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The goldenberry January 17th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

The goldenberry, or Cape gooseberry, is a bright yellow-orange fruit, about the size of a grape, sweet and tangy, rich in vitamins A, B and C. It is enclosed in a sheath, or calyx, which hides the fruit from view and protects it from insect pests. Like a banana, you can open the wrapper and eat the fruit unwashed.

The golden berry was known to the Incas, but little else is known of its prehistory. In the Andes, the plant has many names, including: uchuva (Colombia), aguaymanto (Peru) and chilto (in Bolivia). Not a true berry, but a member of the tomato family (Solanaceae), the fruit was grown in England by 1774, and soon appeared from South Africa to Kenya, Australia, the Philippines and Hawaii, besides the Andes from Chile to Colombia, now the world’s top producer.

A minor crop everywhere it is grown, I had never seen the goldenberry until I moved to Cochabamba, where I learned to love its unique flavor. I never plant the goldenberry, but most years it appears somewhere in my garden, where it can grow to over a meter tall, especially if it can find another plant to lean on. It flowers and bears fruit for months on end.

As aptly described in Lost Crops of the Incas, the goldenberry is wild and weedy. In many places, such as Hawaii, where it is called poha, the plant is an invasive weed, choking out native vegetation. I gather that ancient Andean farmers did not domesticate the berry; they just tolerated the little shrub which popped up, in disturbed soil near houses, paths and in fields.

As with any wild plant, goldenberry seed can plant itself with no help from humans. If left on the plant, the calyx gradually thins away, leaving just a net bag. Then the fruit decomposes, except for the seeds. As the wind moves the bag, it scatters the seeds on the ground.

There have been some recent suggestions to breed larger fruits, and to remove the slight, bitter aftertaste. But some of us savor that lingering flavor, and a bigger fruit might burst through its little paper envelope, spoiling the fruit’s visual appeal and exposing it to bugs, rot and dust.

I’m happy to have the goldenberry just as it is, a weed that makes itself welcome with a gift of fruit.

Scientific name

Physalis peruviana

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

Achojcha: An Inca vegetable

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Further reading

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. Washington: National Academies Press.

For more on the goldenberry as an invasive weed, see CABI’s Invasive Species Compendium.

EL CHILTO, CULTIVO Y MALEZA

Por Jeff Bentley

17 de enero del 2021

Llamado “uchuva” en Colombia, “aguaymanto” en el Peú, el chilto tiene muchos otros nombres, como “goldenberry”, o “Cape gooseberry” en inglés. Es un fruto amarillo-anaranjado, más o menos el tamaño de una uva, dulce y ácido, rico en vitaminas A, B y C. Está envuelto en una cobertura, o un cáliz, que esconde el fruto y lo protege de plagas insectiles. Igual que un plátano, se lo puede pelar y comer sin lavarlo.

Los Incas conocieron el chilto, pero se sabe poco más de su prehistoria. Miembro de la familia del tomate (Solanaceae), la fruta se cultivaba en Inglaterra para el 1774, y rápidamente apareció de Sudáfrica a Kenia, Australia, Filipinas y Hawai, y en los Andes de Chile hasta Colombia, hoy en día el primer productor a nivel mundial.

Un cultivo menor en todos los lugares donde se cultiva, yo nunca había visto el chilto hasta que vine a Cochabamba, donde aprendí a amar su sabor único. Nunca planto la uchuva, pero casi cada año aparece en algún lugar de mi jardín, donde puede llegar a tener más de un metro de alto, especialmente si se apoya en una planta vecina. Florece y da frutos durante meses.

Como dicen en “Lost Crops of the Incas, el chilto es una planta silvestre, una maleza. En muchos lugares, como Hawai, donde se llama poha, la planta es una invasora, que ahoga la vegetaciĂłn nativa. Deduzco que los antiguos agricultores andinos no domesticaban la baya; sĂłlo toleraban el pequeño arbusto que aparecĂ­a en el suelo removido cerca de las casas, los caminos y en los campos.

Como con cualquier planta silvestre, la semilla de la uchuva puede plantarse a sí misma sin la ayuda humana. Si permanece en la planta, el cáliz se adelgaza gradualmente, dejando sólo una bolsa de red. Entonces el fruto se descompone, excepto por las semillas. El viento mueve la bolsa, dispersando las semillas en el suelo.

Actualmente algunos sugieren que los fitomejoradores deben crear un chilto bien domesticado, con frutos más grandes, y eliminar el sutil sabor amargo que el fruto deja en el paladar. Pero a algunos nos gusta ese dejo, y si la fruta fuera más grande podría reventar su pequeño sobre de papel, arruinando la belleza de la fruta y exponiéndola a los bichos, la pudrición y el polvo.

Estoy feliz de tener el chilto tal como es, una maleza que se hace bienvenida con un regalo de fruta.

Nombre cientĂ­fico

Physalis peruviana

Previos blogs de Agro-Insight

La achojcha: hortaliza inca

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Lectura adicional

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. Washington: National Academies Press.

Para más información sobre la uchuva como maleza invasora, vea Invasive Species Compendium por CABI.

Pony Express December 13th, 2020 by

From April 1860 to October 1861, a private mail service, called the Pony Express, carried letters by horseback. By running at full throttle day and night, horses and riders could relay a mail pouch, called a mochila, from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento California, by way of Salt Lake City, Utah: over 1,900 miles (3,100 km) away in ten days. Depending on the terrain, “swing stations” were placed about ten miles apart, where a stock tender kept a corral full of small, swift horses. The rider would gallop into the station, swing his mochila over the saddle of a fresh horse, and ride off. After some 70 miles, he would hand his mochila to the next man at a “home station” where the riders ate and slept.

The riders were just boys; “orphans preferred” said one classic ad (perhaps written to entice teens with the thrill of danger). Riders were small men, who could weigh no more than 125 pounds (57 kilos), to be light on the ponies.

As a teenager, I also worked briefly on the Pony Express, not riding it, but digging it. I was 19, about the same age as the riders had been. I worked as an archaeological laborer for one of my professors, Dale Berge, under a government contract to excavate the Pony Express home station at Simpson Springs in the Great Basin, southwest of Salt Lake City.

The sagebrush stretched for miles, rimmed by distant mountains, a bit like it must have looked when the ponies still ran. The ruined station was easy to spot. The lower walls of a three-room cabin and a corral were clearly visible.

For all its originality, the Pony Express did rely on some earlier endeavors, especially existing roads, like the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City. Some of the stations were already in place, including the one at Simpson Springs, founded in 1859 when entrepreneur George Chorpenning set up a tent on a stone foundation to serve his mail freight line from Utah to California. In 1860, the Pony Express simply bought Chorpenning’s station after the government conveniently cancelled his mail contract that same year.

The Pony Express built the stone cabin and installed a station keeper named George Dewees, to cook the bacon and beans, and to bake bread for the boys. No booze was allowed on the Pony Express.

In spite of the lure of sudden death, the Pony Express was well organized and dependable, operated by the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company. Yet expenses were high and the Pony Express never made money. The enterprise stopped taking mail two days after the transcontinental telegraph was completed on 24 October 1861, linking the Eastern USA with California. The ponies’ last letters were delivered in November. The Pony Express was killed by the telegraph, a faster information and communication technology (ICT).

Bits of the Pony Express system lingered for a while. The telegraph was like the email of the 1860s. It carried text, but parcels had to go by snail mail, or in this case, by stage coach. Wells Fargo kept delivering mail to California in wagons along the old Pony Express route until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. A family named Mulliner was living at Simpson Springs in 1890, operating a local stage line. But by 1891 even the station was abandoned.

For all its originality, the Pony Express only lasted a year and a half. The Western Union telegraph that replaced it lasted for 145 years, until 27 January 2006. A communication technology that is carried on by many actors, like book publishing, can evolve for centuries, but a complex system like the Pony Express that is centrally controlled, complicated, and serves a narrow, localized demand, can end as suddenly as it began. Still, any enterprise as romantic and audacious as the Pony Express may stay in the public memory for a long time.

Further reading

My main source of information was Dr. Berge’s site report on Simpson Springs. Ever the gentleman, in his acknowledgements Professor Berge was kind enough to mention me, although I was just a 19-year-old student.

Berge, Dale L. 1980. Simpson Springs Station Historical Archaeology in Western Utah 1974-1975. Salt Lake City: Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Cultural Resource Series No. 6. https://digitallibrary.utah.gov/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=45926

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Book rate

Lions, leopards and overnight delivery

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Photos

Pony Express Route by Jkan997 source: http://sharemap.org/public/Pony%20Express%20Route

Pony Express recruitment poster from Berge (1980).

Grocery shops and farm shops December 6th, 2020 by

Few people realize how our food system is structured and how we consumers have a crucial influence. Exercising our food rights is as important as being politically active.

My dad ran a successful grocery store on the village market square, just across from the church. I still vividly remember the day when he took out an advertisement leaflet from the letter box. A year earlier a supermarket had opened in the village, accompanied by aggressive marketing. “They sell the same orange juice cheaper than I can buy it from the wholesaler,” my dad turned to my mum, “if this continues, I will have to close soon.” Customers from the neighbourhood suddenly started to pass by our shop on their way to the supermarket, heads down, embarrassed because they no longer dared to greet my dad, with whom they had joked and chit-chatted for over 30 years.

Local entrepreneurs are resilient and creative. I am still amazed when I think of all the different goods my dad had on offer in his small shop, from fresh fruit to ice cream, from birdseed and toys to stockings for women. Along with my mum, he paid special attention to making the shop window as attractive as it could be during special occasions like Sinterklaas (6 December), Christmas and Easter. It was real art that no supermarket could beat.

But shops need more than high quality goods and services, and loyal customers. One day, the wholesaler who had sold produce to my dad for years, bluntly announced that he could no longer supply us, as the wholesaler made more profit selling directly to the supermarkets and said it was not worthwhile continuing to supply independent retailers. By then, a second supermarket had already opened in the village. And so, dad closed his shop. That was in the early 1990s. Dad was also a skilled printer, so he found other work. But he had loved his shop, because he said it let him make other people happy. Now that was gone. 

Currently, in Belgium 95% of the food we eat is purchased from supermarkets, which continue to put local entrepreneurs out of business. Supermarkets also harm local farmers by driving prices so low that farmers can barely cover their costs, as we described in an earlier blog Stuck in the middle.

Over the years, my wife Marcella and I have become good friends with Johan and Vera, who grow organic vegetables and fruits and sell them in a farm shop they started about a decade ago. Each time we meet, they have some interesting stories to share. “We sell some of our produce to Biofresh,” Vera said, “but they always pay the lowest possible price for our produce and prices have never gone up over the years.” I was already familiar with such practices that can really put the knife to farmers’ throats, but had not expected this to happen in the organic food system, which I thought was fairer.

In 2019, Biofresh merged with the Dutch company Udea, after which economics started to overrule its philosophy. “Now Biofresh no longer allows retailers to enter its premises to see what fruit and vegetables is on offer if the amount they buy each week is below 1,000 Euro,” Johan shared, “so many small farm shops like us have started to look for alternatives, but it is not easy.” Every Thursday, the day before their farm shop opens, Johan and Vera drive through half of Belgium to sell and buy fresh produce. Besides Biofresh, they now also buy from Sinature, BioVibe and directly from various farmer friends.

Thirty years after my dad closed his village shop, the nascent farm shops which are to be celebrated and nurtured for providing healthy, fresh and fair food, especially during these times of corona, are in the same stranglehold as the grocery shops in the 1990s. When profits overrule ethics, wholesalers decide under which conditions people can still buy from them, and may cut off sales to small shops, just because the wholesaler wants even more money.

As transaction costs to stock up are larger for small-scale retailers, supermarket chains have ousted local entrepreneurs. They are now buying up closed village shops to start specialty shops and as irony would have it “be closer to the customer”. Some supermarkets have even gone a step further, buying up organic farms and fishing grounds to gain full control over the food we eat. Supervised by managers, the real farmers and fisher folks with a passion for their profession risk becoming mere employees devoid of any decision-making power.

The European Green Deal provides an action plan to boost the efficient use of resources by moving to a circular economy, restore biodiversity and cut pollution. Yet it remains to be seen what measures will be put in place to support our small-scale farmers, farm shops and community-initiatives such as weekly boxes of fresh local produce procured through group purchasing associations.

Without appropriate measures, organic farming risks becoming a variation of industrial agriculture with emerging opportunities captured by a few dominant food chain actors, who further consolidate their power, wealth and decision-making over what food we get on our table.

In the meantime, we consumers should not underestimate our influence. As Johan said: “consumers have the market in their hands.” Buy local from farm shops, farmers’ markets and small-scale retailers as much as you can. The supermarkets’ claim that they are local serves the wrong purpose and pushes those with a passion for their profession out of business.

Further reading

https://allesoverbio.be/artikels/hoe-bio-uitgroeide-tot-een-professionele-landbouwmethode

IPES-Food (2016) From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems.

IPES-Food (2018) Breaking away from industrial food and farming systems: Seven case studies of agroecological transition.

Related blogs

Stuck in the middle

Blocking out the food

Marketing something nice

Mobile slaughterhouses

Forgotten vegetables

Fighting farmers

One thought on “Grocery shops and farm shops

  1. In my opinion, the influence of consumers is often overestimated, instead of underestimated. As stated by Thilo Bode, director of Foodwatch International:

    “Our collective survival cannot depend on individual consumer choices. Food policy is too important to be left to the companies that make and market our food. Real change will only come through clearer, bolder EU-wide targets and measures to lessen the environmental and health impacts of what we eat.”

    Link:
    https://www.foodwatch.org/en/news/2020/farm-to-fork-consumer-power/

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The wine rose November 15th, 2020 by

When experts say that a wine tastes of berries or has a floral scent, I believe them. When I hear of “toffee notes” or a “cigar nose” I grow slightly skeptical. But when I read of a wine that comes on like “a street-walker,” I give up. Is there any objective truth to such descriptions?

A nifty set of experiments by Ilja Crojmans and colleagues suggests that naming a wine does not help to remember its smell. In one experiment, wine experts were distracted by being asked to remember some numbers while smelling different wines. Ten minutes later they were asked to sniff a larger set of wines containing the original varieties. When the experts were not given a memory task, their minds were free to give each wine a mental label, but they did not remember the wines any better than when their minds were distracted.

This study suggests that experts do not use language to recognize the aroma of wines. Yet, in an earlier experiment, Crojmans and Asifa Majid showed that wine experts can describe the odor of wine more accurately and consistently than novices, but only marginally so, suggesting that one can learn to recognize different flavors in wine and describe them.

This reminded me of my days as a volunteer novice in a wine tasting experiment in Tucson, Arizona, in 1983. Linguist Adrienne Lehrer invited me and 11 other graduate students, colleagues and friends into her living room to taste different wines. We were chosen because we liked wine, but didn’t know much about it. We each got four glasses holding 50 ml (just enough for a taste), and a set of cards to write a short description of each wine.

A few weeks later Professor Lehrer asked us to come over again. We sat around the same tables as before with the same unlabeled wines we’d tasted previously. Each wine had a letter, which we were asked to match with the description we had written earlier. I recall reading my cards while sipping the wines and feeling no real connection between what I had written and what I was now savoring. Yet one person in four did correctly match each of their own descriptions with all the different wines. Just as important, those people were certain at the time that they were right. Wine can be described, if you have the knack for it.

Wine really is complex, with over 800 volatiles affecting its smell and taste, but one’s skills at recognizing and describing these subtle differences may improve with training and practice. Lehrer points out in her book, Wine and Conversation, that the more florid descriptions are commonly found in wine magazines, and most new metaphors are only used once. (The Economist says that “gravel” and “wet tennis balls” are recent offerings). Flamboyant descriptions are mostly word play. Wine scientists (vinologists) use fewer, but more accurate descriptors, like “vanilla”.

Culture influences how we drink and talk about wine. There is the ritual of clear, stemmed glasses, only half full, accompanied by sniffing, sipping and pronouncing on the merits of the wine. But you can drink wine in completely different ways, as I learned while living among smallholders in Portugal, whose ancestors had been making and drinking wine for centuries. They had their own evolved wine etiquette and ritual.

Wine had to accompany food, and was usually poured into white, ceramic bowls, sometimes as large as half a liter. At a large lunch, sometimes two or four people would share a bowl of wine, refilling it from a ceramic pitcher on the table, replenished from a 500-liter wooden keg.

No work party was complete without wine, to thank the neighbors who had gathered to help with the big farm jobs. When we took a break in the field, we would hold a snack in one hand, and chug a bowl of wine as fast as possible. Other people were waiting to use the bowl, and they didn’t have all day. There were potatoes to harvest.

When these hardworking folks talked about wine it wasn’t the flavor, but the color that caught their imagination. Speaking of a wine that they had made themselves, the farmers would say with pride and deliberate emphasis “it leaves a rose in the bottom of the bowl.”

Why should a roundish red stain be so important? In northwest Portugal, farmers made vinho verde, a fresh, light wine. This community in Entre-Douro-e-Minho was on the edge of the designated zone, where it was difficult to make a superb wine. The dissolved solids in wine (and alcohol) make up what we call “body”. The crimson stain in the bowl said “a full-bodied wine”.

There are many ways to imagine and discuss wine, some earthy, some refined and some pretentious. You can do worse than to drink wine from a bowl in the shade of a grape arbor, sitting on the ground with fellow workers, washing down a roasted sardine and a chunk of sourdough corn bread.

Related blog story

The pleasure of bread

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Croijmans, Ilja and Asifa Majid 2016. Not all flavor expertise is equal: The language of wine and coffee experts. PLoS ONE. e0155845.

Croijmans, Ilja, Artin Arshamian, Laura J. Speed, and Asifa Majid 2020. Wine Experts’ Recognition of Wine Odors Is Not Verbally Mediated. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000949.

Lehrer, Adrienne. 2007. Can wines be brawny? Reflections on wine vocabulary, Chapter six. In, Barry C. Smith (Ed.) Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine. Oxford. Signal books.

Lehrer, Adrienne. 2009. Wine and Conversation. Oxford, UK: University of Oxford Press. Second Edition. See page 169 for the tasting and writing experiment.

Wine and bottles. The Economist. 17 October 2020.

Reviving soils November 8th, 2020 by

Globally an estimated 20 to 60 million hectares of land in developing countries are acquired by foreign companies and investors. This so-called “land grabbing” has taken place for various reasons. The most obvious one is the hunger for maximising profit. The devastating effects on deforestation for the expansion of biofuels, sugar cane, palm oil and soya bean for animal feed are well known. A less visible reason is to secure food by those who have seen large areas of land in their home country become unsuitable for farming. This is particularly the case for India and China, where the Green Revolution model of industrial farming has been promoted for decades. Today, due to this industrial model of farming about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water. According to Dave Montgomery in his book Growing a Revolution, half of the soil carbon in the midwestern USA has been lost. At EU level, soil erosion affects over 12 million hectares of land – about 7.2% of the total agricultural land – and leads to €1.25 billion loss in crop productivity.

As people have seen the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished at will to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that help plants to take up the nutrients in organic matter, and soil minerals. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

While acquiring land in other countries as a strategy to secure domestic food supplies has created its own problems, it is hopeful to see that more sustainable initiatives triggered by civil society are gaining momentum, and receiving support from their governments. President Xi Jinping recently announced on television that China wants to stop destroying natural resources and instead become a global leader for green technologies. Through his speech he formalised the rising aspirations of Chinese civil society for healthy food.

For several years, the central government in India has strongly advocated “zero budget natural farming,” a form of regenerative agriculture that restores the health of soils without external inputs. By ending the reliance on purchased inputs and loans for farming, natural farming also aims to solve extreme indebtedness and suicides among Indian farmers. Many Indian states have adopted policies that support various forms of agroecology.

When one of our Indian partners produced a farmer training video on how soils can be revived with good microbes, a traditional practice that is now being widely promoted, I thought this would be helpful for our garden as well. When we moved into our house in north-eastern Belgium, some of the land had been under intensive cultivation for decades. The soil was hard and dead. Even though I had mixed some cow manure into the planting pits before planting my fruit trees 4 years ago, they have struggled during summers that seem to have become dryer and hotter year after year.

I watched the good microbes video from the Access Agriculture video platform and downloaded the factsheet. All I needed was fresh cow dung, cow urine, molasses and chickpea flour. But we don’t have cows, only a few sheep, and to have cow dung loaded with good microbes one would have to approach an organic farmer. So, I decided to collect fresh dung from our sheep and give it a try.

Jeff wrote in an earlier blog that farmers and farmer trainers in Bolivia mix dung with their hands without any reservations. Likewise, I have often witnessed during my interactions with farmers in South Asia how respectful they treat dung, as if it were gold. Hence, I started to mix the ingredients. The days before setting up my experiment I had collected my own urine, and because I didn’t have molasses to feed the good microbes I settleed for what we had in the house, brown sugar.

Farmers in India also mix leaves of the neem tree into the solution to help control insect pests and diseases. I replaced neem with a strong-smelling medicinal plant that we have in our garden, called “boerenwormkruid”. After having added all in 10 litres of water, I placed the drum in the shade, as good microbes don’t like direct sunlight.

For 10 days, I let the mixture ferment to increase the number of good microbes, stirring it twice a day to release the gases that could inhibit fermentation. The sweet-sour smell was a good indication that fermentation was successful. The result was a home-made variation of commercially available effective microorganisms, and an Indian recipe adapted to Belgian conditions. I kept the filtered solution in recycled plastic milk bottles. Every 2-3 weeks I mixed one of the bottles into 100 litres of water to then pour the solution around my 30 something fruit trees with a watering can, each tree receiving just enough to moisten the mulch around their base.

Seeing is believing. And doing it yourself adds conviction. In just 6 months the soil around our fruit trees has become black, soft and crumbly, keeping rainwater much better. I am confident that the humus and rich soil life will help the trees cope much better with the changing climate.

While we have destroyed much of our farm land for decades, the solutions to revive our soils are available. Green technologies spread faster when there is political goodwill and when farmers have the opportunity to learn from their peers, across borders. That is what Access Agriculture tries to achieve through its rich video library.

Scientific name

Boerenwormkruid is Tanacetum vulgare. The English common name is tansy.

Credit

The top photo from soil erosion in Ethiopia is by Pascal Boeckx.

Related videos

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Good microbes for plants and soil

Human urine as fertilizer

Some 200 farmer training videos on ecological farming in 85 languages can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  www.accessagriculture.org

Related blogs

Trying it yourself

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil

Friendly germs

A revolution for our soil

Out of space

From uniformity to diversity

Further reading

GRAIN — GRAIN releases data set with over 400 global land grabs”. www.grain.org.

Montgomery, David R. 2017 Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. New York: Norton. 316 pp.

Panos Panagos et al. 2018. Cost of agricultural productivity loss due to soil erosion in the European Union: From direct cost evaluation approaches to the use of macroeconomic models. Land Degradation & Development, 29(3), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ldr.2879.

2 thoughts on “Reviving soils

  1. When we try something on our own, we learn while doing, then sharing becomes confident ! It can be shared with many others later as a tested good practice. I liked the experience, many of us need to do such things more frequently!

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