deliciousness no grocery store can provide!

Bunchy onion tops, each one a small explosion of green pointy tubular leaves, ranging from 3 to 6 inches tall, growing in an otherwise empty bed with a few dead oak leaves.
Grow, delicious little onions! Grow!

Garlic is the fall-planted fast food of our garden this year, ready to eat in summer. Mainly this is a function of the fact that I still haven’t figured out exactly when collard greens and kale like to be planted for fall harvest. By the time I got them in the ground the conditions were already off for germination and the days too short for the few that germinated to grow. We do however have pea vines to nibble. The humble pea is a wonder, it wilts a bit in the heart of summer but otherwise is a mainstay of the garden, giving us edible greens, young pods, and of course the delicious globes of ripe peas. It’s another fast food, shooting up in weeks and flowering in just a month or two in the spring.

On the meat side of things, the fastest food we have is rabbit. Since beloved friends have hooked me up with meaty beasts, I only have to wait 28 days of gestation and then another 8 weeks of growing before I can have rabbit pot pie. Cornish Rock broiler chickens could match that speed, but I’m morally opposed to raising birds who have to be slaughtered before they’re adults because otherwise their bodies will overwhelm their joints and circulatory systems. Heritage breed birds generally need to go 4-6 months before they’re a decent size to eat.

Provided Ferrington has been able to settle my two non-Soay ewes without a step ladder, there will be lamb next year, after nearly a year’s wait. Sheep have a five month gestation period and need to be five months old or more before they’re of a size to make slaughter worthwhile. Slow food, indeed. Pigs average out about the same, with a roughly three month gestation followed by a longer grow out, although I short-circuited that by getting eating pigs who were already 8 weeks old. I’m hoping they’ll be of a size to go for slaughter in early spring.

All these wait times apply not only to people like me, of course. When you pick up a package of pork chops at the grocery store, the same months-long wait is behind it. The same goes for your bag of flour. Most of us are just totally divorced from this process of waiting that I either find peaceful or tedious depending on the day. Right now I would really like some rabbit, and the twelve weeks between putting a buck and doe in together and getting my rabbit pie seems ungodly long.

16 November, 2015

Winter makes you laugh a little slower…

I’ve been remiss in blogging as winter settles in here in the piedmont. Part of that is starting on the hard part of work with my shrink and desensitizing myself to all the terrible memories I brought home from the war in the hopes of achieving something more like sanity. It’s tiring. Part of it is that, well, fall and winter don’t bring a heck of a lot of news, especially when compared to the dramas of spring and summer.

Still, there’s a few noteworthy things going on! For instance, we have Mr Piggy Bank the teeny tiny boar and Maggie the tiny pig staying. They may end up being here forever, or may go home if their previous person gets her fences pig-proofed. Whichever way it goes, they are delightful to have around, and also adorable.

Two small pigs cuddling in the sun. Closest to the camera is the tiny boar, who is about 10 inches tall standing, or half the size of the sow. He's golden with black spots, she is white with black spots.

The sheep are all getting woolier every day. I give them little pep talks about growing nice fleeces. Most interestingly, Jane the Soay ewe is growing in her fleece with a substantial amount of white sprinkled in it, like roaning on a horse or goat, so yarn spun from her wool will be naturally heathered.

There’s even a little excitement in the vegetable world. While the einkorn wheat has gone dormant for the winter, the pregnant onions that I’m getting established into a permanent onion patch are still growing like the blazes.

Onion tops ranging between two and six inches tall growing in thick, enthusiastic clumps.

I broke off the tips of some of the tallest greens for us to taste and they’re amazing, sweet and spicy and flavorful. I can’t wait to actually try a couple onions next summer, although large harvests will have to wait a while unless the onions go really nuts. Pregnant onions are an old, old variety grown before the advent of easy to purchase seeds. The large onions will spawn young onions, which will grow into large onions the next year and split off into their own children. They can be harvested at either stage, as long as you leave enough in the ground to propagate.

The garlic got planted a couple months later than onions, but is coming up anyway in its bed of composted rabbit manure.

Small, thick green shoots poking up through what looks like dark fine soil with a few recognizable globes of poo.

This is nothing fancy, just the California Early Soft Neck garlic you find in grocery stores. In fact, it’s cloves from a grocery store bulb, as I thought I should experiment with cheap garlic before I try growing one of the more fiddly heritage varieties. Still, freshness makes a serious difference, and a bulb of garlic dug five minutes ago has a far superior flavor to one that’s been stored, as we learned after managing to grow one bulb on our first try. As it turns out, the feed store was setting us up for failure selling seed garlic in spring. This really is a fall-planted crop, and in summer will be adding its deliciousness to home-cooked meals.

Things I don’t have pictures of include the expanded rabbitry. The colony is a no-go right now, having had ducks move in this past summer (long story, but not on purpose). Duck feces in the soil are not compatible with successfully raising litters of rabbits, so right now I’m working with a standard caged system and working on building tractors so rabbits can move around more and do a little grazing while the colony gets dug out and planted and rested in the hopes that I can return rabbits to it in spring or summer. Meanwhile two of my friends hooked me up with breeding stock, and there will be purebred Silver Foxes for pelts and meat starting this winter. Which means I need to get on tanning the hides I’ve already accumulated!

Meanwhile of course, late fall/early winter Virginia means the weather is all over the place and my mysterious chronic pain condition and migraines are complaining about it. I spend a lot of time sitting in the sun with the goats and sheep and pigs, soaking up the last of the warmth and enjoying my little peaceable kingdom.

4 November, 2015

2 November, 2015

Shepherd’s Calendar

“We are as gods to beasts of the field. We order the time of their birth and the time of their death. Between times, we have a duty.” — Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

It’s time to start building lambing jugs, which despite the name are not actually jugs. They’re small pens, in which a ewe gives birth and is confined for a few days with her new lambs, so that they’ll bond and the shepherd can monitor them all to make sure both mother and lambs are healthy. I don’t really expect the Soays to need them, you don’t survive for a couple thousand years on a tiny rock in the North Sea, the farthest west of any of the Outer Hebrides, because you have a tendency to forget you gave birth and wander off without your lamb. But there’s Ella the American Blackbelly sheep and Mabel the Southdown ewe, both of which are more modern breeds that may require some assistance in remembering that yes, this small bleating woolly thing belongs to them and requires their care.

A small rocky island formed from the tip of an ancient mountain rises from the North Sea. Its sides are steep and its top is wreathed in mist. There's a carpet of grass, but no shelter to be seen.
Inselsoay” by Olaf1950Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

The Soay Island that Soay sheep come from. When you were bred to survive a rock in the North Sea, Virginia weather is laughably mild and you tend to remember that you gave birth.

Lambs should start arriving in February, if Ferrington has done his job. I was slightly worried at first that he was incapable, since I’m used to goats and let me tell you, male goats make sure you know that they have a penis and like to use it. More experienced shepherds have reassured me that rams are much shyer creatures, preferring to woo the ladies at night when no inquisitive shepherd is around to watch. Unlike goat bucks, rams also don’t pee all over their own faces to make themselves attractive to the ladies, and in the absence of another ram with whom to have junk-measuring contests, you may never actually see a ram’s reproductive apparatus beyond his enormous, dangling testicles. The more you know.

But I digress. The lambing jugs will be built in the barn, so that ewes and lambs are sheltered from the occasional winter storm. Adult sheep are extremely weather resistant and the Soays honestly barely seem to notice rain unless it’s absurdly heavy, but lambs are small and their surface area to volume ratio is much more conducive to hypothermia than it is for adult sheep, even with their woolly fleeces to keep them warm. While some shepherds with breeds and flocks selected for being excellent mothers choose to let ewes lamb in the fields, I’m more conservative, especially since this is the first time for both me and the ewes. I’ve handled goat births no problem, but sheep are startlingly different animals for all that they and goats are nearly indistinguishable skeletally. And I have a duty.

Every sheep is more than a sheep; it is all the sheep it has ever been, and everything we have done to them, and everything they have done for us. — Elodie Under Glass

After lambing, round about April or so, comes rooing the hair sheep and shearing the wool sheep. Rooing a sheep means simply to round it up and pluck the shedding wool from it so that humans can use the wool, rather than leaving the sheep to scratch the wool off on trees and the barn. In the days when Soay sheep were the cutting edge of farming, rooing would have been a social affair: the sheep would have been rounded up in their winter pastures and brought down to pens near villages, and everyone would get together and have a fine time plucking sheep. At the end, the newly naked-er sheep would have been taken to their spring pastures, and village life would have moved on to planting.

Rooing is surprisingly hard work, mostly because you have to catch the sheep and set it on its butt (which causes sheep to relax and go immobile) and then pluck, and pluck, and pluck, pausing to stash your precious handfulls of wool in sacks. Do it too early and you’ll be doing it all over again later, do it too late and you’ll be scavenging wool from tree branches, fence posts, and the sides of your barn and hay feeder. Shearing is much more convenient, at least for the shepherd, because timing isn’t so very important. Gather up the sheep, shave them bald, and call it good and move on to processing the fleece.

Damp weather shows off crimp and increasing length of beautiful red-brown Soay fleece.
At least the Soays are small, so rooing them will be much faster than Ella and Tyson.

Every man can tell how many goats or sheep he possesses, but not how many friends. — Marcus Tullius Cicero

In summer the spring lambs are reaching the age where they’re old enough to be sold. Sometime in June, Ferrington’s sons will hopefully head off to spread their genetics into new herds of Soays, preserving the gift of DNA that ancient shepherds left for us on the small rocky island in the North Sea. Ferrington himself will also be seeking a new herd, as his daughters will remain here to build my own little flock of Soays. I’ll exchange him for a ram as unrelated to my ewes as I can manage to find. The Soay cross lambs from Mabel and Ella, on the other hand, will stay here and get fat on pasture and hay. In summer one or two of them will probably be slaughtered for the table and to keep the load on our pastures low. The rest will eat, and may be offered to one or two shepherds who want to experiment with adding Soay blood to their flocks. Honestly, it depends on whether I need cash or meat more.

And then a few months later, at the start of fall, the remaining extraneous lambs (including any of Ferrington’s sons that didn’t head for new homes) will go to slaughter, as we pare down the flock to only the animals we want to support over the winter. Hay costs double with cold weather and a lack of pasture, so it’s important to keep flock size to something supportable. And thanks to the growing demand for local food, there’s good odds that I can manage to sell some of the meat provided I can afford to use a USDA inspected slaughter-house.

Meanwhile, the young ewes will be separated so that they don’t get pregnant too young, the older ewes will begin cycling and growing in their wool, and the entire calendar swings back to the beginning, with the exception of lambing jugs already being built.

27 October, 2015

Goat Science! Your goat probably likes it when you pet them.

Through the good graces of my friend Elodie (who mostly does not blog right over here, but also doesn’t blog about her narrowboat on Monday I was introduced to Dr. Alan McElligott on Twitter, who is actually now in contention with Elodie for Andrea’s Favorite Scientist because he studies goats! And Dr. McElligott was kind enough to send me a big pile of his published articles on goat behavior and health, so if you never see me again it’s because I’m acquiring an informal undergraduate degree in Caprine Studies.

Dr. McElligott’s most recent study really charmed me, though, because it looked at heart rate as a measure of stress as some goats went about their daily lives. The goats in question live at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in the UK, where a herd of 125 or so of them are privileged to live and contribute to science. The paper is officially entitled Autonomic nervous system reactivity in a free-ranging mammal: effects of dominance rank and personality and if you are into statistics about goat heart rates, relative herd rankings, and quantifying the sociability of any given goat you can get a copy at that link. But hang with me for a sec and I will sum up for you, the goat-loving public, why this paper makes me happy.

Dr. McElligott et al basically went out and hooked up some goats with wireless ECG monitors, and then followed the goats at a distance recording their behavior so it could be plotted against heart rate. They had different categories of behavior: affiliative interactions (things goats do with their friends either human or goat), eating/drinking, resting, scratching, and agonistic interactions (conflicts with other goats, including headbutting, biting, and shoving other goats out of the way). The goats were does and wethers agest 4-13, and mostly of middling rank in the herd. If only calorie expenditure accounted for heart rate, you would expect hostile behaviors to have the highest heart rate, and resting to have the lowest heart rate.

However, that wasn’t at all what the team found. In fact, eating caused the highest heart rate among the goats, confirming what goatherds know: food is very, very exciting to goats. The lowest heart rate was found not among solo resting goats, but among goats engaged in friendly behaviors like mutual grooming and goat cuddle piles.

A cuddle pile of three goats. In front, Gwyn leans against Siri and chews her cud. Siri rests in the middle, facing the same direction as Gwyn. May is behind Siri but perpendicular to her, with her head resting on Siri's flank as she sleeps.
Science suggests these goats are very relaxed and enjoying the cuddle pile.

Even better, the study goats were allowed to approach humans voluntarily for scratching and petting, and the study found that these goats, too, had lower heart rates, which suggests that they were getting the same enjoyment and relaxation from voluntarily interacting with humans as they did from interacting with their goat friends.

May rests her forehead gently against my cheek as I scratch under her chin. Her eyes are half-closed and her ears are totally floppy.
Science seems to confirm that May is getting as much benefit from chin scratches as participating in cuddle piles.

The study also found that some goats are just more socially inclined than others, and these goats tend to have lower heart rate variability in general, i.e. they are calmer goats. Their heart rates are lower when being social with their friends, but the difference from their baseline heart rate isn’t as great as it is with other goats whose heart rates vary more dramatically. This strongly suggests that the squirrlier goats in a herd will benefit the most from having a goat friend who doesn’t antagonize them but will instead engage in mutual grooming and the formation of cuddle piles. More aggressive goats still need company, but the best fit for them is one of the more placid goats who doesn’t tend to react in extremes even to hostile interactions.

It’s really nice, though, to learn that by sitting quietly and allowing goats to approach me and discover the magic of cookies and clever monkey fingers that can scratch the itchy places even horns can’t reach I’m doing as much good for the goats as I am for me. I would still prefer it though if May didn’t insist on grooming me back, as goat methods of attempting to tame human hair are not particularly fun for the human, and being licked always makes me feel vaguely ashamed, as if I’m an incompetent baby goat who isn’t capable of keeping herself clean.

21 October, 2015

Capitalism still sucks. News at 11.

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant the other day about an article on veteran farmers. The two farmers featured in the piece were both officers, and that’s no mistake. The vast majority of programs that provide grants and low/no interest loans to help out veteran farmers are for people who already own land. Land takes money, and officers are in a much better position to be able to get a loan or lay out the cash for enough land to farm than enlisted people. This means that huge numbers of veterans who want to farm are unable to access programs simply because they don’t have the land to get started. Encroaching urbanization in many areas is driving up the price of an acre of fertile land to put farms out of reach of a generation of folks who would love nothing better than to be part of our nation’s agricultural web.

The division between enlisted and officers starts early. While someone who has just joined the military as an enlisted person might get one class on financial management skills and avoiding predatory lenders, a new officer is offered a low-interest car loan. It’s all very well and good to tell young enlisted people to stay away from shitty lenders, but they aren’t offered guaranteed access to good lenders, while a million exploitative used car lots and payday lenders spring up at the gates of every base. Financial management is a learned skill, and as enlisted folks are increasingly drawn from impoverished communities they haven’t had a chance to learn those skills and the military doesn’t help. Between low pay that qualifies some families for food stamps and the lack of financial literacy classes, some enlisted people come out of the military with credit worse than if they’d never gone in.

Homelessness and unemployment are also perennial problems among the veteran population, largely among former enlisted. An officer has a college degree and experience in managing people and systems. But how does someone who spent four years shooting people for a living translate that into skills that the private sector can understand, let alone finds desirable? We lure young people into the military with a promise that they’ll have job skills when they get out and the ability to pursue a college education, but offer them no help in pursuing either one of these things. If you can’t navigate the bureaucracy of your local college or university’s admissions office and office of veterans services, you’re going to be shit out of luck.

Offering enlisted folks a chance to buy a farm, whether through loans or grants, plus mentorship and guidance to get them established, would offer so much to both veterans and to the country. Our nation’s farmers are aging and family farms are increasingly being replaced by large corporate endeavors. It is not in the country’s interest to have a few large multinational corporations take over the agricultural landscape entirely (they already dominate it) and it is not in the country’s interest to waste the talents of veterans. Yet we seem willing to do both, by excluding veterans who can’t come up with the initial capital to buy a $500,000 piece of property.

It’s time to actually put our money where our mouths are as a nation here in the US. We say we want family farms and diverse agriculture, but we reserve subsidies for giant monocropping operations growing corn and soybeans and let talented veteran farmers interested in diverse, sustainable agriculture fall by the wayside. We let farms be sold to developers and build subdivisions where the only thing their fertile topsoils grow are very nice lawns while simultaneously espousing an “eat local” philosophy. Our actions and our words are not compatible, and it’s time to insist that the government back us up with policies designed to support veterans, diverse agriculture, and farms not lawns.

20 October, 2015

Let me just wax lyrical for a bit…

Sometimes, at night, I go sit outside and look at my sheep. I generally take a length of acrylic fleece to use as a shepherd’s plaid what with I haven’t had the chance to make one from my sheep. Maybe in 2017. There is something magical about nights at the onset of winter here in the Piedmont, when the cold breaks the hazy humidity of summer. There’s so many stars in the sky, and if I trouble myself to go out back of the barn on a moonless night where the glare from our “safety light” doesn’t reach, I can see the Milky Way.

Anyway. I sit, wrapped in my fleece, and I watch my sheep sleep with Xita beside me. It’s magical. Times like that, you can almost feel a kinship with pre-industrial shepherds. Indeed, when it’s just the Soays out sleeping next to the hay bale, I can almost feel the first Neolithic shepherds beside me. THey’d probably appreciate modern touches like acrylic fleece and my very fine German Shepherd. Some things have changed very little over the millenia, and shepherds and farmers appreciate a good dog and warm, durable fabric.

It’s on nights like that as much as on slaughter days that I remember why I have animals, why I eat the meat they produce and take their manure to grow vegetables. It’s a very fundamental connection to the land and to the past that nourishes the soul along with the body.

16 October, 2015

Chickens are not that fragile.

Ah, fall, when new livestock owners panic at the thought of cold weather and break out the heavy duty plastic. I was there a few years back, so I have some sympathy for you, but my learnings, let me show you them.

Chickens are not that fragile, y’all. Provided they can stay dry, they will do just fine roosting in the open air. Most of ours sleep in the barn rafters, a few go sleep in the trees. Before that they roosted in the run the geese currently occupy, which is open air except for the roof. We have never yet lost a chicken to winter cold, not even during the periodic polar vortices that swoop down from the north.

If you’re living way up north, windbreaks become necessary, but you still shouldn’t hermetically seal your barn or chicken house. Damp conditions arising from their own respiration will give chickens (and goats and sheep) pneumonia. If they’ve been living outside, your livestock are well-adapted to handling the weather. Make sure they have food, water, and a way to stay dry and they’ll be just fine. Honestly.

Remember that up until very, very recently nobody considered a chicken a pet. Their bodies are well adapted to outside conditions, and honestly if they can’t handle living like actual chickens you’re better off without them. Certainly don’t breed any bird that can’t deal with the very basics of chicken life. You aren’t doing its offspring or their future owners any favors.

But above all, remember: ventilation is more important than a totally sealed, draft-free chicken coop. Don’t make your comfort more important than the actual needs of your chickens. Sealing up their house is about what makes you feel good, not what keeps a chicken healthy and happy.

A good roof, lots of food, and available water are all you need to see chickens through the winter. They’ll be fine, I promise.

12 October, 2015

Boom and bust cycles, or buy pigs now!

At least if you’re in Virginia between DC a and the south reaches of Richmond, from the mountains out to Fredericksburg, pork on the hoof is cheap as hell right now.

In fact, as the annual rush to secure winter hay supplies begins and the spring/summer breeding cycles come to an end, everything from pigeons to horses can be had at dirt cheap prices if not free. People often get lost in the optimism of lush summer pastures and the lure of higher livestock prices, only to discover that a horse eats a lot of hay, piglets are no longer selling for $150 each, and pigeons multiply like rodents given the opportunity. Looking to reduce feed bills they start dumping stock below cost, and the long plummet b of a market glut has begun.

Pigs are a very striking example of the market cycle in my area right now. A year ago or more, a potbelly or American Guinea Hog piglet fetched around $150-$200 on the private market. Predictably, many people saw dollar signs and began pumping out litters of piglets, with the end result that starting late this summer some folks with young potbelly pigs were having trouble giving them away for free. Everyone in central Virginia who wanted a piglet had one, it seemed like. Prices are running from free to $50 each for potbelly pigs now, and $25-$75 for young American Guinea Hogs. These prices are well below the cost to raise a piglet to weaning age, leaving producers the prospect of either continuing to raise them to butcher age and then putting an entire litter in the freezer (who has that much freezer space??) or to take a loss just to get the animals off their property.

At least there’s little stigma attached to sending AGH to slaughter. The potbelly pigs, while also made of delicious pork, have been sold as pets so long that many of them wind up in bad situations receiving substandard care because of the novelty value. Rescues work hard to take them in but space is limited. Arguably it’s kinder to put an animal down and eat it than to keep it living alone, belly-deep in water and feces, because as it turns out many of a pig’s natural behaviors (like rooting) aren’t compatible with the house pet life. And while pigs are as smart as dogs, they haven’t had the benefit of 30,000 years of selective breeding to be enjoyable companions.

Pigs, goats, and sheep sold for below slaughter value are likely to wind up in slaughter channels no matter how many caps locked “NOT FOR FOOD” warnings the seller puts in an ad. Around here, those channels start with people who trawl craigslist for cheap livestock. They run them to the auctions, where they’re either bought directly by a few small local slaughterhouses that don’t have contacts with enough supplies to buy directly, or by bunchers who then take them to the New Holland auction in Pennsylvania. An animal raised as a cherished and cuddled pet will suddenly find itself in a world of shouting and cattle prods. It’s tough even on animals not socialized to enjoy human company. Dealers expect an animal to lose up to 25% of its weight as a result of the stress even if treated well.

Horses have it much wise since horse slaughter has been effectively ended in the US, meaning they have a long miserable trip to Canada or Mexico awaiting them. There just isn’t a market for pasture pets and half-wild horses that haven’t been ridden in a year beyond slaughter when so many steady, useful horses are also on the market.

In the end it’s much, much kinder for an animal to get a dish of grain and a well placed bullet in familiar surroundings, or one trip to the slaughterhouse. Even more ideally, small producers will limit their breeding to ensure a smaller surplus come fall. The large farms that have made names for themselves aren’t the ones glutting the market, they’re the ones that line up buyers before breeding season even begins, or have built a customer base for themselves at Farmers Markets and in local butcher shops.

Breed to feed yourself and your friends and family. It is nearly impossible to make money in small livestock without access to the economies of scale a large producer has. It sucks, but that’s the market.

9 October, 2015

Where there is love there is life.

A happy anniversary today to me and Mr Goat Lady! He left home, country, family, friends, and the National Health Service to come spend the rest of his life with me.

We’ve had a hell of a ride, and here’s to the best accomplice I could wish for!

A man with long dark hair and a beard wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt bends down to tickle the chins of two tiny goats who gaze up at him worshipfully.

The same man wailing away from the camera, attended by the entire herd of goats and sheep.

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