September 17, 2002   #190
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
From a Public Interest Perspective

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Recently Lisa de Moraes, a Washington Post staff writer reported that CBS is bringing back "The Beverly Hillbillies," but this time the family members that supposedly will supply the laughs won't be played by Hollywood actors; they'll be real live families from the South.

She notes: "After spending decades trying to shed the Bubba image it contracted in the 1960s when its prime-time lineup included a slew of backcountry characters, CBS has decided to embrace once again its biggest hick hit of all. The network already has a crew of casting agents combing `mountainous, rural areas’ in Arkansas, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of a `multi-generational family of five or more --- parents, children and grandparents --- who will be relocated for at least a year' to a mansion in Beverly Hills, said CBS spokesman Chris Ender.

"`That is not to say if we discover the perfect family from another area of the country we wouldn't consider them,' he added. `We're looking for a family from a very rural area that hasn't been exposed to big-city life or luxuries of life in any way.'"

The family will be given money with which to buy expensive cars and designer suits, hire maids and personal assistants, and dine at trendy West L.A. eateries.

The head of reality programming for CBS, Ghen Maynard, told the trade paper Variety, which broke word of the remake that the network is looking for a family that's very different but "relatable" and whose members love one another.

In the late 1960's other popular shows played off the same "Beverly Hillbillies" theme --- "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres" --- and all three were still Top 20 programs when CBS dropped them in the early `70s. "That was about the time," de Moreas notes that,  "the Nielsen company started providing the networks with information about viewer demographics. Turned out, people who watched these shows were mostly rural, mostly older and lacking much spending power. Advertisers became less interested in the shows."

Ender said CBS isn't worried that the new "Beverly Hillbillies" will suffer the same fate. "We believe this will hit a sweet spot of young adults with its reality base," he said, young viewers being the audience advertisers most want to reach.

Quoting Dub Cornett, who's among those developing CBS's "Beverly Hillbillies" reality remake, she continues "`We will accomplish the most if we cast it well with people who respect themselves but see the humor in themselves. We will end up with a piece that truly has, God forbid, social commentary, and maybe will enlighten, that it's not all barefoot hillbillies," he said. "Most of America can only imagine what it's like to live in Beverly Hills and live in a multimillion-dollar mansion. We can share this advantage with them, rather than laugh at them."

So once again we will see the people who populate rural America  portrayed as not just being backward when it comes to being "exposed to big-city life or luxuries of life in any way," but are also deemed suitable objects of humor by the haves of the have nots. The fact that rural America and the people who live in our rural communities from family farmers in the heartland to those working in the hills and valleys of Appalachia are suffering at the hands of these very same haves plays little or no part in the minds of our media moguls.

As long as those other "sweet spot[s] of young adults with its reality base" are satisfied, namely with abundant amounts of food and energy, the plight of the men, women and children who toil to provide those necessities of life will be but a passing blur on the nightly news.

Even when the news media decides to venture into America's hinterlands we usually get the standard postcard shots of pastoral-beauty and the faux romanticism of living out in the countryside, while at the same time --- behind their backs --- we make sport of the people of live in such surroundings while paying little or no heed to their basic human everyday needs.

There is something uniquely obscene about people growing and harvesting abundant crops for our dining room tables and fast food restaurants who themselves have to purchase food stamps so they and their families can survive while at the same time nearly one-third of the food their crops generates is wasted.

When goodly numbers of Americans were mucking around with Bill Clinton and Ken Starr in TV land in the late summer of 1998 PBS viewers were given the opportunity to eavesdrop for six and one-half hours on the lives of Nebraska family farmers Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter's marriage in "The Farmer's Wife," a documentary produced for the network's "Frontline" series. (See Issue #4)

Here was a story, stark in its reality, focusing not on inane humor, but on the grim reality of being a farm family today faced on a daily basis with losing their farm and their future.

The questions raised in "The Farmer's Wife," just as the questions raised in Edward R. Murrow's famous TV documentary "Harvest of Shame" are issues that those who provide us with the news and events that help shape our nation and the world steadfastly refuse to confront for fear of antagonizing the increasing small number of corporations that seek to control our lives.

A Scott Chronister from Eitting, Germany got it exactly right, in a letter-to-the-editor to the Washington Post after the de Moraes article, when he wrote:

"Does CBS think we believe that the show is intended to provide `social commentary' and to `enlighten' viewers? P.T. Barnum already answered that one. If CBS is really looking for a fish-out-of-water story, it should take a family of former Enron or WorldCom executives, strip them of their cash and other worldly goods, and plop them in the middle of Appalachia. Now that has the makings of good humor and good social commentary."


SHEILA FARR, THE SEATTLE TIMES: The work: "American Gothic" a 1930 oil painting by Grant Wood.

Why it matters: "American Gothic," along with the "Mona Lisa" and "Whistler's Mother," is, according to critic Robert Hughes, "one of the three paintings that every American knows. . . . ."

It's also an image that gets frequently vandalized by cartoonists and advertisers, to spoof contemporary politicians or sell products (who hasn't seen Paul Newman and his daughter Nell posed in American Gothic-getup on the labels of their food products?)

Oddly, however, the most recognized couple in American art is really no couple at all: It likely represents a country lass and her angry father --- a take-off on the old farmer's daughter jokes. Wood dressed his sister and a local dentist in 1890s-style costume for the picture, saying, "I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house."

During the Depression, when Works Progress Administration (WPA) photographers were capturing on film the tragic faces of impoverished farmers, Wood's slightly campy painting raised a controversy --- some thought Wood was taking a potshot at rural life. He probably was. Now the painting is a textbook example of how an artwork that at first creates a tumult of disapproval can go on to be revered as an icon.

Where to find it: "American Gothic" is owned by The Art Institute of Chicago.


ELIZABETH BECKER, NEW YORK TIMES: Willie Nelson woke up early, got in a round of golf and then stood on the side of a parched Nebraska cornfield to film the narration of a church-sponsored documentary on the plight of America's small family farmers.

The temperature was hovering around 90 degrees. On the sidelines Mr. Nelson's road manager was trying to hurry the filming to get the singer out of the burning sun. Five hours later Mr. Nelson took the stage at T. J's, a tavern in this town [Brownville, Nebraska] of 148 people, playing for two hours as a favor to a local farmer, something he has done countless times since the mid-1980's.

As a superstar, he might be forgiven for abandoning his crusade to improve the lives of America's disappearing small farmer. But Mr. Nelson, 69, says he will not. "It's not one you can dance into and dance out of," he said. "There's a lot of people behind us, who depend on us."

Lawmakers have rejected nearly all the policies Mr. Nelson has promoted. The farmers he started to help in 1985 have died, retired or taken second  jobs to keep their homesteads. Up and down the central prairie, from his home state, Texas, to North Dakota, Mr. Nelson keeps running into those farmers. They press his hand in thanks and ask him to do a little more.

He predicted that Bono, the Irish rock star who is trying to change how rich countries help poor countries, would discover the perils of raising the hopes of people in need. "Like I was chuckling about Bono, I bet he woke up one morning not too long ago and wondered how he could get out of this," Mr. Nelson said. "You discover how serious it is and you can't get out."

After Congress passed a farm bill this year that gives ten percent of the  farmers --- the country's richest --- nearly 60% of the government's subsidies, Mr. Nelson said he was dispirited. "There ain't anybody in Washington I care to talk to right now," he said.

Mr. Nelson will perform his 15th Farm Aid concert on Saturday, a nearly annual event that has raised $23 million to help farmers pay their bills  and promote their causes. Every day his hot line, 1-800-FARMAID, gets pleas for help from farmers.

Unlike Bono, who likes to demonstrate how much he knows about development and global poverty, Mr. Nelson does not pretend to be a master of the intricacies of farm policy.

He likes the price support system worked out in World War II, which distributed government subsidies more evenly across the board, but he said he knew that would never be reinstated. His only desire is that "farmers get enough money to pay for the work they do."

When Mr. Nelson helped to organize his first Farm Aid concert, he said he thought it would be his last. All he had to do was focus attention on farmers' problems and, he said, "I thought the smart guys in Washington would change it." Now, having given up on arguing with politicians in Washington, he said he was "thinking of ways of getting around the government."

As he sings around the country, he promotes more farmers' markets, closer connections between farmers and consumers, and tries to persuade supermarkets to stock organic food from local farmers. "Being raised in Abbott, Texas., taught me the difference between a fresh tomato, a fresh farm egg and the stuff most other people eat and think is food," he said.

Getting around the government also means playing here for his friend Corky Jones, a local farmer who has been fighting for small farmers for more than 25 years.

For nearly three hours he played his standards, including "Heartland," the tune he wrote with Bob Dylan for Farm Aid. David Anderson, Mr. Nelson's manager, said the show should not be viewed as simple charity. "This will probably be the funniest show of the tour," Mr. Anderson said. "Willie likes a wild, chaotic night playing at a place like T. J.'s tavern more than in some stadium."

The town showed its appreciation.

"Even the old people were on their feet," Mr. Jones said. "He helped us immensely. It will be an event that will go down in the history of  Brownville."


BRUCE GOLDSTEIN, CO-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FARMWORKER JUSTICE FUND, INC.: On September 10, Judge Gladys Kessler ruled in favor of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in the lawsuit against the Departmenty of Labor (DOL) for delaying issuing the H-2A adverse effect wage rates (AEWR’s).

She said that DOL could not delay issuing the AEWR's each year beyond the beginning of the H-2A seasons, without engaging in notice and comment rulemaking to change the regulation, because such delay is inconsistent with the current regulation.

Although there is no way to get retroactive backpay for the workers who suffered during 2001 and 2002 from the lower wage rates caused by DOL's delays, this court ruling should prevent future delays and loss of wages. During 2001 and 2002, delayed issuing the annual wage rates until a court hearing was about to occur in the case.

DOL claimed that under the existing regulation it could issue the annual wage rates as late as December 31 (instead of around February, March or April), but Judge Kessler said that this would be illegal because the DOL had said in the regulation that in one year the H-2A program AEWR's must be equal to farmworkers' wage rates from the previous year as found by the USDA wage surveys. If DOL wants to give itself the flexibility to avoid implementing the USDA wage survey results, it would need to change the regulation using the proper procedure.

She held that the substantive claims about unreasonable delay and arbitrary and capricious reasons for DOL's justification of the delay were moot since 2001 and 2002 have ended and no delay has yet happened for 2003 (since still being in 2002).

That is, she did not rule on those claims. She was concerned that DOL could keep delaying issuing the wage rates, and preventing the unions from getting a ruling from a court each year by issuing them just before the court hearing (as they have done twice), but she nonetheless said (during oral argument) that her ruling on Count I solved that problem of judicial review, so a ruling on Counts II and III wasn't necessary.

"I believe that it would clearly illegal and a violation of the court order for the DOL to issue the wage rates late in 2003 unless the agency somehow engaged in an extremely rapid notice and commenting rulemaking process to change the regulation to alter the schedule before then. There is still a question about exactly by what date DOL needs to issue the wage rate."

The Judge implied that they should issue it at the very beginning of the calendar year even though DOL might point to the months of March and April, which are mentioned in some DOL documents. But the bottom line is that the unions won and there is no reason why DOL can't publish the AEWR's in the Federal Register in January, since USDA releases the wage rates in November of the prior year.

It is not known if DOL will appeal but it's kind of stupid if they do, since they may as well issue a new regulation instead of appealing; the time frame would be about the same. In addition, the growers' have much bigger ideas about changing the AEWR methodology than fighting over a mere delay; they want them lowered substantially.Ę That could mean a legislative battle in Congress between now and December.

The plaintiffs were the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, in California, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO in Ohio. Lead counsel on the case is David Dean of James & Hoffman, with help from associate Jeff Vogt (who is now at the International Labor Rights Fund). Co-Counsel was Bruce Goldstein, co-executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, Inc.


Agribusiness claims growers --- particularly small farmers --- would go out  of business if United Farm Workers-sponsored legislation is enacted allowing farm workers to use mediation to resolve contract disputes when employers drag out negotiations. Here are the facts:

* Among concessions to Gov. Gray Davis in the compromise bill passed by the California Legislature on August 31 (AB 2596, by Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, Dem.-Los Angeles) is a cap of 75 on the number of cases that could be brought through the mediation and review process in the five years before the law would sunset. According to the Western Growers Association and the Farm Bureau, there are roughly 86,000 farms in California. So the UFW bill would affect less than 1/1000 of one percent of the farms in California.

* There are still some small farmers in California --- and growers with 25 workers or less would be exempted from the UFW bill. But California's nearly $30 billion agricultural industry has always been dominated by large corporations or big family-run operations employing hundreds ---sometimes thousands --- of farm workers. It's the big growers that the UFW usually organizes.

* Farm worker pay has been very depressed for years. The U.S. Department of Labor says 75% of California farm workers earn less than $10,000 per year. Most migrant and seasonal farm workers earn the minimum wage at best; minimum wage and hour violations occur all too frequently. And benefits are nearly nonexistent; U.S. government figures reveal 90% of California farm workers have no health coverage.

So even if some farm workers were to win modest pay raises from their first union contracts as a result of the UFW-sponsored legislation there would be little, if any, impact on the prices consumers pay for fruits and vegetables at the supermarket.

* Every time farm workers have won even modest gains, growers have said they would go out of business. When Congress ended the bracero program in 1964, growers said they would go out of business. When farm workers won unemployment insurance in 1975, growers said they would go out of business. When farm workers won workers' compensation and abolition of the infamous short-handled hoe, growers said they would go out of business.

Today, agribusiness is a nearly $30 billion-a-year business --- and it's  getting bigger and richer every year.


KIMI JACKSON, CASILLAS PESTICIDE ACTION PROJECT, COLORADO LEGAL SERVICES, MIGRANT FARM WORKER DIVISION: As we enjoy the bounty of harvest season, the farm workers who pick our crops would like us to be aware of the dangers workers face year after year. These dangers are illustrated in a report released by Colorado Legal Services, Migrant Farm Worker Division.

The report shows that Colorado farm workers frequently experience pesticide poisoning, and that many employers illegally place their workers' health and lives in danger. For example, 59% of the surveyed farm workers reported that they had never received training in pesticide safety, which is required under United States laws. After working in the fields, 49% of the farm workers reported experiencing skin irritation, headaches, or inflamed eyes.

The workers are treated as disposable, if they get injured or sick, employers think they can just get more. But the workers are human beings with families to feed.

The report, "Hidden Costs: Farm Workers Sacrifice their Health to Put Food on Our Tables," examines Colorado Legal Services' Casillas Pesticide Action Project's survey of migrant farm workers conducted in Colorado during the 2001 growing season. The detailed survey asked for information about the farm workers' experience with pesticides, training and medical conditions.

Forty-seven percent of the surveyed farm workers reported irritation of the nose or throat after working. Twenty-six percent stated that they had experienced dizziness or weakness. Twenty-two percent reported difficulty breathing. Forty-eight percent of the farm workers reported that they had been sent to work in a treated field before it was safe to enter.

The surveyed workers stated that they took safety precautions when facilities were available. When hand-washing water was available, 96% of the surveyed workers said they used it. But 41% reported that they did not have access to hand washing water while they were working and were unable to wash pesticide residue from their skin.

These figures would improve if employers complied with federal laws designed to protect farm workers from toxic pesticide exposure. Current compliance levels appear to be very low. In 2001, United States Environmental Protection Agency inspectors found that 91% of inspected Colorado growers were in violation of pesticide safety laws. Increased
compliance would lead to fewer pesticide exposures and fewer of farm workers.

Forty to 50,000 farm workers labor in Colorado each year. Ninety-seven percent are Hispanic. They work in one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States and suffer from high rates of occupational injuries. The average farm worker earns between $5,000 and $7,500 per year.

Colorado Legal Services is a non-profit organization working to provide civil legal services to low-income people. The Casillas Pesticide Action Project (CPAP) is a project of Colorado Legal Services, Migrant Farm Worker Division. CPAP was founded in September 2000, funded by a fellowship from Equal Justice Works.

CPAP's name honors the memory of Jose Casillas, a seventeen-year-old farm worker who died after being sprayed with pesticides twice during a seven-day period.  Lacking pesticide training, he thought he had been sprayed with water and he continued wearing his contaminated clothing and even slept in them.


NEELY TUCKER & JUDY SARASOHN, WASHINGTON POST: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has faced withering criticism and a class action lawsuit from black farmers over what the department had acknowledged as racial bias going back decades, has created an office to help minority and socially disadvantaged farmers apply for federal farm loans.

The Office of Minority and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers Assistance, operating under the Farm Service Agency, will operate a toll-free help-line to answer queries on USDA loans and programs (1-866-538-2610). The new office shows USDA is "strengthening programs that serve" minority and socially disadvantaged growers, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said.

Although the class action settlement in 1999 was hailed by black farmers and federal officials as a major civil rights victory, it has since become a bitter disappointment to many of the people it was supposed to have helped. Many farmers' claims have been rejected under the settlement.

In the continuing wrangling over the settlement, a federal judge [September 11] denied two requests by several black farmers that would have ended the historic agreement.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman denied a request to vacate the settlement under which more than $600 million has been paid out to nearly 13,000 farmers. He also denied the plaintiffs' request to fire the attorneys who negotiated the settlement. The farmers charged that the sprawling settlement was too flawed to work and should be renegotiated. They cited criticisms of their attorneys by Friedman and the U.S. Court of Appeals as reasons for the lawyers' dismissal.

Friedman ruled the attorneys' failings were not serious enough to warrant their firing.


ROBERT SCHUBERT, CROPCHOICE: Tom Burrell thinks it's great that more Americans now understand their government's decades-long discrimination against black farmers. After all, raising awareness is one goal of the rallies and prayer vigils he has helped to organize at Department of Agriculture offices in the South.

Major media reported on a July rally at the Brownsville, Tennessee offices of the Farm Service Agency. Dan Glickman, secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration, admitted in 1999 that the Agency habitually denied and delayed loans to black farmers, but not to white farmers with similar finances and operations.

Burrell, preparing for a rally September 9 at the Farm Service Agency in Star City, Arkansas (Lincoln County), isn't satisfied. The Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association member wants people to understand that the issues go deeper and broader.

"The admission of discrimination is a misnomer," he says. "The issue is whether USDA employees, in discriminating against African American farmers, are expropriating their land, thus satisfying the wishes and desires of the heirs and descendants of the original plantation owners. That's conspiracy, not discrimination."

In towns throughout the South, plantation owners' descendants work in the local USDA offices, and have used familial connections with key local players to take land from black farmers. Their forbears' need for credit to cope with the shift from human to machine labor early in the last century enabled this massive land grab.

Burrell sees even broader implications, though. Much of the land that black --- and white --- family farmers have lost over the years became part of bigger farms. These industrial operations with only a few types of crops requiring heavy use of machinery, pesticides and now, biotechnology, form the model that the U.S. and other western governments and transnational agribusiness are pushing worldwide. The Vision 2020 plan for the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh epitomizes this: bulldoze the small, sustainable family farms --- displacing millions of people --- to make way for factory farms.

Following the Civil War, southern plantation owners faced financial ruin. Selling their farms was the best way to earn cash. They divided their holdings, ranging in size from 300 to 5,000 acres, into small parcels and sold them to black farmers for two reasons.

First, the newly emancipated agrarians had managed the aristocrats' land for centuries.  They'd been brought from Africa because of their farming skill. Second, they had big families to labor in the fields.

This was instrumental in maintaining high production that allowed them to quickly pay for the land. "With more hands they outpeanuted, out tobaccoed, outcottoned and outcorned the white farmers with smaller families," Burrell says. This was how, by 1910, one million black farmers had accumulated 16 million acres. Today, perhaps 10,000 growers control fewer than two million acres, according to the USDA.

While it's true that drought, pestilence and repeated economic downturns hurt them, the switch from human to mechanized labor was the most important factor that began the decline of black farmers.

Beginning in 1915, the farmers lost the labor of their sons and daughters when they headed north and west to work in the burgeoning automobile and war industries in Detroit, Chicago and New York. Meanwhile, tractors and harvesting equipment were becoming more common. White farmers had access to money to buy such equipment. Black farmers generally didn't. This also marked the beginning of policymakers' vision of larger farms with fewer farmers.

Still hanging on but without the labor advantage, black farmers approached state USDA offices about loans to purchase machinery.

"Bingo, the officials thought," Burrell says. "We've gotcha''  Sure we'll give you a loan to buy that tractor. When you come back, just remember to bring the deed to your land for security."

Since then the USDA essentially has created disasters for them by denying or delaying loans to buy inputs until the middle of the growing season when it's too late to expect a decent crop. After a few years of losses, the farmers are bankrupt and lose their land. Other farmers purchase or lease it to make larger tracts.

"The USDA says black farmers are in this mess because we're bad managers," Burrell says. "Well, if we were bad managers, how come white plantation owners had us running their farms for five hundred years?  If you give any farmer a loan in July or August, they're done. Even the best manager using Monsanto's patented seeds can't make those plants catch up."

Gary Grant, the president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, cites his community as a specific example of what he agrees is an effort to expel black farmers from the land. In 1935, the Roosevelt administration purchased 18,000 acres of what had been plantation land in Tillery, North Carolina to establish a New Deal community named Roanoke Farms (now called Tillery Farms).

Here's how it worked. Resettled black and white farmers, over a period of five years, were to sharecrop 40-acre homesteads to "prove" their managerial ability. Then they could begin purchasing the land.

Some 90 black families were doing just that in 1940. But disaster struck. Waters from the rising Roanoke River flooded 10,000 acres, ending their dreams. The USDA had placed all of the white families on high ground to the west of the river. It had settled most of the black families in the flood plain to the east.

For various reasons, the government abandoned many New Deal agricultural programs and placed others under the bailiwick of the new Farmers Home Administration (predecessor to the Farm Service Agency, created in 1994). It was to be the lender of last resort for farmers. The loans were the ticket to land for many of the Tillery flood victims and those who came after. By the 1950s, in the face of rampant racism, 300 black families were scraping out a living. Of those, five would survive the next couple of decades.

Government was already beginning to push for farmers to get bigger or get out. Of course, money was necessary to do that. In most cases, the fast-dwindling population of black farmers in Tillery used the money to buy more land; they were operating on an average of 200 to 300 acres. In contrast, the white farmers often opted for more equipment to use on leased land.

Trouble came in the 1970s. Over the course of three successive years, drought and other natural hardships struck the area. Those five farm families fell into delinquency and the USDA foreclosed.

Meanwhile, nearby struggling white farmers got different treatment. The USDA helped many of them avoid the same fate by negotiating payment terms and writing off debt.  This allowed them or their offspring to continue farming.

It is these farmers, many of whom are descended from the original plantation owners, who serve on the county committees that decide Farm Service Agency lending practices, Grant says. And they are the ones who show up at auction to buy the foreclosed land for pennies on the dollar or to lease it cheaply.

"That is why it's conspiracy, not discrimination," Burrell says. "I can't name names, but USDA officials have told me that, yes, expropriating land from black farmers is a policy." No one from the USDA would comment.

Burrell sees the loss of farms and farmers happening in phases. The plantation owners were the first to lose their land when the Union Army stormed through the South. Next came native Americans during the Indian Wars of 1865 to 1900. Then the small-scale, subsistence white farmers --- sharecroppers --- who had neither money nor large families were forced out. Black farmers were fourth.

Now it's time to take on the medium and large-scale growers of corn, soybeans, wheat and other commodity crops.

"The USDA is going to sit back and allow them to eliminate one another," he says. "The Farm Bill is meant to save those who have local, state and national business and political connections."

In the long run, mega farms of say 20,000 acres and larger, will remain. They'll fall under the control of agribusiness. In short, it will be corporate control of patented plants and animals from seed and fetus to plate.

Restricting this farming model to the home front isn't enough. Our leaders want to export it to Africa, India and other places with a history of sustainable, subsistence food production. "When USDA goes to India, they'll have John Deere, Monsanto, Cargill and Dow on the train with them," Burrell says. "It will be corporations versus small farmers."


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