Posts Tagged ‘agriculture’

Celebrating Ag Week

A picture from our county's ag luncheon last year. A couple hundred people always turn out to appreciate agriculture, a good meal, and an opportunity to socialize.

This week many businesses and organizations will recognize National Ag Week.  Around here, all the local papers will have special ad sections where businesses can salute agriculture.  The area chamber hosts an annual luncheon where conservation awards are given to farmers and a local “friend of ag” is designated.  The FFA students attend an ag career fair where booths from ag banks to veterinarians can be visited.

Russell already contributes to agriculture, as a consumer of food. In the future, chances are he will work in the ag industry and contribute even more!

I personally like to take this week to appreciate all the businesses that I work hand in hand with as a farmer.  Equipment manufacturers and dealers. Livestock nutritionists, feed dealers, and feed companies.  Fuel distributors, mechanics, welders.  Accountants, lawyers, banks.  Just to name a few.

Also, there are my customers… the local butcher, the large meat processor, the
farmers co-op that buys our grain, ethanol plants, and cereal and food manufacturers.

And the crazy thing is that all of this boils down to the consumer. So many individuals working together to ultimately sustain each other. And THAT is something worth recognizing!

The Big Red Tractor and the Little Village

My wonderful mom-in-law showed up here one afternoon shortly after mother’s day bearing gifts.  She had a very neat, personalized, Busy Mom’s Bible for me.  I love it! It has devotionals throughout. It has an awesome cover that makes it flexible, yet durable, and it’s small enough to throw in a purse.

Russell loves it!

But….the really cool book that she discovered in her pursuit of my gift was for the kids.  Titled,“The Big Red Tractor and the Little Village,”it instantly appealed to this farm family.  (Especially the fact that it was about a red tractor!)  But, in reading the book, it got even better, like it was written specifically for our family.  I won’t totally give the book away, but there are a couple cute parts I can’t help but share.

"The Big Red Tractor and the Little Village." A great kid's book!

The book is about a small village that plants their garden every year with their big red tractor.  One day, Farmer Dave discovers the operator’s manual for the tractor and stays up all night reading it.  (That could totally be my Justin, or his brother Kevin, whenever they get a new piece of farm equipment they will pour over the operator’s manual!)  Farmer Dave learns so much about the tractor that he works all night and falls asleep on the tractor.  (Again, don’t know how many hours the men in the family have slept in a tractor cab.)

The operator's manual....of significant importance in this farm family.

Sleeping on tractors is also a common occurrence around here.

It also has a nice agricultural thread throughout it, it’s not just a cutesy pointless, book.  The other great, and somewhat unexpected thing, about this book is that is has a Christian message  about integrity and sharing in the end.  It touches on some big subjects, and brings them down to an early elementary level while being quite entertaining.  We love it here in our house.

That’s all I’ll say about the book, in case you’re interested in getting it for yourself.

Farm Subsidies, A Farmer’s Perspective.

We must know exactly how much grain is in a bin before "putting it under loan" in the marketing assistance loan program.

Today I want to (attempt to) set the record straight when it comes to farm subsidies. I’m going to present some facts, and some opinions. I’m also going to “reveal” what my husband and I have received from the government and why. (I put reveal in quotations beause it’s all public knowledge.  Don’t belive me?  Click here.) I understand that not everyone is going to agree with me on this. But that’s ok, it’s what makes us human, and what makes us all great. It also doesn’t mean I should keep quiet about it. Everything I share today is public knowledge, I’m just going to put it here in one place with an explanation behind it.

I must preface this by saying that my understanding of the farm bill and all it’s intricacies is limited. While I do feel I have a handle on it,  it is a very complex, and ever changing thing. Often I get the impression that even the employees of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) feel the same way.  Anyway, this is my perspective of the farm program, administered by the federal government as a part of the farm bill.

The farm program mainly focuses on grain production, not livestock.

First, a very simple explanation of farm subsidies:

Most of the cropland in Iowa is a part of the farm program.  When a farm is enrolled in the farm program, there is a plethora of paperwork and rules regarding conservation that must be followed.  Farmers must report exactly how many acres of each crop they plant, and where.  They must develop and follow a conservation plan with NRCS staff.  Grain bins are measured, and yields are recorded, and turned into the FSA office.  Farmers receiving subsidies must prove that they are “actively engaged” in farming.  In exchange for complying with the program, the farmer or owner of the land is eligible for financial incentives from the federal government.  There is a variety of programs within the farm bill.

The most talked about program is what is referred to as direct payments.  Direct payments are a lump sum of money, calculated on a per acre basis, that is paid to the farmer.  The formula used to determine the amount paid is based on the productivity of the land.  We receive roughly a $20-25 per acre direct payment.

And then there is Counter-Cyclical Payments (CCP).  This is also based on productivity, in addition to the yearly average price for grain (as determined by the federal government).  In recent years, we have not received a CCP, because grain prices have been higher than in past years.  The trigger price for CCP is around $2.25 per corn bushel.  CCP will get higher as the price of corn gets lower.

Next comes the more optional programs, LDPs and Marketing Assistance Loans (MAL).  LDPs have been obsolete the last few years, again, due to higher prices.  But, Justin and I do take advantage of the MAL program.  Basically, when we need money to pay bills, but don’t want to sell our grain for a low price (prior to May 30), then we can “seal” the grain, which is essentially handing over the title to the grain to the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC).  We will then receive a loan in the amount of the set loan rate per bushel.  For example, I “seal” 10,000 bushels of corn.  I receive 10,000 (bushels) x $1.84 (per bushel county loan rate) or $18,400, as a loan.  I then use the money to pay bills.  Then I have 9 months to repay the loan plus interest (“buy back” the bushels), the title to the grain is turned back over to me, and I can sell it when prices are (hopefully) better.  I really like this particular program, because it is not a true susbisdy, it is simply a low interest loan, and it really helps us out.

A few other programs that make up the federal government farm program include the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program, the Supplemental Revenue Assistance (SURE) program, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Conservation Security Program (CSP).  ACRE is meant to replace the DCP, and CCP.  SURE is for crop disasters.  CRP involves letting enrolled acres sit fallow for 10 years.  Finally, CSP is all about improving conservation practices.  I won’t even begin to explain these…google them if you’re bored!

The last, and most important piece of this gigantic puzzle, is crop insurance subsidies.  The government subsidizes crop insurance, based on a hugely complex formula, based on percentages.  Basically, it makes crop insurance a viable, affordable option for farmers, and protects us from crippling crop and financial losses, and helps us to stay in business. Crop insurance, in and of itself, is another horribly complex animal….which I will address sometime down the road.

Each category of subsidy has a maximum amount that can be paid to one individual.  If a farmer is found to be out of compliance with any rules, they can be made ineligible for the program.

Simple explanation, right?  Clear as mud?

The NRCS helped lay out these hay buffer strips, as a part of a conservation plan.

My views on farm subsidies are simple.  Direct subsidies are a waste.  Sending a farmer a check in the mail for participating in the conservation program is an inefficient use of taxpayer money.  There are better ways to incentivize participation in conservation compliance programs.  Personally, I’d like to see more emphasis on crop insurance and marketing loan programs.  Regulations must be kept tough on those that are out of compliance, and eligibility for crop insurance (as well as other programs) should be tied to conservation compliance.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that farm subsidies are a small part of the farm bill.  A whopping 84% of the farm bill is food assistance programs, such as food stamps and WIC.

I’ve only skimmed the very tip top of this subject.  If you want to know more, take a gander here:

Farm Services Agency, Iowa

Natural Resources Conservation Service, Iowa

Commodity Credit Corporation

My apologies if I’ve gone too far over anyone’s head….this stuff is confusing to me, and I deal with it on a regular basis!  I do hope that maybe I’ve shed a little light on this subject, anyway.  If you have any questions, I will try my best to answer.

Terraces are another method for prevention of soil erosion, and keep us "in compliance."

Iowa Farmers in Panama

Last week, Justin and I had a wonderful opportunity to go to Panama for a week long trip that included relaxation, education, and fun.  The Iowa Farm Bureau has an incredible County Recognition Program, where they reward county presidents for maintaining an active board.  Every year, if a county participates in enough activities (contacting legislators, public relations, education, rural vitality, etc.) the county president is rewarded with the President’s Incentive Trip.  Previous years have included visits to California, Ireland, or Canada.  This year was Panama.  And this year was the first time I was eligible as the president of our county’s Farm Bureau board.  The trip is a group trip, involving all of the Iowa county presdents who qualified, their guests, members of the state board of directors, and Farm Bureau and travel staff.  Around 150 people in all. 

Beautiful sunrise view over the Chagres River from the Gamboa Ranforest Resort.

Our first day was a day of travel, three separate flights that took all day after accounting for layovers.  We arrived at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort very late on Monday night.  Gamboa is in the canal zone of Panama, right where the Chagres River connects with and fills the canal.   When we left Iowa, it was about 10 degrees outside, when we got to Panama, it was 80 degrees.  Paradise! 

Our room was nice and welcoming, with it’s own patio.  In the morning we were blown away by the beautiful view of the Chaigres river, tropcal trees, and the sounds of exotic birds.  We were treated to a buffet style breakfast with fresh pineapple and other fresh fruits.  During breakfast, we heard from a gentleman involved in the Panamanian poultry business.  Their agicultural industry is much much smaller than the U.S., but is growin rapidly.  They still rely heavily on imports of feed and food, but are working to lessen their dependance.  One interesting fact about Panama is that all of their electricity comes from hydroeletricity, and their utilities are low cost as a result. 

A yellow face monkey.

Our group then broke into smaller groups for elective tours.  Justin and I chose to go on a boat tour of the canal and an aerial tram tour through the rainforest.  We got to see a crocodile, a sloth, and two different kinds of monkeys on the boat tour, as well as the ships traveling through the canal.  The tram tour took us through the trees, where we spotted and iguana and learned about the Embera indians.  We walked to the top of a lookout tower where we had an amazing view of the forest, the river, and the canal. 

In talking to the residents of Panama, we learned that  they have a very postive outlook for the future.  The talk about things in terms of “since Noriega was thrown out.”  Meaning, the country has made huge progress in stablizing their economy, politics, and society since then.  The city of Panama has hundreds of high rise buildings and many are under construction.  They have a strong banking system, and call themselve the Switzerland of the Americas.  It was very apparent to me that they are a society that is appreciatve and benefitting well from democracy and capitalism.   They have two national languages, Spanish and English.   Spanish is much more popular, although we were able to find many bilingual individuals.  The dollar is widely accepted, and their currency is directly tied to it. 

A gigantic ship, carrying cars, in the Panama canal.

On the second day, we took a trip to view the locks on the canal.  We ate breakfast overlooking the locks, and watched the ships as they navigated through them.  We listened to US trade representatives, as well as speakers from the Panama Canal Authority.  Ships pay to go through the canal based on how much they can carry.  For example, a huge panamax vessel will pay approximately $200,000 to travel through the canal.  25% of the world’s trade goes through the canal, from cars, to household goods, to commodities. 

We spent the afternoon on a large, 300 person capacity boat traveling through the canal.  We had lunch on board, and went through 3 sets of locks on our way to the Pacific ocean.  We crossed the only place in the Americas where the continental divide is disrupted.  We shared our spot in the locks with a huge boat carrying some 5000 cars.  I’m not sure my pictures will demostrate the size of the ship.  We felt like a tiny little bug in the lock with that huge thing!  All of the ships in the canal must allow a captain from the canal authority on board while they are in the canal.  The captain takes control of the ship, and the crew must listen to his orders. All of the vessels on the canal must also move through the locks on their own power.  The larger ships are tethered to locomotives on shore, which work together to keep the ships from touching the sides of the canal.  The largest ships through the canal only have about 2 ft of clearance on either side of them!  That day was absolutely fascinating!

At least a few dozen ships waiting for their turn to go through the canal.

After we came through the canal, we were in the Pacific Ocean, right by the city of Panama.  We docked and had a nice meal with our district director, Carlton, as well as other couples from our same district.  After supper, we arrived at a new resort, the Intercontinintal Playa Bonita, in Panama.  It was an absolutely gorgeous new facility, with restaurants, pools, and a beach.  We could hear and see the ocean from our room. 

Learning about Panama's orange industry.

The next day included a tour of an orange nursery, orange farm, and orange juice processing facility.  The owner of the nursery explained how they raise the orange trees using grafting.  Right now there is a lot of demand for small trees that are easier to apply pesiticdes to and can be easily harvested from.  Panama only produces oranges for orange juice, as their soils and climate are not fit for growing navel oranges.  The oranges on the trees at the farm were not the oranges you eat, they were green, due to a harmless fungus.  All of the oranges were harvested by hand at this particular farm.  The juice processing facility was not something you’d ever find in the states.  Basically it was a machine shed containing equipment for squeezing the oranges.  The oranges entered the building, were sorted by hand, washed in a big automated machine, then transported to another machine that took the rind off and squeezed the juice.  The juice was stored in large bulk tanks, just like you would find in a dairy.  This facility produced a pure , unconcentrated, unpastuerized juice called Panama’s Best.  The operators were both from the states, with amazing stories to tell of how they ended up in rural Panama.  One came there while he was in the military and then decided not to leave.  The other was working for Coca-Cola and was sent to Panama for a work related job, fell in love with the country, and decided to stay.  It was just really incredible to hear their tales of how they got started basically by the seat of their pants. 

Justin may kill me for posting this picture....look at those white legs!

On our final full day in Panama, Justin and I decided to just relax at the resort.  We took a dip in the ocean, as well as the pools, picked up some seashells for the kids, and basically lounged around.  We even picked up a litttle sun tan. 🙂  Towards the end of the day Justin started feeling sick, though.  I blamed it on all the seafood he had been eating (yuck!!).  He opted to stay in the room and rest, while I headed down to the farewell celebration that was planned for the evening.  We had stellar entertainment that night.  Dancers and singers dressed in traditional outfits.  I couldn’t tell you a thing about why they dressed or did what they did, but it was very fun to watch and hear!  The whole group really got into it, dancing with the dancers and having a great time.  The evening was then wrapped up with a small fireworks display on the beach. 

We headed out early that morning to catch our flight, and many in our group were dropping like flies with some sort of intestinal illness.  A few had to seek medical attention, thankfully, Justin was able to make it home without much trouble.  Apparently, when they say, “don’t drink the water,” they mean it!  We don’t really know what caused it, but at least it stayed away until the end of the trip, and thank goodness for immodium! 

All in all it was a great trip with great people.  I am so thankful for the farm bureau, and all the individuals who work to make it the incredible grassroots organization that it is.  They all made this trip possible, and I can’t express my appreciation enough.  Many of the best people I know I met though Farm Bureau.  Indivuals much like Justin and I, family farmers working to make a living our of their livlihood on the land.  I don’t think I’d want to take a trip like this without them!

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Ethanol: One Farmer’s Point-of-View

Rural economic development at it's finest. An industry built in a rural area offering a variety of skilled employement positions and using locally produced inputs.

Ethanol.  It is a very complex, yet, easily simplified subject.  And it seems like more and more people are developing opinions about it. Here is mine.

First, let me lend my qualifications to this issue.   As a farmer who produces both livestock and corn, the ethanol industry affects me.  As a consumer of fossil fuels, both on the farm and in the household, the ethanol industry affects me.  As a resident of rural Iowa, living within 100 miles of several ethanol plants, the ethanol industry affects me.  Justin sat on a board and poured his heart and soul into an attempt to start up an ethanol plant around 10 years ago, right before ethanol took this state by storm.  Unfortunately, he was just a little before his time, and his efforts failed.  I stood by his side through the loss of that dream (and a sizable financial investment), so the ethanol industry affects me on a personal level as well.

Before the ethanol boom, corn prices were painfully low. Around $2.00 per bushel.  Farmers were dependent on government subsidies.  There was a lot of talk about adding value to corn.  How to expand the market for it?  Value-added this….value-added that.  And along came ethanol.  At first, farmers were skeptical, which is typical.  Farmers take enough risk on a daily basis, and their thresholds are usually maxed out. I was fresh out of college and working in a farmer’s co-op when meetings started popping up, informative meetings on investing in ethanol plants that were trying to get started.  The rumor mill got to running about a plant that was built by farmers near Preston, MN and how wildly successful it had been.  Before you know it, the ethanol bug bit Iowa’s farmers and they were scrambling to invest in the business.

As the years passed and plants got built, there was suddenly competition for corn, and the price went up.  $3 per bushel, then $4.  It’s gone higher than that, but we have been able to count on $3-4 corn pretty well in recent years.   All of a sudden, farmers quit caring about that government check that was coming.  Grain subsidies are based on the price per bushel of corn, so as the price went up, the subsidies dried up.  Yes, we still get payments from the government, but not nearly as much as we used to.  And that is a very good thing.

This is what is left over after corn goes through an ethanol plant. It makes excellent cattle feed. There are many different "varieties" of it.

The distillers grains produced by ethanol plants are great for mixing with cattle feed to make it more appetizing to them.

Another good thing about ethanol production is that it provides a cheap by-product, called distillers grains, that makes a great livestock feed.  Our livestock farm has done nothing but expand along with the ethanol industry, simply because we have been able to count on an affordable, quality feed produced along with ethanol.

Let’s not forget the product itself, ethanol.  It burns cleaner than fossil fuel.  It takes less fossil fuel to produce a gallon of ethanol than it does to produce a gallon of gasoline. Awesome, right?  To add to that, it is produced right here, in the heartland of America, by Americans.  And as if that weren’t enough…corn is a lot more renewable than oil.

This ethanol plant is just 10 miles from our house.

Ethanol plants have provided employment opportunities here in rural Iowa that were not available before.  High-tech jobs, high paying jobs.  Construction and maintenance jobs.  The railways, which had nearly become obsolete, are now booming with trains.  Ethanol has bolstered our economy.

Lots of rail cars carrying corn go in to the plant, and lots of rail cars leave the plant carrying ethanol and distillers grains.

The efficiency of ethanol production has improved by leaps and bounds over recent years.  It has become just as economical, from a water perspective, to produce ethanol as is does to produce gasoline.  4 gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol, 3-5 gallons of water to produce a gallon of gasoline.

Ethanol helps to keep the price of gasoline low.  Have you ever looked at the prices at the pumps?  The higher the ethanol content, the cheaper the price.  My thrifty budget really appreciates that.

I personally have not seen any ill effects from the development of the ethanol industry.  I will admit that there have been challenges, and there will continue to be.  Does it bug me that ethanol receives a tax break? Sure.  It bugs me just as much as the oil industry’s tax breaks do (or subsidization of anything for that matter). As long as ethanol is given a fair chance against competing industries, I see no reason why it couldn’t stand on its own.

Many local farmers take advantage of the close market for their corn. Here a truck is leaving the plant after delivering a load of corn.

Does ethanol have an effect on food prices?  Yes.  It has brought the price of corn up to the true production cost by competing for bushels.  Farm subsidies used to hold corn prices artificially low.  But, ethanol is not the only thing that has increased food prices.  The increasing cost of oil has had an effect too.  Coincidentally, ethanol helps to keep the cost of fossil fuels under control by introducing competition to the market.

I have confidence that the good people working to produce ethanol will continue to meet these challenges head on and improve even more upon this positive value-added industry.  There are a lot of advancements coming down the pike, and it will be exciting to see where bio fuel production is headed.

Chopping Corn Silage for Cattle Feed

This is our new bunker silo a little over half full of corn silage.

Around the beginning of September, the corn is nearly mature and has the peak ratio of nutrients and moisture content to be harvested as silage.  Silage is any form of crops that are harvested and fermented for livestock feed.  Silage can be made from hay, corn, rye, etc.  It is an ideal feed for cattle because it contains the entire corn plant, not just the grain.

There has been a lot of rumbling in the foodie world about grass-fed and grain-fed livestock.  Many would have the consumer believe that cattle in feedlots are fed strictly grain and nothing else.  This is not true.   Cattle must be introduced to grain slowly.  Cattle need forage to keep their rumens (or stomachs) working properly.  Even if a calf is getting all grain, it’s rumen will adapt and digest the grain as forage.  This is an inefficient way to use corn, as the energy value of the corn is wasted, and there are cheaper alternatives to feed cattle.  None of our cattle are ever on a 100% grain diet.  I hope I didn’t lose anyone there.  I could go on and on about cattle nutrition, and I probably will as this blog continues.

The bunker silo has four different bays, we are filling two of them with corn silage. The big tractor pushes the silage up into the bunker, and drives on top of it to pack it in. Packing the silage down helps to preserve it.

Corn silage can be stored in a few different ways such as upright silos, bunker silos, or silage bags. All are designed to preserve the feed at peak nutritional levels over the next year.  We use all three storage methods on our farm and each has it’s advantages and disadvantages.  Here are a couple links to videos of us filling our new bunker silo at the new hoop barn site.  If you have little boys who like to watch tractors, they will love these quick clips (ok, big boys will too)!

The tractor is unloading a chopper box of corn silage here in front of the bunker silo bays.

Corn silage is harvested (also referred to as “chopped”) by our chopper.  It is a big, expensive piece of equipment that cuts, collects, then chops the corn plants into little pieces.  Think M & M sized pieces.  After chopping the corn up, it blows the little cattle M & Ms into a chopper box being pulled behind it.  (See this post about chopping hay to refresh your memory as to what a chopper box is and does). Once full, the chopper box is then emptied in the same fashion as if we were chopping hay…so, check that post if you want to know more!

Hazel making sure Dad is doing a good job. She is so proud to be riding with Dad!

So we began chopping corn silage about 10 days ago, and finished up on Friday.  We have been blessed with great weather this year as well as only one day of machinery break downs.  When corn silage harvest is done, we will move on to earlage harvest…but, that is a whole other post!!

‘Til next time!

Liz

Family Bonding, Farm Style

Hazel and Dad having a little snuggle break in the tractor cab. She loves riding in the tractor!

Fall harvest season has officially begun on our farm.  It is the craziest time of year for us, but also the best.  I just love the fall weather, the changing of the leaves and crops, and the excitement of getting harvest done!  Fall harvest means the kids get to spend a lot of quality time with Mom, Dad, Uncle Kevin, Aunt Melissa, or Grandpa in a tractor, semi, or combine cab.  Many people can’t believe that we bring the kids along with us to the field.  I’m not sure why, as the kids love it!  Now me, on the other hand, I could do without all the packing and planning it takes to be in the field all day.  But then again, I wouldn’t have it any other way, what other job is there that allows you to have your kids along side you?

Eating on the run! BBQ beef sandwiches, apples, bars, and water.

The kids learn a lot of life lessons riding along in the field.  They learn patience.  You can’t just stop in the middle of what you’re doing to cater to every whim.  So they learn the valuable lesson of waiting, such as how to eat when the food is offered and pee when there is a break.  They also learn a lot about what adults do when they are at work, and how to handle a stressful situation.  Sometimes they learn how not to handle a stressful situation and what not to do at work….but either way they are witnessing real life, first hand, and at a young age.

Lucy riding in the tractor with me last fall.

They get to spend a lot of time entertaining themselves and talking with whoever they are riding with.  There aren’t a lot of distracting toys in a tractor cab, so they get to be creative.  We make up songs about what we’re doing, we talk about why we are doing what we are doing and what’s going to happen next.  We practice counting and ABC’s.  We play “find the corn cob” when there is a breakdown and we are trying to kill time.  The kids get to watch the combine’s grain tank fill up, or the semi dumping it’s load of corn.  They never tire of it, even when harvest has drug on for months, they still want to crawl up into that cab and ride.

I should mention at this point, safety is rule number one on the farm.  The kids are extremely aware of how dangerous the farm equipment is.  They go nowhere on foot around the farm without holding someone’s hand, and we are constantly alert as to who is where and what they are doing.  They seem to have a natural understanding of this, and we’ve never had any instances of them behaving dangerously on the farm.  This is not to say that we give them any credit for that, we are always on the look out and reminding them of the dangers of the farm.

I'm pretty sure Russell will be driving farm equipment well before he gets his license.

We are so blessed to be able to work together as a family on our farm.  Sure, there are drawbacks, there is a reason people say it’s hard to work with family.  We have to be constantly mindful of our actions and words and how they might be interpreted, because a misunderstanding at work equals a misunderstanding in the family and hurt feelings.  The lines of communication have to be kept open, but not too open, sometimes it really is better to” just let it go.”  Everyone has to be slow to accuse and quick to forgive.  The one thing that keeps us working together as a family is our mutual understanding that the farm is what provides us with our amazing way of life.

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