Talking COVID-19, food supply chains, and food retailers with the new Chair of Iowa State’s Department of Animal Science (and the host of RFD-TV’s “Doc Talk” show), Dr. Dan Thomson | The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, Episode 39
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Welcome to Episode 39 of The Spokesman Speaks podcast.
In this episode, we interview Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill and the new Chair of Iowa State’s Department of Animal Science (and the host of RFD-TV’s “Doc Talk” show), Dr. Dan Thomson.
President Hill discusses updates to the COVID-19 assistance for Iowa farmers and what he’s hearing as he conducts listening sessions with farmers in every region of the state.
Dr. Thomson shares the vision and unique perspective he brings to ISU’s Department of Animal Science; what his department and others are doing to help livestock farmers through the COVID-19 crisis; insights into food supply chain disruptions; and an approach to working with food retailers on issues like animal care and sustainability.
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Narrator: Since 1934 Iowa's farmers have turned to the Iowa Farm Bureau spokesman as their trusted news source. Now the Spokesman Speaks. Listen in and hear from leading experts on topics important to farmers and agriculture. Now here's your host.
Delaney Howell: Welcome to the May 4th edition of the Spokesman Speaks podcast. I'm Delaney Howell and I'm glad you've joined us for this episode. Hopefully from the seat of a tractor planting corn or soybeans. This episode features interviews with Iowa Farm Bureau president Craig Hill and Dr. Dan Thompson, who is the new chair of Iowa State University's Department of Animal Science. President Hill is conducting COVID-19 listening sessions with Farm Bureau members all around the state to better understand the greatest needs farmers are facing in every region. So we're going to hear about some key issues that have surfaced so far. Then, we turn our attention to Dr. Dan Thompson who is going to tell us about the unique perspective and vision he brings to Iowa State University's Department of Animal Science as well as what his department is doing to help current and future livestock farmers through a time that has been downright excruciating. But first, let's start with President Hill. Spokesman editor, Dirck Steimel called President Hill last week to hear his thoughts on the relief USDA will be providing to Iowa's farmers and to hear what farmers are telling him about their greatest needs right now.
Dirck Steimel: Craig, we're starting to get some more details on farmer assistance programs through the Cares Act. What are the most important aspect of the program for Iowa farmers that you see and why is it so important that USDA move quickly to assist farmers through this unprecedented period?
President Craig Hill: Well, Dirck, let me respond to why it's so important and I think we all know that farmers work goes on each and every day. You can rely on that. Our work never ends. We just keep going, but the why is COVID-19 has severely disrupted the marketplace and it's severely disrupted supply chain. We are doing what we are so good at producing, but we have these disruptions that have really broken apart the processes and the supply chain that bring the consumer those valued products that we provide. We had nearly 25% drop and the value of corn with basis levels collapsing, ethanol plant shutting down, ethanol prices dropping from what we're already a profitable levels. Another 60%, a 15% drop in soybeans, 40% drop in lean hog futures, 30% drop in live cattle and even cold cows. Which auction markets, many of which are closed, but cold cows only have about half their value. So devastating losses and income and futures projections indicate those losses will be sustained for a period of time. So we need to stabilize our cash situation on the farm and even though we're working, even though we're doing what we need to do our cash is running very, very short. And so we need immediate assistance and the federal government's the right place to look for that. Kara Zack provides for that. There are a number of programs in which farmers can receive some support from, but one of which was the dollars that were dedicated as Commodity Credit Corporation and our U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, USDA. So we have assistance provided. USDA is expediting the rule making process for the Direct Payment Program that just was announced recently. Sign up will begin probably in May and payments may be allocated in late May or at the end to the first through the end of June. The program was called the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. USDA will be providing about $16 billion in payments to farmers, that's about $3 billion dedicated toward food purchases. We know, the livestock industry has had enormous losses and this fund will provide about $9.6 billion to the livestock industry. Iowa State University, the center for ag research development, had indicated that just in Iowa alone, the losses for hogs about $2.1 billion. This provides about $1.6 billion for swine nationally. So certainly not adequate. It's certainly not enough, it's going to be very helpful. And the Farm Bureau will be asking for additional assistance from the Commodity Credit Corporation and from USDA going forward. But this is going to be very helpful and as immediate as possibly May or June, and so we're thankful for this new program.
Dirck Steimel: Craig, you've been holding listening sessions with County Farm Bureau presidents around the state. What are some of the key issues you're hearing from those county leaders?
President Craig Hill: Well, Direk, a farmer's important work goes on, as I mentioned every day. You can rely on that, but every farm is unique in their own personal circumstances and that's what we're finding as we talk around the state or county presidents or their neighbors themselves. The community, every farm is unique in a circumstance. When did you have cattle ready for market? How were you impacted when were your hogs ready for market? Do you have your 2019 crops priced were you invested in an ethanol facility? Do you have contractual arrangements with others? Are you growing for others? Who has the risk? So it's quite varied as the impact and we're learning a great deal, but across the entire state, we are finding that farmers attitudes are stronger than what we anticipated. They understand how to adapt and they understand a hardship from time to time. And they've dealt with issues before and they're dealing with this the best way they know how. But it's a difficult situation financially and we'll have to as a Farm Bureau work hard to carry that message forward to our decision makers, our lawmakers so that we can provide some assistance for them.
Dirck Steimel: Craig a new round of funding through the paycheck protection program contained some specific provisions for agriculture, do you think this program could be helpful for Iowa farmers?
President Craig Hill: Well, absolutely. You know, as I mentioned cash is needed and needed immediately. We know that won't be sufficient, but we know that it will be helpful. The Paycheck Protection Program is one that we are right now making applications for. So we are expecting, within a week or so for those applications to be complete and, $310 billion of new money could be expired. So when you hear this, hopefully you will have applied. It is a complicated program of rules are not easy to come by. So work with your tax advisor and your investment advisors and your banker and get information make sure that you apply. If you think that you could receive proceeds,
Dirck Steimel: Craig livestock farmers are definitely facing a crisis, as meat processing plants temporarily close or slow down. Why is this such a difficult issue for farmers? And do you think the recent moves by President Trump and the administration will be helpful?
President Craig Hill: Well, at the time of this interview, Dirck we don't know exactly the specifics on the executive order the president made but I believe we should all be thankful that he's putting attention to this. Well, we know that in our food processing industry, there's a critical infrastructure and the Best Production Act is a useful tool for the president to use in this executive order. It's paramount to protect those workers and those plants and resources will be allocated to those workers as additional resources but also what's important is the nation's protein supply and farmers need the supply to work and to be vibrant and so I think this is an important executive order. We're appreciative that this took place. The details are yet to be known. We're still trying to iron out some of the details when we'll see plants reopened but this is very helpful to the agricultural community.
Dirck Steimel: Craig, how can Farm Bureau members get some more information on assistance programs and other helpful resources during this pandemic period?
President Craig Hill: Certainly, Dirck, as a reminder communication is so important. The Iowa Farm Bureau website, iowafarmbureau.com. The Spokesman Speaks podcast, the Spokesman which comes weekly. The Dirt Newsletter would be another avenue for information. All of our Farm Bureau outlets are important. Keeping you informed. Also look for the Department of Agriculture and their website and their announcements. Iowa State University Extension. All of those news outlets will be helpful and keeping you abreast of what's new and up to date.
Dirck Steimel: Craig, finally, this is certainly one of the most difficult periods for agriculture in recent history. What are some steps that you think farmers can take to stay physically and mentally healthy during this crisis?
President Craig Hill: Everybody should keep in communication with one another. Talk to your family your family members, landlords, your business partners, your banker. Keep the communication going. And that includes with Farm Bureau with your leadership and Farm Bureau and your other board members, your other neighbors and folks that you were accustomed to talking to. Keep that communication going. Take pleasure in simple things that we do as farmers, we as farmers find beauty and growing things and nurturing our crops and our livestock. We take pride of what we do. Don't forget that you're appreciated. You're important. You are needed. And we all know these events that are occurring today are out of your control. And farmers can feel helpless when things are out of their control, but we'll weather this storm. We have weathered storms before. We're going to come out stronger. We're going to come out wiser and hang in there, but keep the communication going and keep talking to folks.
Delaney Howell: We'd like to thank President Hill for sharing these regular COVID-19 updates with us over the past few weeks. But we'd also like to thank our members like you who are making time during this busy season to share their needs with Farm Bureau. We know you'd rather probably be talking about anything else rather than the impact COVID-19 is having on your farms. But your feedback has been so critical and it's much appreciated. Next up, is Dr. Dan Thompson, a third generation bovine veterinarian, the host of RFD TV's nationally televised Doc Talk program, and the new chair of ISU's Department of Animal Science. What are Dr. Thompson's plans for the department and the students and alumni it serves? Farm Bureau's Zach Bader called him up to discuss that question and more.
Zach Bader: I'm joined by Dr. Dan Thompson who comes to Iowa State as the new chair of the Department of Animal Science after spending more than a decade at Kansas State. But of course this isn't your introduction to Iowa, Dr. Thompson. It's more of a homecoming, right? So can you tell us about your Iowa roots and a bit about the background that led you back, here to Iowa State?
Dr. Dan Thompson: You bet. I appreciate you having me on Zach. This is a homecoming. I was raised in Southwest Iowa, so raised down, and if you know where Creston is, my hometown is Clearfield Iowa. We're right on the Taylor-Ringgold County line. And my granddad started the vet clinic there in 1938 and my dad joined it in 67 and I was the last graduate of Clearfield High School before it consolidated with other schools. And then I did my undergrad and veterinary degrees at Iowa State University.
Zach Bader: So of course this is kind of a heck of a time to start a new job and during an earlier conversation, you had mentioned to me that you started in this role a little bit earlier than expected. So tell us about that as well as your early impressions of the job.
Dr. Dan Thompson: You know, when I saw the COVID crisis coming and we all saw what was happening, obviously I was going to plan to start this job a little bit later, but I just turned to my wife and I just said, "With all of this hitting, I need to get the Ames and I need to get started and I need to provide help and leadership where I can and just be supportive." And it's one thing to go through a crisis. It's another thing to go through a crisis together. And I just wanted to get here, get on the ground and start serving agriculture and other entities here through Iowa State University.
Zach Bader: So as you look at the opportunities that are ahead of you and what kind of inspired you to come back and the opportunities that you now see that you're here, what excites you most about the, Department of Animal Science at ISU?
Dr. Dan Thompson: Well, every entity begins and ends with people, and I don't think it's ever been as more obvious to me that we have some beautiful buildings on the campus of Iowa State and you walk up and down the hallways and you realize they're just the bricks and mortar and the heart and the soul of Iowa State University are our students, our faculty, our staff, our alumni, the colors, the voices, the heritage. And so to come back to Iowa State University and serve in a role that is, I mean it's like a dream come true. I mean this is like Alabama football or Duke basketball and when we think about agriculture and Iowa State it is the pinnacle and we have such a huge responsibility to think about the giants that came before us, the people that are here that are entrenched in agriculture on day, in, day out basis and, and just the general acceptance of agriculture and the understanding of all commodity groups within the state are so important to the rest of the world. That is one of the reasons why was, I mean obviously wanting to come back home but to be at Iowa State University is a very humbling experience. And I will just say that as I got to know the faculty as I know a lot of the producers within the state and swine and dairy and poultry and beef and small ruminants and equine and you just look across the board, we have such a huge opportunity to really kind of take the program back to its roots to go back to thinking about the students and how we prepare them the best to go out and own their own operation, to manage an operation for someone else, to understand all the different opportunities there are in animal agriculture. We're going to make this a place that if you want to go and be in animal agriculture in the future, regardless of the species, you better go to Iowa State.
Zach Bader: You mentioned, of course, we discussed earlier that you're starting your job now in the midst of a situation that we've never seen before and all of us are feeling the impact of COVID-19 in some way, but livestock farmers have been hit particularly hard by supply chain disruptions and host of other issues. How has the Department of Animal Science helping farmers during these difficult times?
Dr. Dan Thompson: COVID did disrupt our supply chains. And when I it didn't matter which commodity group, we shut down ethanol plants and we've seen corn prices go down. We have we haven't dumped milk in the state of Iowa, but other states are seeing that. We've seen decreased packing plant capacity for both beef and swine. And so when you look at it across the board, some of the challenges have been with plant closures and then with distribution, if you think about how much people travel and, and, and another one I'll mention is our liquid eggs. As you see hotels, school lunch programs, restaurants right there there's a huge market for our liquid eggs from the state of Iowa. When we look at, at dairy products, we look at going into creamers and coffee shops and things that you don't really think about. It's been, it's been pretty traumatic. And then on the beef and pork side as we changed from being able to go out to white table cloth restaurants to cooking more at home, it sounds like it'd be a simple thing to do, but packing plants are having to change the cuts and their fabrication of our carcasses as they're going out the door. And so it has been a large supply chain disruption and it's something we're working on diligently. I just find it amazing to see the, the humanity in action through agriculture today trying to make sure that everyone is fed and making sure all of our animals are taken care of properly.
Zach Bader: There's a lot of focus right now on the immediate impacts of COVID-19 but of course they're going to be some longer term impacts for livestock farmers, for consumers. What do you see as you look ahead to some of those longer term impacts and what does the recovery look like and what role can the department play in that you're covering?
Dr. Dan Thompson: We have a three legged stool to the land grant mission and that is teaching, research and extension. And I can tell you that we went from having 300 online classes at Iowa State to having 6,100 online classes in a week. So we're ramping up to make sure that we continue to educate our students and provide them a good educational experience when it comes to research and extension. That's where the opportunities for us as a department have been probably highlighted the most. We immediately have looked at trials on finishing hogs about slowing them down and what we can do nutritionally. The Iowa Pork Industry Center hosted a nationwide seminar on how to feed hogs at the end of the feeding period to slow them down as we have this wall of animals headed towards the packing plant with decreased packing plant capacity. You'll see the same thing happen from the Iowa Beef Center within the Department of Animal Science. We have seminars on to care for these cattle that we can't get to slaughter and some of the health issues that might happen. So I think that as you see our research programs looking at milking twice a day versus once a day looking at different rations and looking at what the carcass will look like when we do hold these animals and making sure that we communicate with the packer that the animals will fit through the processing chains that we have and where they're set today. So what we are doing now in the, in the immediate is responding nimbly to the issues that the industry has going forward. We're going to be working with Packers, with farmers and ranchers to make sure that we can help do a postmortem for the lack of a better term, on the situation that came through so that we can start to write down notes and put together economic comparisons for people in the future. So that if we ever go through another ordeal like this that we aren't just getting through it this one time and not preparing for the future that we look at how we can interact with, with future farmers and ranchers. And then obviously, we're going to open our campus back up this fall. We're going to bring students back and hopefully we're going to be a part of the reopening of Iowa as we all move forward together.
Zach Bader: Of course you bring a unique perspective to this issue being as connected as you are and now being connected to Iowa producers as well. What do you think Iowans in general should know about the challenges that are being faced by livestock farmers right now? For example, what would you say to someone who reads, there's no shortage of livestock on farms right now and yet the shelves at the grocery stores and food banks are sometimes empty.
Dr. Dan Thompson: It is difficult for all of us to understand that. And I think the first thing I would say is nobody is to blame. This is due to probably in my lifetime, the only time I've ever seen anything like this happen. And so, it's not something we could prepare for or knew was going to happen. So this is due to the virus. So, then you take a look at, where's the bottleneck? And one of the things that I've always said is we're really good in this country at producing food and our farmers and ranchers and people are tremendous at producing a safe, wholesome product. Where we've always fallen short is our distribution and we have current distribution set up and streamlined for when things are going well. And so I think that the American people need to understand that’s when we have this tremendous amount of commodity out in the feed lots and the pig barns and the broiler units, you need to understand that the bottleneck comes, it's almost shaped like a wine bottle are industries where the wine bottle narrows to the neck and then it's like two wine bottles or an hour glass where the, after it goes through the processing pinch points of the packer and the distribution center, it then widens back out to all the consumers. And right now we're passing through that, that pinch point of distribution and we're trying to keep the packing plants open. We're trying to reroute our distribution to get the product to grocery stores and we need to have enough shelving and different things. So, it really has been a logistical issue that nobody was aware of or thought would happen. But it did and we're dealing with it the best we can.
Zach Bader: You mentioned earlier 6,100 online classes that were made available as a result of this situation. Of course Iowa State is a starting place for a lot of future livestock farmers. What are some things in addition to the additional online classes there that the department can do that's going to help those aspiring and beginning livestock farmers, particularly during these difficult times?
Dr. Dan Thompson: First and foremost, we're going to get back to our roots and if you want to come to Iowa State and you have a future in, in animal agriculture, we're going to provide you hands on opportunities. We have the best teaching farms in the world. We just built a brand new poultry center that has a state of the art egg lane facility to compare different types of housing systems. We have our own egg packaging unit. So people can come here, get a hands on work in the field. We're building a new turkey barn. We're going to build a new swine facility. We just, we have a state of the art dairy and so we have a place where students can come here, get on the farm and learn with hands on. The other thing that we're going to add to our department is we're going to be adding certificate programs so that people that want to specialize in beef or somebody wants to specialize in swine production or poultry production. You're going to be able to not only come here and interact with some of the best faculty members in these areas and production management. We're also going to Institute internship programs so that we can have industry partners that will increase your networking as a producer, as a farmer, as a rancher, so that you'll have a network of people when you leave Iowa State University that you can rely on not only for answering questions or looking for jobs, but just a sharing that fellowship of being a part of animal agriculture. But at Iowa State University we stand for excellence and we're going to continue to provide a hands on immersed animal agriculture curriculum.
Zach Bader: Of course it's hard to pull our attention from COVID-19 at this point, but what are some of the other issues that are on the radar for your department right now?
Dr. Dan Thompson: Unfortunately, in in farming and ranching and the business that we're in, we can never focus on one topic because we still have to take care of the animals that the good Lord entrusted in our care. And when I look at, we still are going to be one of the top schools in looking at genetics, we're going to be doing production research and things to that. But when we look at some of the contemporary issues, we can't rest on our laurels because of COVID-19 you've already seen some of the animal rights activists try to use coven to drive some of their vegan agendas and it's not something that we can sit back and allow to happen unguarded. And so we have to stay on top of environmental issues. We have to stay on top of animal rights activists. We have to continue to look at antibiotic usage and judicious use of antimicrobials, food safety. Are all issues that on a day to day basis. Just because we have a slowdown doesn't mean that we change the level of care or that we change the level of attention to detail on the issues because we're in this job to produce that safe, wholesome, nutritious protein source that is affordable to feed the world.
Zach Bader: That's a message that you've had an opportunity I know to take to a variety of audiences and I know that you've got a television show that you help host there on RFD TV. You also have a long history of working in animal welfare and serving on animal welfare committees for organizations like the National Cattleman's Association, McDonald's, Yum Brands, Tyson’s. So when you've seen this firsthand working with retailers, right, where you're seeing an increasing focus on sustainability, animal welfare, those types of issues, what do you say to retailers and groups when you hear them want to dictate to farmers how they raise their animals?
Dr. Dan Thompson: It's a great question and it's one I get a lot and one I love the challenge and I think that part of the reason why I'm on these boards is that I'm pretty simple and for me to understand it, I got to kind of get it in a simplistic viewpoint. And, and so I think somebody one day somebody said, well, what do you actually do? And I said, I think of myself as, as kind of a facilitator. And so my job is to go and show the retailers and I actually will be bringing them to Iowa. The retailers are going to start coming to Iowa State. They're going to start coming to Iowa farmers and farms and ranches because we bring them out into the field to show them how we do it. But what I do is I go to the retailer to let them know how good a job we're doing in the supply chains that they're purchasing products. And then on the flip side, when they hear the concerns from their consumer, I come back to the farm, come back to the ranch, we put our boots on and we get out there and say, "You know, instead of thinking of it as someone saying, thou shalt do it this way, we have to start thinking of it as if we did this, they could sell more of our product." And, and really that's the mindset that, that a person has to get into. But the Trump card, the thing that when we, when you go into the retailer and they come out with some of these outlandish ideas. My Trump card is always, have you ever tried to do that? Have you ever driven a loader? Have you ever been out horseback riding pens or doing these things? Because it's, it's got to be a grasp of reality. And the last thing I'll say to this that I, I really think we must focus on is we have to start focusing on being one industry, whether it's poultry from the egg to the griddle. If it's dairy, it's uttered to cup, whatever you want to say. But at the end of the day, when I hear someone from a retailer say, well, we're going to audit your farm to make sure you're doing things right. You know, all you have to do is, is turn that around and say, you know what, I'm going to audit your restaurant because you're representing my beef industry. You're representing my pork industry. And when I walk in there and the floors aren't swept and the thing you know we know how to raise the animals, y'all know how to run the restaurants. The greatest distance between two people is the last three feet. And we in this industry have to recognize that the retailer represents that last three feet between our industries and the consumer. So we have to work with them and we have to educate them. We have to bring them on the farm and we have to continually strive to improve and show that continuous improvement.
Zach Bader: You know, I hear in your response some of that passion for getting out on the farm. And then again in an earlier conversation that you and I had, I know that you mentioned working with farmers in Kansas and getting out to Farm Bureaus and going and presenting at County Farm Bureau meetings, that type of thing. What excites you most about the opportunity to work with farmers and farm Bureau members here in Iowa?
Dr. Dan Thompson: Well first and foremost, I owe the Farm Bureau a lot. They've helped me in my career and I'm a Farm Bureau member in Kansas and I'll switch my membership up here to Iowa by, I met here long enough, I haven't even got my mailing address, which hardly yet. So yeah, I like to be out in the country. I came from a town in Southwest Iowa of 200 people and we had a very small graduating high school class. And when I, when we're out and we're listening and we're engaging and we're building trust and we're building relationships. It's one of those things that when you walk through the door at Iowa State University, you've got somebody there that your friend, someone that, that regardless of the situation, we're going to drop what we're doing and we're going to come help. And, and working with the Iowa Farm Bureau on your county meetings, I think I've done 70 or 80 between 70 and 80 of the County farm Bureau meetings in Kansas on the annual meetings. And we just love getting out in the state and doing some of these talks about consumer engagement and, and opportunities in agriculture and, and we have fun doing it, right. So, yeah, I want to be engaged in, Iowa Farm Bureau. I'm very thankful. I understand what Iowa Farm Bureau stands for in this state and having an office in every County and, and broad representation of the people that are out there working with the dirt, raising the animals, growing corn, soybeans, and feeding the world. You know, one thing that I have thought about with Farm Bureau is the passion of its members and being a member run organization has always been something that is so different than a lot of lot of groups. And when you talk about a group that's going to stand up for the rights of Iowa's farmers and ranchers and engage the consumer and go the extra mile. In my experience, nobody does it better than the Farm Bureau and I expect that it'll be true here and I was well and I just, I look forward to serving and excited about the future and I'm looking forward to y'all coming to Iowa State. Our door is always open and the lights always on.
Delaney Howell: It sounds like Dr. Thompson is happy to be back home here in Iowa and we're certainly glad to have him. We appreciate him carving out some time to talk with us and we look forward to catching up with him again down the road. Okay. Before we wrap up this episode of the Spokesman Speaks Podcast, I want to alert you to a special episode that we released on April 27th featuring Senator Chuck Grassley's latest COVID-19 relief insights. You can go back and listen to that episode in your favorite podcasting app right after you finished this one. But here's a little taste of what was covered.
Senator Chuck Grassley: This was part of my conversation with chief of staff metals Saturday night and he said he had just, I guess you'd say he signed off on an executive order probably coming from the CDC with protocols. So these companies would now only be encouraged to get back to work, but would get back to work. We can't have a situation where you can't slaughter hogs and so we got to keep it going not only for the benefit of agriculture, but for the benefit of the consumer.
Delaney Howell: Again, you can go back and listen to Senator Grassley's entire interview in episode 38 of the Spokesman Speaks Podcast, which was released on April 27th but if you go ahead and hit subscribe right now in your favorite podcast app, you won't miss any other great content like that interview with Senator Grassley or others we have in store for you in the weeks and months to come. That's all for this episode of the Spokesman Speaks. I'm Delaney Howell and if you enjoyed this episode, I hope you'll join us for the next one. Our next regularly scheduled podcast is May 18th but we're in the midst of planning additional special episodes for you, so again, be sure to hit subscribe so you don't miss a beat. Until next time, I hope you stay safe, protect your loved ones and find new ways of responding to the challenges of feeding our neighbors in Iowa and around the globe. Thanks for reading the Spokesman and thanks for listening to the Spokesman Speaks.
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