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WASHINGTON — The political terrain appears favorable for a mega-million-dollar irrigation drainage deal, with Congress still fully in Republican hands and California’s sprawling Westlands Water District with influential allies.

But there are complications. One is a legal cloud over a neighboring water district. The other comes with the state’s two Democratic senators, who remain uncommitted.

Legislation putting the drainage deal into effect could be introduced at any time.

“I think I have the support of leadership,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said in an interview.

But with that legislation will come a Capitol Hill fight.

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in Water 166 0
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California's farm sales fell from $54 billion in 2014 to $47 billion in 2015, largely because of the declining price of milk, whose value fell from $9.4 billion to $6.3 billion. The value of almonds fell by $0.5 billion, and the value of walnuts by almost $1 billion.

However, farmers are continue to plant more nuts. Bearing almond acreage has more than doubled from 418,000 acres in 1995 to 900,000 in 2016, and yields rose even faster from 370 million pounds to over two billion pounds. Walnut acreage rose from 177,000 in 1988 to 315,000 in 2016, and production more than doubled to 670,000 tons. California has 310,000 acres of pistachios expected to generate 555 million pounds in 2016.

Most nut farmers generate profits of $1,000 to $2,000 an acre, with pistachios the most profitable nut crop.

More acres of nuts are expected to come into production, including 220,000 acres of almonds, 70,000 acres of pistachios, and 65,000 acres of walnuts. The cost of establishing an acre of walnuts is estimated to be $3,800, an acre of almonds $2,300, and an acre of pistachios $1,900. Much of the new nut acreage is being developed by pension and hedge funds seeking current returns and capital gains as land prices rise.

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in Agriculture 191 0
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California enacted a law in 2016 (SB 3) raising the minimum wage from $10 to $15 an hour by 2022 and requiring farmers to pay 8/40 overtime (AB 1066), that is, 1.5 times normal wages after eight hours a day and 40 hours a week by 2022 (employers with 25 or fewer employees have extra time to comply). The state's minimum wage went to $10.50 an hour on January 1, 2017.

Western Growers surveyed its members in November 2016, and 150 growers reported that they plan to increase mechanization (77 percent) and reduce production of labor-intensive crops in California (33 percent), including 60 growers who hired fewer than 100 workers at peak.

Responding growers reported that their employees worked an average 9.6 hours a day and 56 hours a week at $12.40 an hour, suggesting 5.5 day workweeks. Instead of paying overtime wages, most farms said they will reduce hours to 8/40, so that workers would be employed 16 fewer hours a week. A third of respondents said they would reduce benefits provided to farmworkers because of higher minimum wages and 8/40 overtime by having employees contribute more for heath insurance or reduce employer 401K and retirement contributions.

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in Farm Labor 278 0
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By Paulina Rojas

Coachella Unincorporated Editor’s Note: Stories about female farmworkers often examine issues experienced by these women in their work environments, in the fields. There has been extensive reporting on the abuse and harsh working conditions these women face daily. But we rarely get to see what life is like for these hardworking women at home, off the fields. This story uplifts the voices of women who find themselves stuck in cycles of poverty, unable to find any moment for rest, and it looks at how traditional gender roles in farmworker communities only perpetuate that cycle.

MECCA, Calif. — Alicia Benito’s shift picking limes in the fields in and around Mecca, a rural community about three hours east of Los Angeles, starts at 8 a.m. But like a lot of female farmworkers, her day gets going long before first light. 

“First I have to make lunch for the children, my husband and myself,” said Benito, a wife and mother of three, ages 9, 7 and 1. The family shares a rented one story house in a neighborhood surrounded by farm fields. “At 6:30 a.m. I wake up the kids and get them ready. At 7 a.m. I drop off the oldest ones at the school bus stop and then I take my youngest one to daycare.” 

Benito is short and soft spoken, her hands are small but strong. She appears shy and serious at first but just a few minutes into our conversation she smiles and cracks a joke. Her laughter immediately brightens the mood of an unusually cold and dark winter evening. 

After her whirlwind morning routine, Benito, 27, heads to the fields where she spends 8 or more hours a day crouched under trees and exposed to the harsh desert sun. She does this six days a week, often working 50-60 hour work weeks.

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Washington — Northern California and Oregon irrigation districts have won a key round in a long-running legal battle as they seek compensation for their loss of water in the Klamath River Basin.

In a 53-page opinion, U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Marilyn Blank Horn concluded the federal government’s 2001 diversion of Klamath River Basin water amounted to a “physical taking” of the irrigation districts’ property. Horn’s ruling Dec. 21 rejected the government’s argument that the diversion instead amounted to a “regulatory taking.”

The technical-sounding difference could shape the final dollar-and-cents’ outcome. As attorney Josh Patashnik put it in a Santa Clara Law Review article, a judge’s determination of a physical rather than regulatory taking “often plays a central role in determining whether property owners are paid compensation.”

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in Water 284 0
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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday quietly signed and bequeathed to President-elect Donald Trump a massive infrastructure bill designed to control floods, fund dams and deliver more water to farmers in California's Central Valley.

While attempting to mollify critics’ concerns over potential harm to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Obama signed the $12 billion bill in a distinctly low-key act. The still-controversial California provisions were wrapped inside a package stuffed with politically popular projects, ranging from Sacramento-area levees to clean-water aid for beleaguered Flint, Michigan.

“It authorizes vital water projects across the country to restore watersheds, improve waterways and flood control, and improve drinking water infrastructure,” Obama stated, adding that “help for Flint is a priority for this administration.”

Dubbed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, the bill passed both House and Senate by veto-proof margins following years of maneuvering and debate. Obama’s signature was never really in doubt, though administration officials had previously resisted some of the specific California provisions.

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Fresno was the leading U.S. farm county until 2013, when the drought reduced irrigation water available to large farmers on the western side of the county. Fresno's farm sales for 2015 were $6.6 billion, down from $7 billion in 2014, and led by $1.2 billion worth of almonds from 186,000 acres and followed by $900 million for grapes from 195,000 acres. Fruit and nut crops worth $3.3 billion were half the value of Fresno farm sales.

Tulare county's farm sales dropped from $8.1 billion in 2014 to $6.9 billion in 2015, with lower milk prices for the county's 285 dairies explaining the drop.

There were many commodity stories in summer 2016. California's 900,000 acres of almonds are expected to produce a record two billion pound crop in 2016. Grower prices are expected to be about $2.50 a pound.

Table grape acreage is expanding to over 83,000 bearing acres. Workers in the San Joaquin Valley were being paid $10 to $10.50 an hour in summer 2016, plus $0.30 to $0.50 per 22-pound box, with a trio of two pickers and one packer sharing the piece rate. A trio picking 12 boxes an hour would share $3.60 to $6, or earn $11 to $13 an hour or $100 a day. Working six-day weeks for 18 weeks or 108 days, grape pickers could earn $10,800 or more a season.

Table olives have declined to 15,000 acres and 63,000 tons in 2016, in part because of the $500-a-ton cost of getting olives picked by hand. Many growers are shifting to nuts, which can be harvested mechanically.

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in Agriculture 311 0
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WASHINGTON —Numerous California raisin growers are seeking federal compensation for crops surrendered years ago as part of an old supply management system.

Three new court decisions could help them.

In two lawsuits that seek to become a large class-action, and a separate suit filed by a single Fresno County farm, growers seek government payments to offset what’s been deemed a government “taking” of their property. A federal judge this week kept all three lawsuits alive, rejecting Justice Department efforts to dismiss them.

“At this point, the government should just settle and write the checks,” said attorney James A. Moody, who represents the Fresno County based Lion Farms. “In my view, the case is over at this point.”

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in Agriculture 308 0
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By Gail Wadsworth and Elizabeth Henderson

 

The goal of fair labor standards is to achieve decent and humane working conditions for all employees. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law which establishes minimum wage, overtime pay eligibility, recordkeeping, and child labor standards affecting full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in federal, state, and local governments. Agriculture in the U.S. is exempt from several of the FSLA requirements, such as overtime pay and child labor laws.

 

Many consumers are not aware of these legal exemptions but are aware of poor working conditions for workers on farms. Several organizations are working within the U.S. to improve standards on farms for laborers.

 

The Fair World Project recently examined some of the key challenges facing farmworkers and analyzed seven of the eco-social certifications that appear on our food. They found two programs with strong standards and good enforcement to help ensure workers are well treated: the Fair Food Program and the Agricultural Justice Project.

 

Only one of these recommended certifiers actively operates in California, the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). We recently contacted AJP to get some questions answered for consumers in California who are interested in eco-social justice certification.

 

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in Farm Labor 501 0
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There is not enough farmworker housing. A combination of economic incentives, stricter regulation of housing quality, and worker preferences suggests there will continue be a shortage of affordable and decent housing for seasonal farmworkers.

Until the 1960s, many farmers housed seasonal workers on their farms in a bid to attract them and to have workers available when they were needed. On-farm housing was often offered at little or no cost, and workers did not incur costs to commute to work.

Unionization and tenant rights, as well as tougher regulations and enforcement, encouraged many farmers to eliminate on-farm housing, which they could do in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and continue to attract workers because unauthorized migrants flooded into the United States. Today, most farmworkers live in farmworker cities, often crowded into single family homes, and many commute in car- and van-pools to work.

Federal and state governments operate farmworker housing centers, most of which give preference to families and offer a range of health, education and other services to workers and their children. Solo males generally live off of the farm and away from subsidized centers, especially when they work in short-season crops, such as the three-month table grape harvest in the Coachella Valley.

California needs more housing, but zoning laws that require developers to "maintain neighborhood character" and limit how many unrelated people can live together raise housing prices and slow the migration of poorer people to boom areas such as San Francisco. Many of the tech workers in San Francisco earn $150,000 to $200,000 a year, and the city's median house price in summer 2016 was $1.1 million.

By some estimates, United States GDP could be increased by 10 percent if zoning restrictions were eased so that poor people could move to richer areas and enjoy higher wages without spending their extra earnings on housing. A state law supported by Governor Jerry Brown would make it harder for cities to saddle developers with open-ended design, permit and environmental reviews. Many people in desirable places want to pull up the drawbridge, arguing that allowing more people into their cities would degrade the quality of life.

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in Farm Labor 299 0
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Seasonality is a characteristic of agriculture. Some seasons are busy, others less so. Busy times mean more employees — and less busy times – well, seasonality in farming is why it has always been hard for farmworkers to find year-round steady work. Most people still think of farmworkers as migrants, moving from one part of the country to the next, following the harvest as crops mature. For migrant farmworkers from time immemorial, there have always been periods of time when work is scarce. This is unlike almost any other profession. Sure, teachers have traditionally had time off in the summer. Landscaping and construction are also kind-of seasonal. But I think not to the extent that is built into the very nature of farming. Harvest time is fraught with urgency — the crop must be in the barn and out of the rain, or at the processing plant and out of the field, in a short window of time, or it will be lost. All the effort of keeping the crop safe, growing it from a seed to a grain, or from a bud to a fruit, can be for naught, if the harvest fails for one reason or another. 

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SACRAMENTO – Farmers and ranchers throughout California commend the legislature for its recent actions on climate change. The passage of key climate bills, alongside the appropriation of more than $65 million for climate-smart agriculture programs, will provide needed resources for farmers and ranchers to address a changing climate.

“Farmers have a lot at stake in a changing climate as our extreme drought reminds us,” said Tom Willey at T&D Willey Farms in Madera. “We experience the impacts of climate change on our farm every day. I commend the California legislature for continuing down the path of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in the continued success of California agriculture.

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in Climate Change 382 0
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By Beth Smoker 

 

Earlier this month, the state’s Strategic Growth Council (SGC) awarded $37.4 million in project funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Land Conservation (SALC) Program. This landmark climate change and agriculture program, administered by the Department of Conservation and overseen by the SGC, funds agricultural conservation easements to protect agricultural land from sprawl development and local governments projects to develop strategies and policies for long-term agricultural conservation – all with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with land use and vehicle miles traveled. Since 2015, SALC Program has invested over $42 million in farmland conservation.

In this second year of the SALC Program, the SGC approved the Department of Conservation’s recommendations to award one planning grant and 20 agriculture conservation easements, permanently preserving nearly 19,000 acres of crop and rangeland in California. Two of the agriculture conservation easements are located in disadvantaged communities where low-income residents are disproportionately impacted by pollution.

This is an excerpt of an article posted on August 17, 2016 on the California Climate and Agriculture Network website. For more information about the program check out another post on the CalCAN website. 

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By Hannah Guzik

The sun has just nosed above the horizon when Maria Espinosa (not her real name) ties a bandana over her face to protect herself from pesticides and dust, and reaches for a blackberry bush. Paid by the amount of berries she picks plus a $3-per-hour wage, Espinosa works feverishly for 10 hours, stopping only briefly for short breaks and lunch. For that day in early May, Espinosa would receive no overtime pay.

California’s 441,000 agricultural employees harvest one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. The state’s 76,400 farms and ranches earned approximately $54 billion for their 2014 harvests, according to the most recent crop report. Yet the median personal income of farmworkers statewide is just $14,000 a year.

Unlike nearly all other employees in the U.S., farmworkers aren’t eligible for overtime pay unless they work more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week. Because of pressure from Southern lawmakers who wanted to maintain a low-wage black workforce, farm workers (along with domestic workers and other primarily African-American workforces) were exempted from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, leaving them without federal standards for overtime pay, basic union organizing rights and other worker protections.

“We work very hard and make little. … Why should we be treated differently?” Espinosa says.

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When state legislators return to Sacramento this week, climate change will be at the top of their agenda. Still pending are finalization of the state’s climate change investments for the coming year and, most important, setting the road map for climate change policy in California beyond the year 2020.

For California agriculture, these decisions will impact whether or not there are resources available for the state’s farmers and ranchers to address a changing climate. Given the latest agriculture and climate change news of on-going drought impacts and rising temperatures hurting some crops, farmers and ranchers are weighing in, calling for support for programs like the Healthy Soils Initiative.

As we reported back in June, the FY 2016-17 budget was finalized without the legislature and Governor deciding how the state would invest billions in cap-and-trade revenues to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over $100 million in proposed funding is on the line for California farmers and ranchers to reduce water use and save on energy, improve soil management and store more carbon in agricultural soils, and reduce potent greenhouse gases like methane.

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in Climate Change 429 0
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California had a "normal" water year in 2010-11 and again in 2015-16. Droughts reduced the availability of water for the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 crop years. However, farm sales climbed during the drought years, from $43 billion in 2011 to $47 billion in 2012 to $51 billion in 2013 and $54 billion in 2014. Sales in 2015 are expected to set another record.

The reason that farm sales rose even as the availability of water fell from the long-run average of 50 million acre-feet to a low of 31 million for the 2014 crop year was that farmers switched scarce and expensive water from low-value and water-intensive crops such as alfalfa to more valuable crops such as fruits, nuts and vegetables. About 500,000 acres were fallowed in 2014 and 2015, usually land that would normally be used to produce low-value field crops, and farmers pumped ground water to substitute for less surface water.

Monterey County, the nation's salad bowl, had farm sales of $4.5 billion in 2014, led by leaf lettuce worth $775 million, strawberries worth $709 million, and head lettuce worth $651 million. Vegetable crops were worth $3.1 billion and fruit crops $1 billion. A Farmworker Advisory Committee meets quarterly with the Agriculture Commissioner's office to discuss labor issues.

California is projected to have a record crop of table grapes in 2016, some 117 million 19-pound boxes worth almost $2 billion. The state has 100,000 acres of table grapes, and the Scarlet Royal and Autumn King varieties are replacing Thompson seedless, Crimson seedless and Red Globe varieties. Autumn King can generate 2,000 boxes an acre, compared with 1,000 boxes from an acre of Thompson seedless. A third of the state's table grapes are exported.

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in Rural California 542 0
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For the state’s first hundred-plus years, certain unspoken rules governed California politics. In a state where agriculture produced more wealth than any industry, the first rule was that growers held enormous power.

 

Tax dollars built giant water projects that turned the Central and Imperial Valleys into some of the nation’s most productive farmland. Land ownership was concentrated in huge corporate plantation-like farms. Growers used political power to assure a steady flow of workers from one country after another—Japan, China, the Philippines, Yemen, India, and of course Mexico—to provide the labor that made the land productive.

Agribusiness kept farm labor cheap, at wages far below those of people in the state’s growing urban centers. When workers sought to change their economic condition, grower power in rural areas was near absolute—strikes were broken and unions were kept out.

 

The second unwritten rule was therefore that progressive movements grew more easily in the cities, where unions and community organizations became political forces to be reckoned with. In the legislature, these rules generally meant that Democrats and pro-labor proposals came from urban districts, while resistance came from Republicans in rural constituencies.

 

That historic divide in California politics is changing, however.

 

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in Farm Labor 466 0
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Consuelo Mendez was 23 when she arrived in the United States 45 years ago, looking for work. In Ventura County she found it, harvesting strawberries, tomatoes, cabbage, parsley and spinach. She got those jobs by going from field to field, asking other workers to tell her who was hiring. Picking is hard work, and getting enough work to live on required her to move all the time from one farm to another.

“When I emigrated from a small town in Michoacán I had never worked before,” she remembers. “I was young, raising my children. Then I went to work in the strawberry harvest. My husband was running an upholstery business, but that didn’t pay very well, so he worked alongside me in the fields to make extra money. I never thought I would be working like that, and that the work would be so hard. I did it for three years, but after that I couldn’t because I got so tired. I couldn’t drive and didn’t know how to speak English – to this day I struggle with it.”

Mendez wanted something more stable, and she found it. A woman told her Brokaw Nursery in Saticoy was hiring. She asked a foreman there again and again to hire her, and finally the owner took notice. “We told him we were looking for work because we had a family to support,” she remembers. “He told us to come back the next day and gave us a job. I got a job indoors and my husband went to work in their fields. I’ve been here and never been unemployed since.”

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By Beth Smoker 

U.S. Department of Agriculture Initiative Gets Underway

During the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Climate Month of May, Secretary Vilsack announced an additional $72.3 million for soil health investments to support the department’s 10 Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture. Secretary Vilsack established the USDA climate change initiative just over a year ago in preparation for last year’s Paris Climate Conference. The initiative aims to increase agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration in agriculture and forests.

This additional funding is being distributed through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), where each state will have the discretion to determine which Climate Change Building Blocks to focus their additional funds on. This is the first time EQIP funding has been explicitly allocated for climate-smart agriculture practices. California NRCS has received $4.3 million of this $72.3 million allocation.

Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

California NRCS plans to fund agricultural management practices that address soil health, nitrogen management, grazing and pasture and private forest practices. All with an eye to increasing soil carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers and ranchers, beginning this summer, can go into their NRCS District Office to find out more about how they may qualify for the new EQIP climate change funding. The application process is the same as regular EQIP.

A learning opportunity for CDFA’s Healthy Soils Initiative

The USDA funding for climate-smart agriculture comes at an important time for California. The state is considering a new Healthy Soils Initiative, also aimed at providing financial incentives for growers for management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) recently released its draft framework for the program. The upcoming California NRCS experience of distributing climate-related EQIP funds can help inform the CDFA initiative. More information can be found here.

This article was published on the California Climate and Agriculture Network website on June 9. 

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California requires overtime pay for farmworkers, one of four states to do so. In 1976 the 10/60 standard (that requires overtime after 10 hours a day or 60 a week, different than the standard eight hours a day and 40 hours a week for non-farmworkers) was established in 1976.

Across the U.S., workers hired directly by the farm that employed them averaged 41 hours of work in July 2015; California farmworkers averaged 43.6 hours. Most harvest workers are employed less than eight hours a day, but some work six days a week during the harvest. Workers most likely to be affected by an 8/40 overtime pay requirement are irrigators and equipment operators, who often work 60 or more hours a week during busy periods.

Sonoma County farm labor contractors (FLCs) Four Seasons Vineyard Management and Ridge Vineyards were fined $42,000 by the Department of Labor (DOL) in February 2016 for poor housing for farmworkers. Four Seasons deducted rent from the wages of workers and turned rental payments over to Ridge.

Two California Court of Appeals decisions in 2013 required employers to pay piece rate workers for nonproductive time and to pay them for rest periods at their average piece-rate earnings. Before these 2013 rulings, employers could pay only piece-rate wages to workers as long as their piece-rate earnings exceeded the minimum wage.

Many workers planned to sue for back wages. AB 1513 gave employers a "safe harbor," allowing them to pay any back wages due piece-rate workers after July 1, 2012 without penalties. However, employers who faced suits for unpaid productive time and for using fictitious workers to reduce wages were excluded from the safe harbor.

Two farms are affected by these exclusions, Gerawan Farming and Fowler Packaging. Both face United Farm Workers-initiated suits, and both sued in January 2016 to have the AB 1513 exemption declared unconstitutional.

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