Give Bees a Chance

I love bees.

Because I love (and respect and admire) bees, I maintain some hives.

I am, however, in the category of what one might call “super hands-off” when it comes to manipulating those hives. What this means is that I keep bees so that the bees will be alive and continue to be beneficial to my gardens and to the world in general. I do not keep bees so that I may have honey, but this does happen to be one of the happy side-effects of their continued presence on this farm.

Lovely, docile, non-attacky pollinators

Honey bees–lovely, docile, non-attacky pollinators

I would go so far as to say that I love all pollinators, but that would necessitate the inclusion of the despicable ground bee, so that is a declaration I’m not willing to make.

Some people say, “But ground bees are beneficial pollinators!”

And that is totally true.

And some people say, “But ground bees rarely, if ever, sting!”

And THAT would be chicanery of the highest order.

Because those bastards sting at the slightest provocation and those stings burn like electricity. And if that weren’t bad enough, they don’t even have the decency to die after stinging because there is no such thing as a queen ground bee, so no one in the whole hive has a barbed stinger.

So, my love for bees begins and ends with honey bees (Note: carpenter bees are also jerks and I am indifferent on the subject of bumble bees). 

We ignored the ground bee nest as long as we could. We wanted to give them every chance to live their bee lives and pollinate as they were meant to do.

Sadly for all of us, the profound jerkitude of these Flying Hailstones of Pain convinced them that the best possible place to set up shop this spring was right on the path between the chicken coop and the pig enclosure.  You know, the path we walk on at least four times a day while carrying buckets of feed.  The same path that, when let out for their daily walk, the goats like to graze.

The scene of the crime.

The scene of the crime.

This, to the bees, seemed like the ideal real estate opportunity.

Many times over the summer we found ourselves inadvertently agitating the invisible nest, letting loose a volcanic gush of stinging insects, and then scrambling away before one or more of them could attack.

Many times over the summer, the goats weren’t quite so fast or quite so lucky.

By the time the third goat had been stung, and a group of hens had been run out of the coop screaming, we’d had enough.

As I typically do when embarking on a new project, I did some reading about the best way to get rid of ground bees. Since we are an organic farm, we wouldn’t want to introduce any pesticides to the situation (something folks don’t always realize is that when bees are exposed to pesticides but are not killed by them, they will carry those toxins wherever they go, spreading them far beyond the area being treated).

Many of the non-pesticide methods were simply ineffectual.  The most popular advice was to use copious amounts of water to make the area inhospitable to the bees.  We tried this repeatedly, but seemingly had the world’s only aquatic ground bees.

Like this, but with bees

Like this, but with bees

I imagined, just below the surface, thousands of bees watching their lair filling with water, then popping on tiny little swim caps and diving in sideways, in formation, to begin an elaborate water ballet routine.

So, THAT didn’t work.

After trying a few other less-aggressive methods, we finally settled on the indisputable power of FIRE.

We knew that a small amount of gasoline, burned completely, would do some damage to the immediate grassy area, but wouldn’t spread into any of the surrounding areas.  We were willing to sacrifice a small portion of grass to stop the painful attacks on ourselves and our animals.

A lovely night for a bee roast.

A lovely night for a bee roast.

So we poured a little gas and lit a match.

Since Dave is a firefighter, I let him manage the whole combustible affair and only asked him four or five (or six or seven) times afterward if he was absolutely certain the fire was out and the chicken coops and pig shed wouldn’t burn down overnight.

He was sure.

The smoldering wreckage

The smoldering wreckage

He moved the fire and soil until the hives themselves were unearthed and we could see that the job was complete.

I have to admit, as a beekeeper, there was something tremendously sad in seeing that hive comb ablaze and knowing that we had made a decision to destroy pollinators.

But then again, those little bastards were stinging us every chance they got.

Now we can walk freely around the farm without fear of attack.

Until that bear shows up again.

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That’s Just Peachy

When we established our little farm, we planted a number of fruit trees and bushes.

The two dozen raspberry bushes produced fruit the very first year and have continued to expand and produce like crazy.  The five apple trees haven’t fared quite as welll–two are thriving and promise to give their first crop next year, but the other three are unlikely to make it.  Of the four pear trees, only two are still alive, but they too are doing well and will likely show fruit in one more year.

To our immense surprise and delight, the single peach tree decided to fruit this year.

But the peaches just wouldn’t ripen.

There was a fungus among us.

There was a fungus among us.

The first thing we noticed was leaf curl.

This is a fungal disease that can really diminish fruit growth and, in the worst possible conditions, can kill a tree altogether.

In the spring, when the tree leafed out, we noticed an unnatural curling of the leaves as well as a CRAZY looking fungal growth.  After reading a bit about leaf curl, we decided to remove all the affected leaves and see if that had any effect on stopping the spread.

While this is not a guaranteed method of control, it did manage to work for us (maybe we caught it early enough) and the leaf curl seemed to have been stopped.

The second thing we noticed was that our goats really like peach tree bark.

And apple tree bark. And pear tree bark. And–well, we found ourselves having to use Treekote (a wound sealant) to paint over and protect the areas that the goats had wrecked.

Many folks are anti-wound sealant on trees, and I would never use it on a clean cut made by pruning because trees are smart and efficient and heal themselves just fine, thank you. But in the case where the goats have wreaked their havoc, the Treekote has saved the affected trees.  The two pear trees we lost have visible goat damage that we didn’t see in time to save it.

Don't cry, Peach Tree!

Don’t cry, Peach Tree!

What Treekote WON’T stop is sap weeping.

This is when the tree is in fruit and the previously-made wounds allow the running sap to “weep” through.  It is good to know that this is possible, because at first we thought we had fruit tree borers.  The result looks exactly the same.

There were clusters of an orange, jelly-like substance everywhere the goats had worked the bark off the tree. When the jelly was scraped away, we looked for evidence of borers (holes in the trunk and destruction of the trunk base at ground level) and found none.  This was incredibly reassuring, as borers can be the final nail in the organic fruit tree coffin if they are present.

Despite the rocky start, the fruit did eventually start to appear and begin ripening.

The trouble was that it didn’t rain for the ENTIRE MONTH OF AUGUST where we live and this did not help the tree in its production endeavors.

We started giving the tree about five gallons of water around the roots every other day until it finally rained.

DSC_0302And then we got peaches!

And they were covered in peach scab!

Now, this is somewhat surprising because peach scab (a stone fruit pathogen) is typically found in warm, humid areas and, what with the whole no-rain-for-the-summer thing happening, humidity wasn’t really part of the equation.

Our tree is a late-bearing variety, however, and that is another factor contributing to the likelihood of scab.

Evidence of mild scab on an otherwise lovely piece of fruit.

Evidence of mild scab on an otherwise lovely piece of fruit.

Left untreated, the scab can affect the entire tree and all of its fruit.  The peaches may only show spotting or they may become SO infected that they will actually crack and become inedible.

The most effective treatments for scab are pesticides, which we don’t use.  There is also an organic treatment of wettable sulfur that is considered to be equally useful that we are going to try out.

In the meantime, we are happily cutting away any tougher patches of spotting or cracking and enjoying what is still some amazing, juicy, and sweet fruit underneath!



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That’ll Make You Horny

The worst part about keeping goats is ensuring that they don’t grow horns.

Really beautiful

Really beautiful

Goats with horns can be a danger to themselves, to each other, and to their humans.  I’ve heard stories about goats playing and accidentally goring a herdmate, getting caught in fences overnight, and harming the humans who come in to feed or care for them.

Although horns can be really beautiful, I cannot stress enough how much easier and safer it is to avoid them altogether.

But, back to it being the worst part.

Disbudding is done by using a disbudding iron and restraining the kid in a restraint box. Goats HATE being restrained, so you are just as likely to get as much howling from a kid from merely putting it into the box as from the application of the iron.  It is important to shave the kid’s head thoroughly (more howling) first to ensure that you can clearly see the buds.

It is important to use some Owe-Eze Herbal Tincture (or some other preparatory pain treatment) about 30 minutes prior to disbudding–this will provide the kid with some pain relief.  You might also use Molly’s Marvelous Herbal Salve (or similar salve) starting the day after disbudding to help with the healing.

It is even MORE important to know that most rural vets offer this service for around $15/goat kid.  You want to ensure that the vet has experience with this first and, if so, feel free to let them go through this process for you, because it totally sucks.

If you look closely, you can see the nubs

If you look closely, you can see the nubs

But the MOST important part is knowing WHEN to disbud the kids.  As soon as the kids are born, we start feeling their heads every day for the presence of the nubs.  As soon as those hard little nuggets appear, it is time to disbud.

We learned the hard way that kids should be disbudded as soon as THEY are ready, not when it is convenient for us.

The first time, we took both kids to the vet for disbudding and one went very smoothly and the other, it turned out, had progressed beyond nub-stage and had started growing horns that were too far gone to disbud.

I'm horny

I’m horny

While it is possible to remove actual horns, it is not recommended as they are very much an extension of the skull and the procedure requires anasthetic (not only costly but also tremendously invasive) and actual surgery.

We ended up giving our horny goat away to a friend who keeps other horny goats.  They are all very beautiful, but you couldn’t pay me enough to get into their enclosure with them, much less take them out for the lovely walks we enjoy almost daily with our goats here.

From Fiasco Farm, “In the long term, disbudding will ensure that they not only have safer lives (less likely to injure others) but they will also make better herd mates, and safer pets and companions, thus helping to guarantee they can live out their lives in good, loving, caring, permanent homes. Goats with horns can end up in the auction/sale barn because they injured their herd mate, owner, or owner’s family, and could end up living out less then ideal lives, or even being slaughtered. It’s certainly better to go through a one time, ten-second, painful experience, than for a herd animal to be penned, or tied out alone, by themselves for the rest of their life, or worse yet, dead.”

But disbudding is an imperfect process and, sometimes, the horns grow in anyway.  Most often, what grows is a scur, or a partial horn, and these need to be carefully watched.

This is more common with bucks than does because of their higher levels of testosterone, but it can happen with does as well.

The Lopsided Scurs

The Lopsided Scurs

Of our current group of kids, the two bucklings have started growing lopsided scurs (which, I may need to use as a band name) and there is really nothing to be done about that except keep an eye on them.

As the scurs continue to grow, there is a possibility that they could curl around and grow right into the goats’ skull (which is bad).

If this threatens to happen, we would then need to trim the scur, a little at a time, to protect the goat from his own growth.

No bumps on this belfry

No bumps on this belfry

In the meantime, our does appear to have been successfully disbudded and the lopsided scurs sported by the bucklings, while undesireable, are insanely cute.



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Size Matters

“While it is always possible to wake a person who’s sleeping, no amount of noise will wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.” – Jonathan Safron Foer (Eating Animals)

We consider factory farmed meat unacceptable.

It is unacceptable in its practices–from how animals are treated, to what they are fed, to how they are medicated, to how they are slaughtered–not one step in the process is okay with us.

Meat Diaper

Meat Diaper

Every piece of meat that magically appears in your grocery stores (on styrofoam plates, to boot), sitting on a meat diaper (yep, that’s what that weird piece of cushioned plastic is called), and wrapped in plastic has ALWAYS had a brutal existence in over-crowded, confined conditions with no sunlight, no space to move, no loving interactions with any other animals, and no opportunity to live a life for any reason other than for human consumption.

If that doesn’t bother you, then consider the fact that in order to maintain these standards, factory farms must constantly medicate (at increasingly high dosage levels) their chickens, cows, and pigs in order to stave off the inevitable diseases that come with overcrowding in confined spaces.  You are guaranteed meat that is riddled with hormones and anitbiotics.

Why does this matter?

First of all, it is bad juju to treat another creature with such raging disrespect.  Second of all, girls as young as seven and eight are getting their periods due to the high levels of hormones in the meat and milk they are being fed.  Third of all, should you ever need to take antibiotics for an actual illness you may actually have, the efficacy of that medication would be dramatically impacted by a lifetime of ingesting second-hand drugs.

Plus, you can really taste the torture.

(I was going to include a photo here of pigs in a factory farm. A perfunctory Google search of images was so upsetting that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. If you don’t know what’s happening to these poor creatures, you should take a look.  It is important to know but it is not easy to see).

As omnivores, we made the decision many years ago that we would never purchase or consume any meat without knowing the provenance of that meat.  That means a fair amount of research, establishing relationships with local farmers when that is possible, and not making any assumptions (i.e. “local” doesn’t necessarily mean “organic;” not all small farms love the animals they raise; ask questions; do research).

When we lived in Brooklyn, many restaurants would say that they “sourced locally or organically whenever possible.” That always rubbed me the wrong way.  It is ALWAYS possible, it just isn’t cost-effective.  Those last two words are a cop-out allowing for randomness and leaving the diner uncertain as to what they may or may not be getting.

When we moved to our small, upstate farm, we agreed that if we were going to eat meat, we were going to raise it ourselves and finish it ourselves.  That way, we would be responsible for the process from beginning to end and could ensure that the animals we were raising for food had lives that were exactly the opposite of those in factory farms.

We decided to raise happy animals.


Bubble, enjoying a foot soak over lunch.

Which brings me to Bubble.

Bubble is one of our two sows and she has lived on applewood farm for a record two years. The life expectancy of a pig destined for porkness is usually somewhere between six and eight months, but Bubble was our first breeding sow, giving us our first litter of piglets almost exactly a year ago.

We had hoped to breed Bubble once more, but when breeding time came, Girl Pig was the only one of the two to get knocked up.

Despite our boar’s best efforts, Bubble wasn’t having any of his shenanigans.  We waited and waited until, finally, I started doing research to figure out what was wrong.  After all, we knew she was good for it, having already had a litter, as was he, having recently proved  it with Girl Pig.

It turned out that the problem was size.

No, not like that.

Since Bubble was larger than the boar, she didn’t respect him enough to let him mount her.  I’m not making this up.

Bubble, our 700 lb. pet, with Girl Pig and some of the piglets

Bubble, our 700 lb. pet, with Girl Pig and some of the piglets

And since both pigs were going to continue to grow at roughly the same rate, we could never hope for him to catch up.  We had to resign ourselves to the sad truth that Bubble was not going to have a second litter.

The problem is that we now have a barren, 700 pound pet sow.

So, this Tuesday is going to be the day we finish Bubble.

We can confidently vouch for the fact that Bubble’s life was the full and total opposite of the lives of those luckless factory pigs.

Not at all cute.

Six of Bubble’s piglets nursing (the other five are under the visible six)

She has spent the last two years roaming the woods, rooting weeds and grasses, being fed organic compost, pig feed, and garden weeds.  She gets a hose shower on hot summer days and big troughs of hot water on cold winter nights.  She had a lovely litter of 11 healthy piglets. She has had many a hearty scratch behind the ears, to say nothing of the occasional belly rub (although, to be honest, these tapered off around the 400 pound mark).  All in all, Bubble has had a really good life.

And her death will be quick, painless, and without stress.

When we finish pigs, we do it right where they have lived their whole life.  We don’t make them endure the stress of transport; we simply bring them some feed, wait until they are eating, and shoot them right between the eyes with a single-shot .22.

The pig is immediately dead and has not experienced any uneccessary pain or trauma of any kind.

Some folks might argue that our system isn’t a reasonable way to be able to keep up with the amount of meat consumed on this planet.  To this I say, well then, perhaps we should consume substantially less meat on this planet.

Anything is possible, really, we just need to stop pretending to be asleep.

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The Boys and the Band

Dot and Janie had their kids this June and, to our dismay, two were boys.

When we started keeping goats, we’d decided that the girls would be used for milk and the boys would be used for meat.  It was a simple formula that provided us with two essential products, maintained a manageable sized herd, and seemed perfect in its simplicity.

Not for eating.

Not for eating.

After keeping goats for almost three years now, I would no sooner eat one of our goats than one of our dogs.

Goats are incredibly personable; they are friendly and gentle and interested in everything that goes on around them. They will give you a kiss right on your nose and try to eat your clothes right off your body.

Perpetually hungry and willing to eat just about anything, goats would have you believe that they are always starving to DEATH and that someone MUST have forgotten to feed them earlier, because they are absolutely going to DIE if they don’t get more food NOW.

And, generally, I’m a sucker for it and they get a nice pine branch, a bunch of apples from our tree, or some apple-flavored horse treats (they go straight-up apeshit for these).

Janie’s boys, Jeb and Atticus, balls intact.

So, why our dismay at having two of the four kids be boys?

Because boy goats on applewood farm need to be castrated.

We don’t castrate our pigs because we don’t find it necessary and we don’t castrate our roosters because we aren’t snooty French chefs interested in capon for dinner.

Goats are a different story.

We serve no purpose.

We serve no purpose.

Because we’ve decided that we won’t eat the bucklings, and because we don’t want to keep bucks on our farm (to clarify, intact male goats are called bucks, while castrated male goats are called wethers), the boys that stay will really just be pets, necessitating castration, and serving no utilitarian purpose.

So, how does one remove the balls from one’s bucklings?  THAT is a matter of some serious debate.

As animal lovers and caretakers, we are always interested in handling our animals in the kindest, gentlest manner.  If we don’t know how to do something, we find someone who does, or we learn how.

When it came time to castrate our first-ever buckling almost two years ago, we learned that there are a handful of methods, and each one comes with its own set of pros and cons, and each one has a fairly RAGING political divide hovering around it.

There are basically three ways to neuter a buckling–cutting, banding, or burdizzo.

Cutting involves cutting the bottom of the scrotum off and pulling out the testicles. Sounds awesome, right?

Dave had the dubious pleasure of practicing this method on our friend’s piglets last year.  It is unpleasant for everyone involved, but is the most reliable method for certain castration and involves only temporary pain for the animal. Cutting open does provide the possibility for infection and tetanus, but proper after-care can avoid both from happening.

DSC_0136Banding requires the use of an elastrator, which is a pliers-like tool that stretches an elastic band so that it may be secured around the base of the testicles.  The band stays in place for about two weeks, or until the testicles “die” (i.e. shrivel up and fall off).

If banding is done improperly, it can be painful for the buckling, not to mention opening the door to infection and tetanus.  If done properly, however, there should be no blood and the buckling should experience pain for no more than an hour after the procedure.

Burdizzo involves a clamp-like tool which crushes the spermatic cord and blood vessels leading to the testicles. This prevents blood circulating to the testicles and they gradually shrivel up and die. Even though this sounds HORRIBLE, when done properly this is another bloodless method with only temporary pain to the animal.

We are banders.  We have banded all of our bucklings with wonderful results, no lasting trauma to the animal (after that first hour anyway), no bleeding, and no infection.  I wouldn’t ever presume to recommend any one of these methods over another because, done poorly, any one of them has potentially dire consequences.  I would only recommend that the person doing it be informed, confident, gentle, and thorough.

Which brings me to the story of our FIRST BANDING.

When Dot was born, she had a brother named Ramyu.  (side note: Ramyu is still alive and well and living on a friend’s nearby farm). We learned all about banding and, when it came time to band Ramyu, the process could not have gone more smoothly.  The band was on completely, both testicles were securely in the band, and for the first few minutes he was flopping and flailing and carrying on as though someone had just put a tight elastic band around his balls.

Oh, wait…

But when, after two weeks, we noticed no discernable change in the appearance or feel of his testicles, we knew something was off.  They were just as robust and plump as the day we banded him. Clearly, we had done something wrong, so we took him to the vet.

The vet looked him over and immediately started laughing.

Apparently, we had used elastrator bands meant for calves, not for goats. The difference in the elasticity was just enough, as the vet put it, to “basically give the goat a cock ring but not ever make the testes die.”


We weren’t sure whether to apologize to Ramyu that we had done that or that we were going to remove it, but ultimately we replaced the erroneous elastrator with the correct one.  Within two weeks, he went from buckling to wether.

Lesson learned.

Well-banded buckling on his way to Wether-Town

Well-banded buckling on his way to Wether-Town

This time around, we made ABSOLUTELY SURE we had the right size bands and gently banded Jeb and Atticus.

We check the boys every day to ensure that there is no sign of bleeding or infection and to ensure that the testicles are withering as expected.

This time, we seem to have gotten it right the first time.

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Pig Wires

The piglets have been escaping every day.


Welcoming committee

It is not uncommon to pull into the driveway after work only to be greeted by the usual menagerie of chickens, only NOW that coterie is intermingled with the random piglet, or two.

Or eight.

The wire line that we use to keep them in their enclosure is laughably inept when it comes to piglet-containment.

A full grown hog will obey the wire.  A full grown hog understands the zappy power it wields and responds with appropriate reverence and caution.

On beyond zebra.

On beyond zebra.

A piglet, however, can be zapped and zapped and zapped and still, the lure of BEYOND THE WIRE is just too strong to ignore.

The laughable, ineffectual wire.

The laughable, ineffectual wire.

The wire itself is a fickle instrument.  It is strung from post to post only inches from the ground where it has the best chance of dissuading potentially wayward piggies.

The flaw in the system is that the wire must remain free of grasses, mud, and other things that will sap its energy.

So, for example, if weeds grow up around the wire, those weeds will draw the energy out and diminish the strength of the zap.

Lots of other things have this same effect and, as a result, maintaining the wire is an ongoing process.

So, when something like a Tornado-Level Storm hammers through the area, taking down tree-sized branches as it goes, our little pig wire really can’t compete.

Tree-sized branch lying ON the pig wire

Tree-sized branch lying ON the pig wire

Which is what happened last week.

The storm came through, complete with marble-sized hail, crazy strong winds, and grey-out condition clouds. And once it passed, all of the piglets had made their Nature-aided getaway.

Those dinky defectors were nowhere to be seen when we grabbed the chainsaw and started breaking down that enormous branch, piece by piece, until the wire could be unearthed.

The stronger pull

The stronger pull

And when it was all finally cleared and back up to speed, everyone was magically back home with mom.

Feeding time has that effect.

No matter how the travel bug may bite, the stronger pull is always that of the feed trough.


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When Goats Fly

I can’t believe I haven’t told you about the goat kids.

Life has gotten insanely busy over the past month and there has been precious little time for such lovely frivolities as blog post writing, but it is verging on criminal that the goat babies haven’t been shouted about from the rooftops.

So, on with the shouting.

Stinky Love Man and his Ladies

Stinky Love Man and his Ladies

Back in January, we borrowed a buck from some friends. We knew we wanted to expand our small tribe but didn’t want to commit to the maintenance and olefactory torture that comes with year-round buck-having.

Goat gestation takes 150 days, so we assumed we’d see kids sometime around the end of June or beginning of July.

And that’s just what happened.

Freshly born goatlets.

Freshly born goatlets.

Dot (who was born on applewood farm two years ago) kidded first.  When we went to check on her, her two girls had just been born.  They were still wet and messy and beautiful and crazy cute.

There was no trouble with the birth, but Dot seemed to be troubled by the fact that these two creatures appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and now wanted to start using her as a milk dispenser.

She kept walking away whenever they tried to nurse.

This was troubling, but the babies continued to be alive for hours and days and eventually weeks, so we decided they must be getting some milk and left it at that.

Two days later, I took a break from work to go let the dogs out and check to make sure the pigs had water and see whether Janie had kidded.

Birth, al fresco

Birth, al fresco

When I looked in the first goat shed, I found Dot and her girls, but no Janie.  I looked into the second goat shed and still no Janie.  Then, I glanced down the hill of the enclosure and noticed movement under the pine tree.

Upon closer inspection, I realized that not only was Janie sitting under the pine tree with her brand new, lovely sons, but she had also given birth to them right out there in the open.

Everyone involved seemed quite pleased.

The boys had clearly been born hours before and were already dry and fluffy.

And yes, goat babies are probably the cutest creatures on the planet.

DSC_0211The kids are now about three weeks old and all six goats are living harmoniously together.

I try to let them out of their enclosure about once a day to wreak havoc on the farm, frolick with the piglets (who are ALWAYS escaping), and munch on the wonderful leafy greens that are apparently way better than the leafy greens on their side of the fence.

When they are not busy wreaking or frolicking or munching, they will turn absolutely anything into a toy.

It can be climbed!

It can be climbed!

Favorites include lawn chairs, picnic tables, ladders, and benches.

If it can be climbed, a goat kid’ll climb it.


When goats fly.

And fly off of it.

And they will repeat the performance ad infinitum.

DSC_0271Unless, of course, they are busy reading.

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