Singing Frogs Farm: The Science Of Healthy Soil
Three years ago, I interviewed Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser about the remarkably effective model being pioneered at their farm, Singing Frogs Farm, a small micro-farm in northern California. It quickly became one of Peak Prosperity's most popular podcasts of all-time.
Developed over years of combining bio-intensive land/forestry management theory with empirical trial & error, the farming practices at Singing Frogs have produced astounding results.
First off and most important, no tilling of any kind is done to the soil. No pesticide/herbicide/fungicide sprays (organic or otherwise) are used. And the only fertilizer used is natural compost.
These practices result in a build-up of nutrient-dense, highly bio-rich topsoil. Where most farms have less than 12 inches of 'alive' topsoil in which they can grow things, Singing Frogs' extends to a depth over 4 feet(!).
This high-carbon layer of soil retains much more water than conventional topsoil, requiring much less irrigation than used at most farms (a very important factor given the historic drought the West is suffering).
All these advantages combine to enable Singing Frogs Farm to produce 5-7 harvests per year on their land, vs the 1-2 harvest average of other farms. And since the annual crop yield is so much higher, so is the revenue. Most other farms in northern California average $14,000 in gross revenue per acre. Singing Frogs grosses nearly $100,000 per acre — a stunning 5x more.
This week, I sit back down with Paul and Elizabeth to discuss the science behind their latest farming practices & techiniques, the importance of biology over chemistry when it comes to gardening, and the hands-on workshops they offer, and what they think it takes to make a 'resilient farmer'.
And shameless plug: the Kaisers will be presenting live at this April's Peak Prosperity Seminar (held April 26-28 in Sebastopol, CA) and then taking participants on a private walking tour of their farm. If that's of interest to you (and it should be, it's an amazing experience), sign up for the seminar here.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser from Singing Frogs Farm (59m:25s).
Listen to the AudioRead the Full Transcript!
Singing Frogs Farm: The Science Of Healthy Soil
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Adam Taggart: Hello, and welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I’m your host Adam Taggart. Here at PeakProsperity.com we focus on practical and actionable knowledge for building a better future. A big part of that mission is identifying new models that offer better, more economically and environmentally sustainable solutions.
One of the best models we’ve encountered is the regenerative, intensive no till approach to farming being pioneered by Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser at Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, California. The yield they get from the earth, while building new layers of rich top soil in the process is truly astounding. Our earlier podcast with the Kaiser’s back in 2016 remains one of our most popular and listened to episodes of all time. And they were hugely appreciative part of our last annual Peak Prosperity seminar, delivering a science rich and truly inspiring presentation on their growing process, followed by a private walking tour of their farming operations.
We’ve got Paul and Elizabeth back with us this week to talk about what’s happening at their farm now and expanding the theme that they’re presenting these days, resilience in farming, something that’s near and dear to the Peak Prosperity audience. So, without further ado, we’re sitting down around the table in my kitchen as we did last time, Paul and Elizabeth it’s great to have you guys back.
Paul Kaiser: Thank you very much; it’s great to be here.
Elizabeth Kaiser: Adam it’s great to be here and to be chatting with all of you.
Adam Taggart: Great. Well, as I mentioned earlier our first podcast with you guys was one of the absolute most popular we’ve ever done. I still get people almost every week or two ping me about it, and how much it inspired them and really opened their eyes to what’s possible with farming. For the few people listening here that perhaps didn’t listen to that earlier podcast, one – if you’re one of those people, if you like this one go back and listen to that one as well. We’ll have a link to it at the bottom of this podcast. But can you just give us a brief summary for the newbie in terms of the operations at Singing Frog Farms? I’m going to hit just a couple of highlights and you can expand on them, correct them, whatever.
But I know when we talked last time you mentioned that your farm has over four feet of fertile topsoil, versus most farms here in Northern California, which have less than one. You don’t till or disc, you water it less than other farms yet your productivity is much more than many other organic farms. I’ve read you get something like five to seven harvests a year versus the standard one to two that a lot of farms get. Probably most impressively, last time we talked you explained how you’re grossing over $100,000 per acre in revenue, which not only dwarfs other farms but you know out here in Sonoma County there’s a ton of vineyards and we’ve been losing farmland to vineyards forever because it’s a lot more profitable to grow wine grapes than other types of produce. But you’re turning that model on its head. Is all this true and whatever else folks need to know about your operations, just let us hear it?
Elizabeth Kaiser: Adam that was a great recap; I almost don’t have to say anything. Let me just do give a little bit of background of who we are and where we are. We are in Sonoma County, so for those of you who aren’t local to us here, we’re about an hour and a half north of the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. Our property is eight acres and about three acres of that is intensive veg. The rest is our ponds, our home as well as ecology that we have built up. We do sell about 40% of our produce to our CSA and about 50% to our farmer’s market customers and then a little bit around the edges to some local restaurants. So, we’re really proud that about 97% of our produce stays within 15 miles of the farm.
Paul Kaiser: Our CSA just means community supported agriculture, so we have about 120 families who are members of the farm and they get a weekly box year round.
Elizabeth Kaiser: Yes. And year round is really, really important to us so our CSA goes weekly through the main season and every other week in the winter. And we’re in a place where it’s challenging to grow in the winter. We had a pretty good frost this morning. But we all eat year round and so we find that it’s very important to do so and also not only does it keep us fed, but it keeps our customers going year round. And so it really adds to the resiliency of our farm economically, growing year round.
Paul Kaiser: And just to re-solidify sort of our farming practice, we are very much a no till operation. And this is non-mechanized no till. So this is all hand labor. There is no turning or moving of the soil and we can rotate crops through within an hour or so. Once we harvest a crop and clear the bed, prep the soil and continue with the next crop. So, there’s no disturbance of the soil. So it’s not so much that we have four feet of topsoil, it’s that we’ve built up the organic matter and the biology of that soil in the top four feet, so that we have now 400 or 500% more biology of organic matter than we used to have. So in fact, through our intensive no-till agro-ecological farming practices the more we arm our soil, the better the soil gets.
Adam Taggart: Yeah, I love that about the model. That’s what I referred to in the beginning as regenerative. And you are actually adding layers of top soil over time, right?
Paul Kaiser: Sure, definitely but we’re also – if you’re a good farmer and we tend to be good farmers, one of your jobs is to extract as much as you can from your land.
Adam Taggart: Right.
Paul Kaiser: So in some regards, you’re constantly harvesting and moving carbon and water and other nutrients from your soil. So, while we’re also adding and building up top soil and harvesting and removing a lot of it, really the key is what’s happening in the soil –
Adam Taggart: Within the soil itself, yes.
Paul Kaiser: So rather than building up we’re really just creating more life within our soil, which really creates more resiliency, not to mention more nutrient density.
Adam Taggart: Well I’m going to dig into that in just a minute. But for, again for folks that didn’t listen to the previous podcast I’m going to try really quickly to differentiate no till versus traditional farming practices, and then you just jump in and correct everything I said that was wrong.
But sort of traditional farm they till, which means they – you basically churn up the top layer of the soil. Lots of issues around that; one it’s very destructive to the life that’s in the soil. Two, it dries out the soil; a lot of the key nutrients dry out and aerosolize away. Other traditional farming practices is because they’re not as regenerative they’re having to bring in lots of outside inputs to the soil, you know key fertilizers, you know, nitrogen, potassium and that type of stuff, where in your scenario what you’re doing – you are bringing some inputs in and that’s largely in the form of compost, which is very naturally generated. But what you do is you grow a crop, you do not till it. I know there’s a lot of complementarity of how you’re growing certain plants with others to create shades and things like that. But then when it comes time to harvest you basically harvest the plants above the root bowl, you leave the roots in the soil. You take out the plant that you’re harvesting and you then – that same day lay a fresh layer of compost on the soil, you’re covering that old root system that’s going to decompose and re-fertilize the soil as it decomposes. You’re then going to plant another crop, same day.
Paul Kaiser: Yep.
Adam Taggart: In that new layer of topsoil that you just laid down and this is one of the ways in which you are keeping nutrients in the soil itself, but you’re also able to go from one crop to the next; so I know one of the things you guys said its really important for there always to be something photosynthesizing on the soil, right?
Paul Kaiser: Yep.
Adam Taggart: And because you’re putting in one crop right after the other you’re able to do multiple crops a year and economically that allows you to sell more product.
Elizabeth Kaiser: Absolutely. And I’d like to talk more about photosynthesis but first of all I just want to recognize it’s challenging to just share this verbally with people. If you’ve not been to our farm or seen photos of our farm, I highly recommend just going, looking at some photos on our website, Instagram, Facebook, anywhere you can so you can actually visualize what we’re talking about right now so that makes sense.
Adam Taggart: And I’ll put some links in the write up, too.
Elizabeth Kaiser: Perfect.
Adam Taggart: Make it easy for folks to do that.
Elizabeth Kaiser: Yeah, but photosynthesis, I mean that’s really what we want to capture. That sunlight that is constantly going on so that the plants are capturing that, taking the carbon out of the atmosphere from the CO2, creating glucose, resynthesizing that into all sorts of other carbon based products, using that for their own growth and development partially, but also then pushing out many of those sugars and other carbon based products into the soil to feed the microbiology in that soil. First the bacteria and the fungi that are right around the root hairs and then from there the entire soil food well. So this is really the reason why we want to focus on having green living plants in the ground as often as possible, diversity of green living plants, so you’re not growing you know chard followed by chard followed by chard followed by chard. But you know one crop and then the next and often different crops mixed in the same bed at the same time; so you’ve got different things going in there feeding that life in the soil.
Paul Kaiser: And so if you have your crop plants becoming these photosynthetic capacitors that have taken the free sunlight and carbon and are pushing out half of what they make into the soil to feed the biology that’s why it’s so critical when the harvest is done and you’re ready to remove that crop most farms would plow it under or till it under or disc it under with mechanical means. And that wipes out all that biology. So, you think about those root exudates being pushed out in the soil to feed the biology, this enormous rhizosphere of healthy biology interacting with those roots of the crop. And the very active tillage wipes it out, completely wipes it out. Whereas if you can cut off that crop at the soil level like you mentioned and all the above ground crop goes to compost pile to come back later as finished compost, but the entire below ground biology of the root structure and the rhizosphere is intact and untouched. And you plant in the very next crop a couple hours later, you always have photosynthetic capture over the soil, you’ve always got root exudates happening. So the biology of the soil is undisturbed. And it’s amazing what really, truly, healthy soil biology can do for vegetable plants.
Adam Taggart: All right, let’s use that as the segue then into this larger topic of farming resilience. I know it’s something that you guys have actually been actively presenting on across the country. And I do want to give you guys, you know, the kudos that’s due, you know no till farming I think is beginning to become kind of at the edges of awareness in farming as a potentially, you know, superior model?
Elizabeth Kaiser: Actually some of these soil management principles we’ve known since the 30’s. But people have had, you know, this box of this is how farming has to be. You know and so they’ll go and learn in academic settings of here’s soil signs but this is how farming actually happens is different because that’s the way that it’s had to be.
Adam Taggart: It’s so funny that it was called the green revolution, right? It happened back in the mid-20th century, that you know let farms boost other crop yields by using all these fossil based inputs and whatnot. Of course, it’s anything but green in terms of the philosophy behind it. But to your point, that’s the established cannon on how to farm and we’re having to rediscover you know, older practices that actually, when applied a bit more scientifically today, it’s kind of a back to the future way to get to a better model. And that’s very consistent with what we – a lot of the different forms of resilience, we talk about peak prosperity. We say you know, a lot of the things that we advise people do in terms of the behavior change in their lives is things that their great grandparents would recognize.
Paul Kaiser: Right.
Adam Taggart: We just culturally lost them over the past couple of decades. It sounds like it’s very similar in farming. But again, I do want to give you guys kudos you’ve been very early on pioneering this no till farming practice not only doing it yourself and proving what’s possible but actually being out there as educators. So, it’s wonderful to have a chance to talk directly with you guys, with our audience about this.
So resilience in farming, I know there are several different components that are important to you. Just quickly mention and then we can dial through them in whatever case we want. But soil biology, which I think we were just getting into and I’d like to continue that. And you contrast that versus chemistry and I’d love to have you kind of expound on why you differentiate biology versus chemistry when it comes to farming. Basically income resiliency, innovation and research; so it’s going on in the science right now, ecological resilience and we’ll talk about this in a moment, but I think that the way I’m thinking about that is it’s not so much the soil itself, that’s the biology part. The ecology is what’s happening all around the soil. And then farmer self-care, which I think is really –
Elizabeth Kaiser: Resilient farmers.
Adam Taggart: Yeah, resilient farmers. So diving into this, why don’t we start on the biology side of things. You talked a bit about what’s happening. You know under the soil level or under the ground level in the soil. Why don’t we talk about some of that science? I know when you were talking at the Peak Prosperity seminar this past April you had a lot of slides and you talked about the fact that there’s a whole universe down there going on that I think most people are just completely unaware of.
Paul Kaiser: Good word choice. I was going to bring up our galaxy. It’s ironic that we have spent the past 70 or 80 years so heavily focused on the chemistry of soil and trying to feed it chemically to get back a return from our harvest. If you think about our solar system, all the planets that we have what makes the earth unique? All planets have chemistry. Earth is the only one that has biology. We don’t farm on Mars, but Mars has plenty of chemistry going on. It’s the biology that makes things unique. And we have forgotten that because chemistry from World War I and World War II we have lots of our chemicals. We had to find places to use them.
So, I think coming back to the roots of biology as the basis of life on our planet earth is so critical to helping create life in terms of crops and plants and nutrient density and our own health. And one of the reasons why it’s so important to focus on the biology we have found as farmers is that honestly if you think about farming we all, whether you’re a farmer or not, we all can name the typical problems farmers face, it’s weeds and pests and diseases are typical farmers problems, period, and top soil management and arrangement.
Well it’s amazing that – we used to have all the same problems, weeds, pests, diseases and erosion until it began to build up our silicate matter, sequester atmosphere carbon into the soil and build up soil biology. And I don’t mean build it up a little bit like a 10% increase or 20% increase. I’m talking about 400% increase in soil health and that changed the game. We don’t have pests. We don’t have weeds; we don’t have diseases, pathogens. Our biggest challenge are simply just managing people and selling food. So the real crux of what we all know to be farming is based in a system of degraded soil that causes so many of those problems.
Adam Taggart: That’s great, so let’s dig into that for a bit because essentially what you’re saying is by feeding the biology of the soil, it’s just like feeding your immune system in many ways, right? Bringing your immune system up to a healthy state; so what’s really going on down there? Like what are the things that you’re actually feeding or nurturing down there? I know you’ve talked a lot about my mycelia and what not and I think that’s a novel term for folks. It’s an area they don’t really know much about. And for a lot of people talking about fungi, but go ahead.
Elizabeth Kaiser: A lot of people don’t know a lot, but – and we’ve had soil biologists come out, microbiologists come out and like look at the soil test and tell me – “Oh no, no that’s too complex and I focus on nematodes specifically under oak groves.” It’s like can’t you infer something –
Paul Kaiser: We’ve only identified maybe 4% of the total soil biology and we haven’t even named that 4%. We’ve only just identified that it exists. So, it’s massively complicated.
Elizabeth Kaiser: But going back to that, especially the fungal capacity in the soil – we know that it is not only bringing water in, it is helping bring in nutrients and there’s many, many different signatures going back and forth between the plants through their roots, through their exudates and the microbiology, be it the bacteria or be it the fungi in terms of I need this nutrient and pulling it out of the minerals and the soil, be that a heavy clay or, you know, sandy loam, whatever you have, be it a high pH or a low pH. And the biology is able to help the plants do that. They’re even doing communications between plants.
There was an interesting study that looked at bean plants. There was an interesting study that looked at bean plants in a field. And one end of the field was attacked by a certain pest; the other end started exuding a chemical that just repelled that pest. And so they took it into the lab and they said, “Well let’s isolate for air transfer, soil transfer.” Without biology soil transfer, with biology water transfer and what they found it was mycelium that were connecting and basically acting as internet between the plants.
Adam Taggart: Soil based internet, that’s so cool.
Elizabeth Kaiser: I mean so that’s just one tiny example and if that’s happening there is a lot more communication out there. There’s new research in forests and trees, looking at how trees are communicating with each other and if there’s an old tree and a young tree and they’re competitors it might actually be a negative communication, where they’re pulling nutrients away from that younger tree or maybe they’re helping that tree. It’s really interesting nascent science that’s happening.
Paul Kaiser: But I think a lot of the – what we’ve really learned from it all is that world of soil biology is so complicated and yet it mirrors our own human digestive system.
Elizabeth Kaiser: Sometimes; yes. And we are just learning about our digestive system, how it’s working as our immune system sometimes, how it’s helping our mental health and so many other things. So, I think that’s an example and they are just starting to look at you know the nutrition in our vegetables and how that is linked with the biology in the soil. And you can look at many studies over many, many years have looked at nutritional density of not only our vegetables but also our grain and our meat in the United States and how it’s declined, so that these days they have to recommend, you know, you have many, many servings of vegetables. Well grandparents maybe didn’t have to have that many servings because their vegetables were far more nutrient dense. And there’s a direct link it seems we’re just lacking the science between soil organic matter and soil biology and nutrition, given everything else we just mentioned here it – we don’t have the exact one plus two plus three but we’re getting the gist of what’s happening there. You build up your soil, you support the biology in the soil, you make sure that you don’t use any bio-sides or other fossil fuel based fertilizers that hurt that biology, support it in every way that you can, and you will grow better like Paul said with fewer bests, fewer weeds but you’ll also grow more nutrient dense food and that’s powerful.
Adam Taggart: I love all that and I love the analogy of the gut biome versus the soil biome. It just makes a lot of sense that they operate very similarly and what you were just saying there Elizabeth; I think anybody listening to this you know, kind of intuitively knows the correctness of what you’re saying because everybody has had a tomato from a big box grocery store. And I hope everybody has had a chance to eat a tomato freshly picked from their own garden or the garden of a friend. And they just don’t compare. I mean you can literally see and taste the difference. So, no surprise at all that you raise a plant in a soil with a healthy biome; it’s going to have a lot more nutrients and taste a lot better too.
Elizabeth Kaiser: And I’d actually like to bring this back to resiliency in terms of the climate, also, because these days we have a climate that is quite unstable and there’s many things happening. And as we want to farm into the future where we have a growing population we need to provide for; we need to make sure that our farms are resilient. And what – I just want to give a couple of examples of climactic challenges that we’ve had on our farm. This might not be what all farms have but I think it gives a good example.
I mean, here in Sonoma County we’ve got floods, we’ve got fires and where we are in our low valley bottoms we have frosts and freezes. So in terms of the floods about a fourth of our fields actually will go under water every winter and that’s just from the backing up Atascadero Creek that is in our valley bottom, and for many farmers and actually some of our local farmers, as well, when you have that flood water come in it can lock up the soil if you don’t have good soil structure through the biology and the soil organic matter there’s no air left in there and the plants can’t breathe and the plants can’t get their nutrients. And so we’ve seen instances where you know, other farmers have even said oh, there was a flash flood and we had 10 inches of rain and they had complete loss in their fields because all their plants were drowning. And we are going wait, we’re not having anything. It’s fine because that soil, that resilient soil is able to take the rain and you know instead of running it off and soaking and creating this anaerobic mess actually infiltrating down and holding that water –
Paul Kaiser: While still maintaining air spaces so plants don’t get waterlogged, they down get drowned. The soil actually takes in the moisture and holds it and recharges the aquifer and there’s no erosion. There’s no sediment loss and there’s no nutrition loss, nutrient loss.
Elizabeth Kaiser: Absolutely.
Adam Taggart: This again parallels the message we talk about at Peak Prosperity, where we focus on wetlands versus areas that have replaced their wetlands with culverts that just rush out to the sea, right? So very similar to what you’re talking about and those wetlands are a natural sponge. There are a way to keep the local ecosystem around when there’s too much water, right? And that’s essentially what you’re creating in your farm and obviously your neighbors who haven’t built up the same type of soil you have there.
Elizabeth Kaiser: Absolutely. I mean the floods for us are mostly a problem in that we have to make sure that those areas don’t have crops coming out during the seasons when we’re going to have floods because I can’t harvest a crop after the flood is in there. But in terms of the soil, the soil really helps us move through that with ease.
Another one then is fires. So, we had fires last year in Sonoma County that came as close as 11 miles to our farm and then again this year we had fires that were 120 miles away but we had really intense smoke. And that impacted us last year; we had so much ash falling out of the sky because of the fires. Paul and I really had to sit down and say “Is our food safe to send out” and we had a lot of questions in the community. Is the soil safe; are their all sorts of toxins that have gone up there? Well there have since been some community studies through our UC extension that have actually shown that, well first of all, our most major exposure was through breathing it. But then when the toxins, if there are any enter the soil then through ash and then the rain following it, you’re ways of mitigating that are going to be mycorrhizal fungi and other types of fungi. So, when we were talking about remediation of areas, I don’t know if you remember last year, it was inoculating areas with spores of different kinds of fungi. And so, by having biologically active soil you are able to be resilient as well to some of those toxins that may come our way.
Paul Kaiser: That’s the number one way, that’s the number one strategy to mitigate that kind of mycotoxin –
Adam Taggart: So we’re right back to the immune system analogy, right?
Elizabeth Kaiser: Exactly. And then the last thing being freezes –
Paul Kaiser: And honestly with more soil biology we – and more so like any matter we have a darker, richer colored soil that looks like chocolate cake. And that’s just a glorious sight to see and by being rich dark chocolate cake honestly that’s going to have a darker color, so it absorbs more solar gain in the day, it stays warmer at night, it releases that warmth and so the plants do better against freeze and frost. And by having a darker colored soil that’s warmer, that’s better for soil biology. So biology will stay active longer into the fall and winter and become active again earlier in late winter and spring because the soil warms up more quickly, which keeps that biology active rather than hibernating.
Adam Taggart: So interesting. That is really cool. Real quick before we move on, too. I just wanted in the presentation that you gave at our last seminar you had slides of different types of soil, some that had this sort of rich chocolate cake biology, like a lot of those probably came from your farm. But you had instances of soil that wasn’t – it was very chalky or very hard dense clay or whatnot. But you then showed before and after pictures where the people who were on that soil then started adapting some of your – adopting some of your no till practices. And you can see the transition from what looked like almost you know, unfarmable hardpan to something you can just stick your fingers in, right?
Paul Kaiser: Absolutely, definitely. And you mentioned one of our biggest farm inputs might be compost and I don’t know if we mentioned it last time, but compost is, I think, a fantastic off farm input that we should be doing.
Adam Taggart: Agreed.
Paul Kaiser: Because honestly if we don’t recycle food waste it creates greenhouse gas emissions. So we should be recycling food waste far more than we should be recycling steel, glass and plastic. They don’t have negative externality. But the food waste does have a negative externality if it’s not recycled. So bringing it back onto the form, we’re in the business of exporting nutrients off the farm. If we can bring that nutrient cycle back onto our farm, it’s just closing the loop, so there’s no spillage and leakage and loss of nutrients out into the environment but rather that nutrient just cycles from the farm to the community, to the compost, back to the farm.
Adam Taggart: And that’s what I love about the whole resilience thing here because what percentage of food is thrown away?
Paul Kaiser: 52% or something like that –
Adam Taggart: Exactly and a tremendous amount; so this is a way for the community to become more resilient, where you’re taking that rather than going to a landfill and creating greenhouse gasses and just being pure waste. It’s going back into the local farming production, right.
Paul Kaiser: And when we put down a layer of compost between crops it isn’t every time. There are plenty of crops will just keep going crop after crop without any compost put down. And when we do put the compost on it’s really only about half inch; so it isn’t like adding a whole new layer of topsoil. It’s just a small sprinkling and we’ve also looked at our total organic matter increase over the past 10 years and the biology in the soil. And we’ve looked at how much of that probably came from the compost application versus being no till and intensive in managing the soil for soils sake. And we found that probably only a quarter of our increases in organic matter and biology came from the application of compost, far greater percentage of it three-quarters of it came from honestly taking care of our soil, not tilling, being intensive, maximizing photosynthetic capture and exudation, etc.
Adam Taggart: All right, so we just hit, I think, the biology part of your resilient farming. Let’s transition now into income.
Elizabeth Kaiser: Absolutely.
Adam Taggart: So we talked earlier about, I mean obviously one way there would be more resilient with income is to make a lot more money per acre of farm, which you guys seem to be doing.
Elizabeth Kaiser: Right, so honestly that’s the big one and for us that does mean, you know, having one crop come
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