Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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We have a matriarchal chicken coop, which isn’t surprising since they are “layers” and obviously all females. When we had just four chickens, we named them and could tell them apart, but now with 26 of them it’s a little harder.

Recently though, I have named one of them “Maya” in honour of Maya Angelou. She is one of our senior citizen hens. She no longer lays eggs but she still has a place in the pecking order of our flock.

(I’ve never actually read any of Maya Angelou’s books but she seemed like an amazing woman whenever I saw her on Oprah. I remember her talking about toxic people speaking negatively in her house She would just tell them to get out and take their negativity with them She said that negativity just hangs around the walls and sticks to the furniture so she wanted nothing to do with it.)

Most farming operations that have layers are profit driven. Therefore when a chicken stops laying she is “dispatched.” So a large operation would send the older chickens to be rendered into fats and turned into pet food, for example. On a small farm they may just end up in the soup pot. When Michelle asked the hatchery how long our layers could be expected to live she was told that the recommend “replacing” them every year. Hmmm….

Since we eat a plant-based diet (and have done so for 25 years) the soup not is not an option, although we certainly aren’t averse to ending the suffering of an ailing hen when and if necessary.

These ladies work very hard their whole lives producing wonderful eggs for us, so it seems disrespectful to end their lives just because they stop laying. Michelle looks at this from an ethical perspective, which I agree with. From a profit standpoint they do continue to consume feed but they consume much less than when they were laying.

My attitude is that if they are still eating feed they are producing manure, which is beneficial to our gardens so they are welcome to stay.


One of our “ladies” has slowed down considerably in recent weeks. And yet she continues to hang in during this bitterly cold Canadian winter. I call her Maya. She seems to possess wisdom to rise above the flock that the other ladies lack. When I clean the coop twice a week I have to chase all of the chickens out of the coop or else it is just too chaotic to clean. Maya is generally hunkered down in the deep straw and so when I want to clean I pick her up and tuck her into one of the cozy nesting boxes out of the way of my rake and shovel. She seems quite content to just sit and watch the activity.

She has a bare patch on her back that the other ladies sometimes peck, so yes, she is “hen pecked.” Anytime I spot this behavior I let it be known that it is unacceptable. Maya seems to accept this treatment and not let it bother her, which is another reason that I consider her the “wise one.” She doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

Today after I finished cleaning the coop most of the other hens were outside in the sun room (read about that here.) Maya had chosen to go outside to enjoy the warmth of the sun. I had a pot full of warm rice, which is a treat that the ladies love I sometimes think that they mistake the rice for insect larvae. They attack it with such enthusiasm! So before I dispensed the rice and experienced the resulting bedlam, I picked Maya up and took her into the now clean coop and gave her a spoonful of rice to eat unencumbered.

The savages outside went after the rice like a pride of lions after a fresh kill. Meanwhile Maya enjoyed her fine dining in peace, by herself, inside the coop.

I’m not sure what quality of life a senior chicken has but all of the ladies at Sunflower Farm live a pretty fine life. And the older ladies who have worked so hard providing us with wonderful brown eggs get to live out their golden years in the comfort and with the respect that they deserve.


One cold winter morning I expect to find that Maya has passed on during the night. Obviously the ground is frozen solid so I won’t be able to dig a grave for her and I will also want to make sure that Jasper the Wonder Dog doesn’t have the opportunity to develop a taste for fresh chicken.

So, I will hike into the woods and bury her in the snow. A fox or a coyote may eventually find her and I think she’d be okay with that. Seems like kind of a natural process. Heck, I’d do the same thing if I could, except there seems to be a lot of restrictions about disposing of human remains these days.

For more stories from Sunflower Farm please visit

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buried root cellar

I mentioned building a root cellar in my introductory post, but I thought readers of Mother Earth News would be interested in a more detailed description of making and using it. I based the design on this plan, which involves modifying an (unused!) precast septic tank. When I decided to join my brother Ed in growing all my own food for 2015, I knew I would need a better place to store our root vegetables than the old farmhouse basement, but using using cinder blocks or building forms to pour concrete in place seemed like a bigger job than I had time for. Using a precast 6’ x 6’ x 10’ tank and some materials I had on hand made the job much easier than it would have been, and I ended up with a root cellar that has maintained a stable temperature and high humidity even in the worst of a harsh New York winter.

One of the biggest potential jobs required to put in a cellar, no matter the design, is digging the hole. Luckily, I already needed to rent an excavator for some other things around the farm, and it made what would have been days or weeks of work with a shovel a matter of a few hours. The location I chose is a bank off of the driveway. It’s south facing, which concerned me a little - I thought it might be prone to overheating - but it was the only suitable site within a reasonable distance of both the houses and the garden.

There were a few tense minutes when it looked like the truck that was delivering the septic tank would not have room to maneuver into position, but the driver finally managed to line it up. I’d been expecting a boom truck, which can drop a tank almost anywhere, but at the last minute I got a call from the concrete company saying the tank weighed so much that only their truck with a slide off of the back could handle it. It ended up working out, but it would have been less stressful if that miscommunication could have been avoided.

The tank already had flanges around the top, and these let me put in vent pipes without drilling new holes. I did need to rent a saw to cut the doorway, and there’s no way to overstate how noisy, messy, and tiring sawing through concrete and rebar is. But the most time consuming part of the project was the retaining walls coming out from the door, for which I used cinder blocks I’d stashed over the years. I did a double layer with mesh going back into the backfill to help hold them in place, and all the tamping and dirt moving seemed endless. Now that I’ve gone through most of a winter, I think that the extra labor was worth it. Having the front of the root cellar as buried as possible helps moderate the temperature, and in a cold winter that’s a must.

root cellar retaining walls

I store the vegetables in plastic file holders. I would like to use the six gallon milk crates, but they are much more expensive, and since the cellar fits 72 of them, the cost is considerable. Perhaps over the coming years I’ll find enough at yard sales to transition over to them. I didn’t weigh the total harvest, but it holds an incredible amount of carrots, turnips rutabagas, beets, and Jerusalem artichokes, as well as fresh cabbages and crocks of kimchi and sauerkraut. The rutabagas and turnips that didn’t fit into the crate went into feed bags in the corner of the cellar.

It was a fairly warm fall, so the cellar didn’t get down into the thirties for a while, but once it did it stayed there. The temperature held steady at around 35 until well into January, at which point the weather here, as on much of the east coast, turned arctic. With night routinely dropping to fifteen or twenty below, the temperature in the root cellar started creeping down, getting as low as 32.9 degrees. My wife Alanna put open buckets of water in the cellar moderate the temperature and keep the humidity up, and at the very coldest points of the year Ed shoveled snow against the door, since he figured that was where most of the temperature loss was occurring.

On the whole I’m happy with the performance of the root cellar. The veggies in it have held their quality, even as an extremely cold winter has limited how often I can keep the air vents cracked open. Going forward, it will be interesting to explore which varieties store best. Lutz winter keeper beets, which I grew for the first time, yielded well and taste wonderful, but they have not lived up to their name in storage, going soft earlier than three root grex. The potato crop was almost a complete failure, which I will write about in the future, so I need to work on the best timing for planting, harvesting, and storing them. I plan on trying endive next year, and in the summer when the root cellar warms up a little I’m going to experiment with using it as a cheese cave. I’m sure in the coming months I’ll think of plenty of other ways to use it to get the most out of my garden and homestead.

Garth and Edmund Brown also blog regularly on their farm's website, which can be found here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Large Sow with Piglets 

What could be more fun and exciting then seeing a group of pasture-raised piglets run through the warm, green grass of summer? Not much in my opinion! But does the thought of cold weather care make you want to cringe? Actually the care of pastured pigs in winter doesn’t have to be that hard and shouldn’t make you reconsider your choices. We are most familiar with the ‘Idaho’ pastured pigs and ‘Kunekune’ pigs, but a lot of what we will discuss will apply to other breeds of pasture pigs as well.

A-Frame Housing

Winter Pig Shelter

Probably the most important aspect for pigs wintering outside is that they have adequate shelter and protection from the weather and cold. We build A-frame houses made with two sheets of plywood on the sides and a triangle piece for the back. We use these same shelters in the summer months and with no floors the pigs are able to stay cool on the dry ground. In the colder months we fill the shelters full of straw or hay bedding to keep them warm. Five or six of our fully grown Idaho pasture pigs fit comfortably in the A-frame shelters and they stay very warm and toasty. Many mornings, they will get up when I come to feed them and steam will billow out along with them.

Many people think pigs won’t eat hay, but that is exactly what our pigs eat all winter. We feed a combination of alfalfa, clover, and grass hay. We put a big round bale or square bale into each pen and it gives them feed and entertainment for many weeks (and then we replace it with another one). Remember: Most pastured pigs like to graze and having the ability to do that all winter will keep them more content and happy. If you aren’t able to put in big bales, don’t worry— they will be happy with a couple leafs of hay each day from a small bale. This will still give them the ability to “graze” and give them the added feed they require. We do feed a commercial pig feed also to supplement the minerals that our ground is deficient in as well as provide the extra protein they require during the cold months.

Providing Water for Pigs During Winter

For most people the “scary” aspect of winter care is watering their pigs. How do they get water? Are they getting enough? How will they survive? These are all questions I hear on a regular basis. If you have electricity and can have heated dishes hooked up, then it isn’t a concern. But most of us do not have electricity to any or all of our pastures. We solved this problem by buying a rubber feed dish for each pen (we like the rubber feed dishes made for horses). Each day, I simply put water into each pen using these dishes. I have learned to take them out when they are done or they play with them and it is like a treasure hunt the next day to find it again! Pigs are also able to eat snow like many wild animals can and are able to get added hydration that way.

Warmth, Open Space and Adequate Water

The most important things to remember are:

• Pig shelters needs to be dry and warm, allowing pigs to get out of the wind and weather and stay cozy.
• Good roughage for pigs to eat throughout the day is preferred to ensure they get the adequate protein and minerals they need.
• Ensuring water is available during winter will keep pigs hydrated each day and will allow their digestive systems to function properly during dry winters.

Wintering pigs outside is both fun and rewarding, if you plan accordingly.  Enjoy the season and if you remember the important needs of your pasture pigs, they will too!


One of the greatest boons with our homesteading lifestyle is how closely related it is to physical and mental/spiritual health. The fundamentals for how we pursue our days – outdoor work, homegrown, organic food and a relatively stress free environment – are important components for a healthy life. But there are other aspects too for why I as a homesteader see a much greater chance for enhanced and sustained well-being than in the conventional western lifestyle. To go “back to basics” usually refers to a move towards down scaling, simplicity and a more conscientious life style often lived closer to nature. For me, back to basics can be taken even further: to move towards some of the basic, life sustaining elements that we as humans have evolved for, something that I believe is the most fundamental aspect for health and inner balance.


To follow my food from seed to plant and back to soil brings me closer to nature and to some basic elements for our existence.

Throughout the entire existence of humans, our brains have developed for a certain range of input, environments and nourishment and our anatomy has evolved parallel with that. Some aspects of this are more obvious, like that we're built for physical activity, but I believe these evolutionary traits go deeper and are more subconscious and intangible than we're able to fully grasp. It's easy for me to imagine that inner city environments with their sights, sounds and artificial materials, screens on devices or blaring loud speakers add stress to our systems, simply because we have not evolved for that kind of input. Balance, and good health, is found when our brains on the most fundamental level understand the surroundings and our place and function in that: when our lungs understand what we breath – clean oxygen and not pollution, when our cells go about their task without confusion from foreign substances or toxins and our organs can do what they are “taught” to do without external stress from for example increased cholesterol or heavy doses of sugar.

The last century has drastically and rapidly altered many of the contexts we've evolved for, and one of the more concrete examples of how our modern western lifestyle has diminished our well being is the introduction of heavily processed food. Refined wheat, sugar and corn, growth hormones and antibiotics, artificial substances and GMO's are some examples that now have been scientifically proven to have a severe negative impact on people's physical health. The most common line of reasoning is that we have evolved to eat and digest certain types of food and the rapid and recent change in our diet now leads to overweight and diseases such as diabetes, gluten intolerance and other allergies, all being symptoms of unbalance.

As a social and cultural creature I believe our brains have a great elasticity, and in a society with an exponential rate of change, we've gotten used to adapting new circumstances, technology and even realities, such when we move to a new town or country or change our job.

Even though a conventional western life style in the 21st Century often is far away from the genetically recognizable context we've evolved for it, becomes a state of a “new normal” that we can get used to on the surface, but on a deeper, intuitive level, as biological creatures, we might not be as easily adaptable. As we keep progressing further away from the basics, we will see more and more health related consequences of a mental unbalance.  

Factors such as exposure to unnatural substances, artificial food and materials certainly have a huge impact on our well-being and hence on our balance but just as many things have changed rapidly on a psychological level and the link between physical illness and spiritual stress related to the many non-biological circumstances we now face starts to be obvious. Fewer people than ever have a daily and direct connection to nature even though our belonging to the natural world is deeply inscribed through millennia of evolution. Not only do fewer people than ever live in rural areas, but fewer than ever also rely on nature for their sustenance: food is bought in the store, houses come from factories and oil furnaces and air-conditioning controls the climate. We are here and nature is there. To not only understand the indisputable role nature plays for our sustenance but also to acknowledge, and deeply feel, our connection to nature is to me the most important factor for “back to basic” and in extension, for our well-being.


As a homesteader I've found that much of my every day life brings me close to the physical and spiritual factors for well-being. My days follow the rhythm of the sun and my year follows the rhythm of the season. I'm outside every day, no matter the weather and in non-sterile living conditions, my body is used to handling bacterias, microorganism and fungi, all being ever present in a natural environment. My life lends itself towards physical activity and eating our own food means eating wholesome, organic and nutrient dense.  

But even more so, I've also found that many aspects of a homesteader's life lies close to basic spiritual elements for human existence. Not only do I eat healthy, but to follow the basic means for life, my food, from seed to plant to fruit and through composting, and to see it transformed back to soil aligns my life on this planet with all life and the dial for my inner balance comes to an equilibrium. To live in this direct relation to nature opens my eyes for the interconnectedness of nature: that the source of my food is also the source of food for other life – wildlife such as voles and deer but also fungi, bacteria and microorganisms – and that my source of heat, a tree in the woods, can be someone’s home and that all this can be both our source of recreation and a way to make a living. This basic concept – the dependence on nature for our sustenance – has been a consistent factor throughout human evolution and is therefore a concept that my mind can understand and recognize on a deep level.

This interconnectedness to basic natural elements can't be achieved if not physically present in the elements for it and for many people in our part of the world this has changed drastically, lately due to globalization and digitizing. The general rule of thumb for a direct, physical contact with one's mean of living and for one's social communication through face to face conversations have largely been replaced by a complex, world wide chain of distributions, trade, transactions and online social networks and forums. Internet has incredible potential for instant and global exchange and it provides an unprecedented opportunity to connect with like-minded and achieve not only a sense of belonging but also rapid social change. But I can't help to wonder though, how this substantial change in interactions impacts us as human beings when we no longer have to be physically connected to how are needs are met and when we rely largely on fast-paced, abbreviated communication with people we might never have met in real life.

My own observations of what happens when there's a demand for immediate responses to online communication, when we're assumed to be constantly reachable and when we communicate simultaneously with several different individuals through several different platforms is the same as with other previously non-existent phenomena: it becomes a “new normal” which we as culturally adaptable creatures to some degree can handle, but that on a spiritual and evolutionary level leads to high stress and imbalance. While I too tap into these ways of communicating and staying connected to friends, news and information, I largely remain in this physically present and tangible reality that I feel is mentally easier for me to relate to and therefore more nourishing.  


In times past, I too have lived the same conventional lifestyle as so many do today, in an inner city area with an indoor, computer based office job with very vague results on how I spent the majority of my waking time. Back then, this was for me a state of normal and I gave little or no thought to alternative ways of going about life. But, it was also a state of inner instability, high stress and a general feeling of being out of touch – I didn't see the outcome of my efforts as work, I had very limited time to pursue personal interests and felt confined by the artificial grid made up by my apartment, the commuter train and my office.

Had I kept at it, one can only guess the outcome – perhaps I would have come to rely on the fairly generous paycheck and accepted this as normal, but probably been ground down by the almost impossible feat to ever biologically adapt to such a reality. Maybe something in me already back then called out loud enough that I couldn't ignore it – that “back to basic” could be a forward movement towards balance, health and well-being. As a homesteader, I have found purpose and meaning and by being in touch with my context, I am better capable of creating long lasting soundness for me and all that's around me.

Photos by Anneli, Colleen Delaney and Dennis Carter.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 



That dreaded event in a beekeeper's world when an entire colony of bees dies in the hive.

It was a very sad day in mid-December when we found one of the colonies had died out. Every few weeks through winter, a warm enough day (50 degrees F) rolls around and there is an opportunity to check the hives. Typically we add candy boards during these checks as a supplemental food supply. Two of the three colonies were thriving but the third contained only dead bees. A sad day indeed.

After taking a moment to apologize to the queen, feel sorry for ourselves and the bees, I decided to learn from this unfortunate experience.


What Happened?

It seems this is a winter malady. It can be related to the cold weather or evidence that the colony was weak. The best way to find out is to take the entire hive somewhere that you can do a thorough post mortem examination. Here are some things to look for:

Varroa Mites or Tracheal Mites

Look for bees with deformed wings. A "k" shaped wing deformity may indicate tracheal mites. Pick through the layers of debris on the bottom board and watch for signs of Varroa mites.

Hive Beetles and Wax Moths

Hive beetles are small black hard shelled beetles that take up residence in the crevices of the hive. Cottony oval shaped cocoons or oval shaped depressions on frames is a sign of wax moths. An abundance of either is evidence of a weak colony. Strong colonies of honeybees are very hygienic and will keep these pests in control.


As you examine the frames, note the position of the dead bees. Are they head first in cells? Is the cluster mainly located a frame or so away from a supply of honey? Both of these conditions indicate starvation. If it becomes too cold for the bees to reach their food supply or they did not have adequate stores to get through winter, they will starve. 

Other Causes

There are other potential causes for a dead out such as a weak queen, foulbrood or even a rodent infestation. Observe your dead colony for indicators of these conditions.

Now What?

After you have identified a potential cause for the loss of the colony, there is hope to save the rest of your apiary. If you have found an unacceptable mite load, plan for a spring treatment of the other colonies. Starvation can be counter-acted with supplemental feedings or leaving more honey stores in the fall. Small hive beetle traps are effective at reducing that population. The condition you find will steer you to the correct solution. As a precaution, particularly if you discover foulbrood, burn the dead bees and any equipment that can not be adequately cleaned.

I will not let a dead-out deter me from keeping honeybees. I will learn from this experience and strive to be a better beekeeper.

Julia Miller is the co-owner of Five Feline Farm, a hobby farm in Central Illinois where honeybees, gardening and of course cats reign supreme. Check out the farm website and while you're there, get a free ebook!

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Author Len McDougall, and his wife, Cheanne, snowshoed 1.5 miles on Whitefish Point, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, February 28.  Eighteen feet of snow has fallen so far this winter, and Len actually snowshoed this trail just before Christmas, although you'd never know that anyone had passed through.

This is the first day after a seven-week below-zero (Fahrenheit) cold spell.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Having and maintaining a garden at high elevation can be exasperating and very much a challenge. Our growing season is short and the best way to have a decent harvest is to start the seeds inside. In the 18 years we have lived at this higher elevation we have tried various methods of growing a garden and it has been 18 continuous years of trial and error. Mostly error but strides forward have been a slow progression for us by learning from our numerous errors. For example we have started seeds inside so that when the snow finally melts away and the ground thaws they can be transplanted outdoors in our entirely enclosed garden boxes. Those garden boxes are fully enclosed in 1/2-inch hardware screen to keep the rodents out and then they are also covered with a 50-percent sun screen to protect tender plants from the intense sunlight at this elevation (9,750 feet). In one garden box I plant spinach seeds in late fall and when the soil thaws out in the spring they will sprout and provide us a two week head start on our leaf vegetables. As I sit here and write that particular box is currently under 5 feet of snow so it will be a while this year before they begin to sprout.

Enclosing the garden boxes with hardware cloth on all six sides became necessary to keep rodents out of the interior area. We have voles, moles, mice, rabbits, ground squirrels and chipmunks - all of which have an uncanny ability to find their way into gardening containers at just the right time to consume our harvest. The boxes allow sunlight and rain to enter in order to nourish the plants but now keep rodents out. Once the plants are established we sometimes take the 50-percent sun screen off the hinged top portion to allow for more direct sunlight. Our optimum growing season is usually 60 days leaving the rest of the gardening season with cool nights and short days slowing growth. The garden boxes are varying heights and sizes to accommodate both small and large plants. Insects are not much of a problem at this altitude so by growing in a fully enclosed container the only real hazard is when we have an occasional hail storm. Hail has ruined vegetables a few times over the years which always presents the question as to whether risk a hail storm and remove the 50-percent sun screen or not. The sun screen protects against hail but limits the growth of the plants in our short growing season by limiting the sunlight.

A few times during the last 18 years we have had very mild winters and I was able to get plants safely transplanted into the garden boxes around the first week of April. Those are cherished years as it gives us a longer growing season which is very unusual for us. Up until two weeks ago I wrongly assumed that this was appearing to be one of those extended growing seasons and I could have a great harvest. The garden boxes were clearly visible from the snow which had been very moderate to date. I made the terrible mistake of thinking it would only be 4-6 weeks until I could start to work in the garden outside. I got my seed starter boxes out and filled them with sprouting soil and planted the seeds inside. As can be seen in the photo they are doing well and could be planted outside in the next few weeks. I seriously miscalculated because when I made this decision we were having days in the 50s but in the past two weeks we have had snow almost each day for a total accumulation during that period of 90 inches and very cold temperatures.

Fortunately I can save the seedlings this year by planting them in earth boxes and keeping them in the basement with a grow light. It is going to take several weeks for our current snow to melt away and hence planting the seedlings outside is no longer possible. Proper timing when attempting a garden at high elevation is always iffy at best but to make a serious mistake like this year can sometimes mean starting totally over again. Fortunately I did not plant more seeds than my earth boxes can accommodate. Even our earth boxes needed modification due to our rodents to keep vegetables out of their reach. Even though we keep the boxes on our deck which is elevated 10’ from the ground the ground squirrels climb onto the deck to get at them. To solve that problem I drilled holes in the edge of the earth boxes and fashioned wire loops over the boxes and covered the boxes in netting. Thus far that has worked.

We have tried solar boxes to start plants outside early but when left closed during the day they become too hot for tender seedlings and when we would prop them open in the daytime the ground squirrels and chipmunks, looking for food after coming out of hibernation, would devastate them before they got a good start. Prior to declaring full out war against rodents and just before digging a moat or laying a mine field around our garden I arrived at the idea of enclosed garden boxes which seems to have resolved the problem for now. I am glad that I chose to build the garden boxes strong because on one occasion we observed a bear standing on one box. The bear could not figure out how the hinged top lifted up so instead stood on the box which held up nicely. Swinging the lid up while you are standing on it is next to impossible which stymied the bear completely and it finally just gave up and left.

Having and maintaining a garden at high elevation is possible if you are persistent and adaptable. With a short growing season, rodents, harsh weather and the intense sun during the summer makes it necessary to sometimes grow a garden outside the more conventional method. Through trial and error we have found a way to grow and harvest vegetables but we still have to be flexible for changes like this year being fooled by mother nature and the influx of snow. For us it just boils down to old Irish stubbornness and persistence.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their high altitude living check out the McElmurray's Mountain Retreat.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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