Posts Tagged ‘Possum Trot Nursery’

Written by Sheryl Dutton
Photos courtesy of Sheryl Dutton

I came across a unique opportunity one day last spring, as I drove around Redland. I had been living in the area for roughly a year, dreaming of starting my own organic farm and homestead. Farming had been a hobby of mine for some time and although my projects had been confined to small plots, I was driven by big ideas. I wanted more experience, working with the land and learning how to turn my love of farming into a possible business. I had recently visited Robert Barnum of Possum Trot Farm to gather fruit and art supplies from his 40-acre grove of rare and useful trees. While I was there, I decided to ask Robert if he needed an apprentice or knew of any opportunities to learn more about farming. Luckily he said yes. He mentioned a New Farmer Apprenticeship Program offered by Florida International University’s Agroecology department, funded by a USDA grant. I got in touch with the program director and applied right away.

The New Farmer Apprenticeship Program included a variety of monthly workshops and 100 hours of field experience. I attended workshops on topics like beekeeping, laurel wilt disease detection, how to apply for farm loans, grants and more. I got to meet many young, prospective farmers with similar goals as mine and the same insatiable thirst for knowledge. For my fieldwork I chose to go to Bee Heaven and Possum Trot, both established Redland farms within 5 miles of my home.

Sheryl and her two boys, attending Farm Day 2013, at Bee Heaven Farm.

Sheryl and her two boys, attending Farm Day 2013, at Bee Heaven Farm.

I started out with Margie Pikarsky on her 5 acre certified organic Bee Heaven Farm. I had been a member of her highly recommended CSA program for about 4 years and had attended events there with my family. I was familiar with the farm and knew I had a lot to learn from Margie. We had spoken many times about our favorite plants, our adventures with chickens and other things when I’d pick up my produce every Saturday. I knew she ran a very organized and well-managed farm but I didn’t know exactly what was involved until I had the chance to work side by side with her and her staff. I got to experience part of the busy CSA season, how all the orders came in, were distributed and then prepared to take to market. Some days we’d work in the packinghouse and fill hundreds of orders, other days we’d work out in the field harvesting or preparing the beds for new crops. Everything about her farm is carefully planned out, solidified by many years of experience and held to a very high standard. I likened her operation to a well-oiled machine, always recalibrating to the whims of Mother Nature.

Sheryl, Robert and John

Sheryl, Robert and John

Then I switched gears, moving on to what would be an unforgettable experience at Possum Trot Farm with Robert Barnum. I had heard many stories about the 40-acre wonderland from friends of mine and after visiting a few times, my interest was piqued. Robert’s collection of rare, edible and useful tree species is quite special.

The mix of mature trees living there are the result of many decades of work, collecting, preserving, selecting and sometimes naming new varieties. He proudly refers to himself as a land steward of the many fruits, nuts, hardwoods, citrus and more that he has cared for throughout his life. For me and the other apprentices that worked there, Possum Trot was an ideal outdoor classroom and Robert’s unique approach to mentoring was a one of a kind experience. Each day was a new adventure. One day we’d be identifying trees, harvesting or cleaning up the nursery, another day we’d be attending an auction, repairing equipment or cooking up interesting meals in his kitchen. Every conversation was educational and I’d say that I definitely learned more than I bargained for!

Nursery maintenance, Possum Trot

Nursery maintenance, Possum Trot

The overall message I gleaned from my time at Bee Heaven and Possum Trot confirmed what I knew but in my hopeful naivety had not accepted. Farming for profit, no matter what angle you come at it, is hard work with unpredictable returns and a multitude of political obstacles to navigate. In my opinion farming has got to be one of the most underappreciated and underpaid professions out there. Don’t get me wrong, there are many successful farmers out there, making a living and making a difference. In no way do I mean to undermine them, but for the most part, the industrial food system (big agriculture) has stacked the odds against local, small farmers. In a way it has forced them to be more innovative. There is a growing trend to eat local and organic, to avoid GMOs and packaged foods. We’re getting back to the basics of fresh, nutrient rich foods like our great grandparents enjoyed. Our health as individuals and as a culture depends on it.

Beekeeping workshop

Beekeeping workshop

Maybe more importantly than the effect our food system has on people, are the long lasting, possibly irreversible effects that conventional farming practices are having on the environment. Small scale, intensive farming has been proven to be more sustainable over time when compared to conventional single crop farming. Widespread uses of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides have been described by many as an attack on the living world. Conventional farming practices not only pollute the air, water and soil but also pollute the bodies of all living things. Turning a blind eye is not an option.

I wasn’t able to complete my apprenticeship with FIU for personal reasons but I did greatly appreciate the chance to get a behind the scenes look at some of the farms and farmers I had come to admire over the years. The experience did however alter my plans of starting my own organic farm in Redland. After meeting some second-generation farmers in the area and hearing their stories of growing up in Homestead, I questioned whether it would be the best thing for my family. I had to ask myself, “Was farming the kind of future I wanted for my children? Was starting an organic farm a sound investment that I could manage with predictable returns?” My answer to both was an unfortunate no. I decided that I was content to be an avid collector of plants and trees, a small scale, backyard farmer and a supporter of local food. I get to work out my big ideas and make a positive impact in other ways.

View from Poindexter's tailgate

View from Poindexter’s tailgate

I feel like there is a lot of work to do in this area in what might be the most important shift of our generation: Transitioning from being mass consumers to abundant producers, reworking our value system into something that directly benefits us rather than distracts us, utilizing our land in ways that support our health and wellness without disrupting the ability of the natural world to support all life for generations to come. Like I said, big ideas and while we’re at it, why not reinvent what it means to be a farmer in a changing world. The New Farmer Apprenticeship position through FIU’s Agroecology Program addressed just that. It was a valuable experience for me that helped shape my future plans and solidify my understanding of the local food system where I live and beyond. All stereotypes aside, farmers have the job of feeding us all. It’s a big responsibility and they deserve our support! Eat up!

Sheryl Dutton

Sheryl Dutton

Sheryl Dutton currently lives in Miami with her family and works as a Permaculture Designer, specializing in the design and installation of tropical fruit groves, edible forest gardens and small kitchen gardens. Sheryl is the owner of Earthscape Art & Design and is available for consultations.


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Jackfruit tree

Some of the strangest tropical fruits are available during the summer. One of the biggest and most unusual looking is jackfruit. It is as large as a melon or bigger, mostly oval in shape, and has knobby or spiny green skin. The typical size at market is 20 pounds, but they can get as big as 60 to 80 pounds. It’s commonly sold cut in chunks.

Grower Robert Barnum has about 200 jackfruit trees at his Possum Trot Tropical Fruit Nursery, interplanted with other trees on his 40 acre property. We strolled through a section of a dozen tall trees, all loaded with large fruit which varied in shape and size, some smaller and rounder, others more elongated. You can tell when a fruit is ripe because it sounds like a drum when you thump on it. Another clue is that its spines flatten out as it ripens, although that isn’t the best indicator, because some varieties have flatter spines than others. But the best way to tell ripeness is by smell. Ripe jackfruit has a strong aroma and gives off a lot of ethylene gas. If you put a whole ripe fruit in a refrigerator, it will keep ripening, and the whole interior will smell like it.

Opening up a such a large fruit is not a casual undertaking. It requires stamina and patience, and a large sharp knife well coated with vegetable oil. The fruit’s thick rind releases a latex sap when you cut into it, and can gum things up. The edible part of the fruit is the aril, or thick sac of chewy yellow flesh that has an oval, shiny brown seed inside. The grayish-colored connective membranes called rags are generally not edible and need to be removed. Cleaning the fruit involves taking out the arils, and separating the seeds. Rags and rind are thrown away. Depending on the size, the job can take a good hour or more. Cleaned fruit will keep 2-3 weeks in a zipper bag in the refrigerator, or 6 months in the freezer.

An open jackfruit.

Jackfruit vary in the texture of their flesh. Some kinds are soft and wet, suited for making drinks, and others are more firm and dry. Those kinds are more desirable because they can be eaten ripe or unripe. Robert says the ripe fruit tastes like pineapple-banana with hints of vanilla, but I can smell and taste a musky overtone. (Others have told me the flavor reminds them of Juicy Fruit gum.) Unripe fruit is has a chewy texture, and is usually cooked and used as a meat substitute. Jackfruit curry is a popular dish made with unripe fruit, as is fake pulled pork seasoned with BBQ sauce. Seeds are also edible. Robert recommends blanching seeds in boiling salt water three times to remove the astringent flavor, then roasting in the oven. They taste a lot like chestnuts. You can save seeds to grow your own tree, but you’ll have to be patient. It takes anywhere from four to 15 years, depending on the variety, before a jackfruit tree starts to bear fruit.

You can find whole and cut jackfruit from Possum Trot at the Upper Eastside Farmers Market, Verde Gardens Farmers Market, and at Bee Heaven Farm’s online store.

Robert Barnum and jackfruit tree.

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Freshly harvested macadamia nuts.

Fresh pesticide-free macadamia nuts have been available at several farmers markets the last few weeks. Yes, they are locally grown! The green-husked nuts come from Possum Trot Tropical Fruit Nursery, where grower Robert Barnum has about a dozen trees. This summer, Robert managed to harvest about 45 pounds this summer, and fresh nuts should be available for about two more weeks.

Husk splits open by itself when the nut is ripe.

Fresh macadamias don’t look like a nut. They have a green rind or husk that needs to be cut and peeled off. It will split by itself when the nut is ripe. Robert suggests leaving fresh nuts out on the counter for a few days to dry out a bit. When the husk is slightly dry, it is easier to remove. If you have a dehydrator, you can speed up the process. Dry them for a few hours on low heat until the husks split. Use a sharp knife to pare them off.

Underneath the husk is a smooth, dark brown shell that is tough to crack. Dry the husked nuts in the dehydrator again, for two to three days at 100 degrees F. This will dry the nut meat a bit and cause it to pull away from the shell, making it easier to crack. If they crack cleanly, they’re ready.

Tap the hammer lightly to crack the shell.

Robert’s cracking technique is very DIY. He carefully holds the nut in place on the side of a sledgehammer, and taps it with a claw hammer. If you don’t have two hammers (or don’t want to risk smashing your fingers), you can try a concrete slab or sidewalk and tap at the shells until they crack. (Whatever you do, do NOT do this on a granite counter top or the stone will crack. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!) Nutcrackers don’t apply enough force to crack the shell.

Shelled raw macadamia. It tastes like coconut.

Once the shell is cracked, you have to pry it open. Robert used a pocketknife. Inside is the white, mild flavored nut. You can eat it raw, or lightly toast and salt it. Cracking nuts and getting the meat out is labor intensive, but somehow squirrels are able to open nuts without any tools.

What squirrels leave behind.

The macadamia trees have been bearing well in past summers, but those harvests were much smaller because of The Squirrel Problem. Sounds like a well-worn cliche, but Robert has been battling squirrels for years, trying to keep them out of the nut trees. The little animals have a powerful attraction for macadamias, but waste a lot. They’ll eat part of the nut, cracking it open with their powerful jaws, and let the rest of it fall to the ground.

On a recent visit to the macadamias, two mutts that accompanied Robert and me went racing ahead, barking excitedly. A brown hound ran up to a tree, clambered up its lower branches, barking vigorously. It had spotted something. As Robert and I approached, the dog climbed down. I peered up at higher branches but saw nothing. “Squirrel,” Robert said. “The little critter is hard to spot. It will hide on the opposite side of a branch, and all you’ll see is the tip of its tail, or an eye peeking out.” I did see plenty of half-eaten nuts in the leaf litter below, a sign that squirrels had been munching there for some time.

Feast like a squirrel! Fresh pesticide-free macadamia nuts are available at the Upper East Side Farmers Market, Verde Gardens Farmers Market, and through Bee Heaven Farm’s online store for a limited time.

Waiting to be picked.

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Cooking with fire!

Saturday, Feb 4, 2012
9:30 am – 3:00 pm

Possum Trot Tropical Fruit Nursery
14955 SW 214th St.
Miami, FL 33187-4602

Convert your gas grill to burn wood. That’s the first of a series of survival workshops that grower/chef Robert Barnum is teaching. “I teach long lost trades, arts, and skills that can be quite useful if the situation becomes less than what it is today,” he said. Robert has teamed up with Jason Long, who started the Re-skill Florida school “where anyone can teach and learn honorable useful skills,” according to their web site.

Bring your gas grill to the workshop and Robert will show you how to safely modify it. Instead of expensive gas, burn wood, and use your own. Being able to cook with wood can save money, and teach you how to be more frugal and self-reliant. Robert has plenty of experience when it comes to being self-reliant. Over the years, he has experimented with which woods are better for cooking, and which are to be avoided. “Don’t use Brazilian pepper, oleander or mango,” he suggested, “as the smoke can be irritating to some people.” He should know — he has 40 acres of trees on his Possum Trot Tropical Fruit Nursery.

There’s room for 35 people, but hurry as the class is selling out. The cost if the workshop is $50. It includes the registration fee, instructor fee, grill modification fee, and lunch. You could try to register online at the Re-skill Florida web site, but when I checked on Wednesday night, the registration button was still not working.

Instead, call Robert at 305-235-1768 to let him know you’re coming, and bring cash to pay at the door. If you haven’t been to Possum Trot before, you will need directions, as the entrance is a bit tricky to find, and the address doesn’t show up on some GPSs.

The gas-to-wood grill workshop is the first of a series of Saturday classes. Coming up:

Feb. 11th — Rope making with Agave
How to make rope from agave plants. Optional: Learn preparation, and camp out the night before.

Feb. 18th — Introduction to economic botany
Learn which trees and plants to grow in your yard for food and other useful purposes.

Feb. 25th — Kitchen frugality
What to do with all the food in your CSA box, and how to shop in bulk and store food.

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Have you signed up for any of the sessions scheduled before the Community Food Summit? There’s plenty to choose from. The one that caught my eye is the Regenerative Farm Tour on Sunday Oct. 2. Regenerating is a good thing to do on a weekend, to clear out big city craziness at various farms, big and small, both urban and rural.

Tour guide Corinna Moebius will visit The Farm at Verde Gardens, Frank Macaluso’s Edible Yard, Yve Rose’s Backyard Food Forest, and Muriel’s Little River Market Garden. The tour runs from 9 am to 3 pm and costs $45.

Included is a stop at Possum Trot Tropical Fruit Nursery, where Robert Barnum, the Cantankerous Chef, will prepare a delicious vegetarian lunch. He’s using as much farm raised and local food as possible. The menu includes:

  • drink made with cas guava
  • vegetable casserole with okra, cabbage, squash, zucchini, tomato sauce (made from Teena’s Pride heirloom tomatoes), betel leaf, topped with Hani’s organic goat cheese
  • fresh fruit platter including monstera, jakfruit and carambola
  • Sem Chi organic rice (grown in Belle Glade FL)
  • carambola pie
  • homemade tropical fruit wine (optional)

Register here for the tour and lunch.

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So ugly and so big

The caterpillar of the swallowtail butterfly, with evidence of its enormous appetite.

Last month I stopped by Possum Trot Tropical Fruit Nursery, and as usual, brought my camera. I look forward to those visits, because there’s always something new happening. Walking around with Robert Barnum looking at trees and plants never gets old. Robert pointed out something that looked like a massive bird dropping on a leaf, a blotchy browish-black and white blob, and said it was actually the caterpillar of the giant swallowtail butterfly. It was the biggest, ugliest caterpillar I had ever seen. And it had been quite busy, was chewing up large chunks of a Ponderosa lemon seedling’s leaves. In fact, they like eating citrus leaves very much, which could be a problem. Citrus greening is killing local citrus trees, so there goes its food supply.

Touching the caterpillar triggers a defense response.

The caterpillar’s ugly looks were actually its main defense from getting eaten. A bird would look at that and wouldn’t think it’s food. The caterpillar also had another way of defending itself, Robert said as he touched its back. It immediately arched up a bit and something that looked like a red forked tongue came out of one end. It’s called an osmeterium and it gives off a noxious odor to repel its predator. Robert asked if I wanted to smell that finger, but I shied away, no thanks, take your word on it.

That was in May, and by now the caterpillar and its buddies have most likely decimated the lemon sapling and any others nearby, gone through their chrysalis stage (which lasts about 10-12 days) and are most likely now transformed into the giant swallowtail butterfly. The adult butterfly has a wingspan of 4 to 6 inches, and it’s breathtaking to see a butterfly that big in flight.

A stressed swallowtail caterpillar displaying its osmeterium.

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Add family, friends, and sharing stories about this connection with one another, and you have the recipe for change. Each element is of equal importance to an Earth Dinner and to the food culture — spinning yarns, savoring food, learning to truly listen. We have much to connect here, and we need each other’s wisdom to do it.
– Theresa Marquez

Guests settled in at table.

With the sun setting and appetites provoked by wood smoke, guests made their way back to the house and took their seats at table in the high ceilinged, open beamed dining room. Even Robert’s unassuming house has a story. It’s positioned on the property to make the best use of the prevailing breezes and stays cool with cross ventilation (something that contemporary house builders have forgotten to do). High ceilings, large windows and wide overhangs are part of the design to stay cool in tropical heat. Only two fans supplemented the evening breeze to keep guests comfortable.

Each dish that was served came with its own story about where the food came from. Margie and Robert took turns telling those stories, and fisherman George “Trigger” Figueroa also chimed in with his own tales of adventure. The foods were accompanied with wines from Schnebly and some of Robert’s best vintages.

Heirloom tomatoes topped with goat cheese and purple basil.

And so the dinner began, and grew to a torrent of local abundance and deliciousness. Salad featured Teena’s heirloom tomatoes, and right away I fell in love with the orange one called appropriately enough, Tangerine. It has a bright, citrusy flavor, thus the name, and is said to be loaded with lycopene. Other varieties in the salad were Pink Brandywine and Cherokee Purple. Tangy and rich tomato flavors were balanced by crumbles of mild goat cheese. The salad was paired with Schnebly’s avocado wine, which tastes surprisingly crisp and clean, similar to a pinot grigio, and not one whiff of avocado. Teena said she has been growing tomatoes and vegetables in a sustainable way for over 35 years in Redland.

Vichysoisse with multicolor potato chips.

If you attended the Potato Pandemonium dinner last year, you’ll remember the vichyssoise. The soup was light and delicate in flavor and texture, but this time was more orange than lavender in color. (The color is determined by the mix of potatoes in a particular batch.) A handful of crispy potato chips topped the soup and gave it a salty crunch. The creamy half and half used to thicken the soup came from Dakin Dairy in Myakka City. Robert explained the potatoes came from a nearby field where the State of Maine tests their seed crop of spuds every year. Many different kinds in all different colors — red, blue, golden, white — are grown. Robert has permission to forage after they plow the crop under. Potatoes were a popular crop in Redland, grown in clay-like marl soil. But in the last decade, potato fields have given way to fields of houses and paved roads.

Tempura battered betel leaf and blue crab rangoon.

Tempura battered betel leaf with crab rangoon had also gone through its evolution into a lighter dish. Robert got several pounds of local blue crabs from Card Sound Crabs Company located not too far away on rustic Card Sound Road. The crabs had been swimming just the day before. It took three people about three hours to pick out all the crab meat. (Talk about slow food!) The crab sauce was less creamy than I remembered, and that was a good thing, allowing the delicate crab flavor to come through. The crunchy fried leaf served as a deconstructed fried wonton wrapper and added smoky flavor. This dish was served with Schnebly’s coconut wine, which had a slight coconut flavor that became more pronounced as it warmed.

Wild caught cobia with broiled red grapefruit and Ponderosa lemon.

Crab rangoon was followed by another seafood dish, wild caught cobia. It’s a gamefish that migrates from the Gulf, around the coast of Florida and into the Carolinas. When this particular fish was swimming, it was about 38 inches long. Local fisherman George Figueroa speared it while free diving in about 25 feet of water off the coast of Jacksonville, and was present at the dinner to tell the tale.

Robert Barnum opens up a Ponderosa lemon.

The carambola glazed, wood grilled fillet was thick and meaty, much like cod, and its flavor reminded me of mackerel. It was served with broiled red grapefruit from David’s Organics and a huge slice of Ponderosa lemon which Robert grows. He passed one around to examine. It was bigger than a softball and had thick bumpy skin. Its taste was mildly acid (similar to Bahamas lemon which Margie grows at Bee Heaven). The dish was accompanied by one of Robert’s wines made from araça, a tart yellow fruit that also makes great ice cream, but is too sour to eat on its own. The araça wine was light in color and a bit fruity, but not quite as complex as chardonnay.

Wood smoked wild boar with tamarind-peach chutney and callaloo.

Smoked wild boar came with its own story too. The meat had been donated by chef Michael Schwartz, who shot it on a hunt in the woods near Lake Okeechobee. (Read about the hunt on Michael’s blog.) George explained to dinner guests that feral pigs roam all over Florida, and can cause a considerable amount of damage as they root for food. But this particular pig was a menace no more. Robert smoked the pork for eight hours in his outside wood fired smoker, using Florida mahogany wood. It was glazed with a tamarind-peach chutney sauce, and served with more of the same on the side. The lightly smoked roast pork was lean and had a slightly chewy texture, to be expected from an animal that got lots of exercise. Fruit for the chutney came from Robert’s grove. Red Ceylon peach has a light colored flesh with red around the pit, and its light peachy flavor makes for a good ice cream (which made an appearance at the ice cream social last summer). Robert explained that this peach is one of very few varieties that had been grown commercially in South Florida over 50 years ago but no longer, because it is susceptible to fruit fly infestation. The wild boar was served with two large dollops of callaloo (also known as Jamaican spinach) grown at Three Sisters Farm. The greens were cooked with scallions and garlic chives from Bee Heaven Farm. The dish was served with Robert’s jaboticaba wine, which was purplish, tasted a bit sweet and grape-like, and went quite well with the chutney. It seemed to be one one of the more popular wines of the night.

Grassfed beef with oyster muchrooms and roasted multicolor potatoes.

The third entree was grassfed beef raised at Deep Creek Ranch located in DeLand. (According to their web site, the cattle are raised on pasture according to organic practices but are not actually certified organic.) On my plate was a large chunk of meat with a marrow bone that appeared even larger because it was draped with sauteed oyster mushrooms from Happy Shrooms, and was accompanied by a side of smoked multicolor potatoes from the Maine testing fields, carrots and onions from Worden Farm, and parsnips and rosemary grown at Bee Heaven. Robert said the shank meat had been browned and oven braised in a blend of his homemade tropical fruit wines for about eight hours until it was tender. I was starting to get full when the beef arrived, but after one bite, couldn’t set it aside untouched. It had a rich taste and the wine reduction added to the depth of the flavor. The meat was falling off the bone, and a dollop of marrow was worth pursuing with the tip of a knife. The beef was served along with Robert’s bignay wine, which has a dark red color and tastes similar to cabernet. Some people think it’s too astringent, but it held up well to the richness of the beef.

Carambola pie with rangpur lime/sapodilla gelato and fresh Mysore raspberries.

Dessert — as if anyone could eat another bite — was Robert’s familiar square slab of carambola pie made with a whole wheat crust, accompanied by two scoops of rangpur lime/sapodilla gelato made with goat’s milk. The carambola, rangpur lime and sapodilla came from Robert’s grove,  and milk from Hani’s goat herd just down the street. The pie tasted like a tangy peach pie, and the gelato was a light dance of sweet and sour. Both were topped with a sprinkling of freshly picked Mysore raspberries from Bee Heaven. The dessert was paired with a sweet bignay wine that was as thick and strong as an elixir, almost too strong and sweet for me. Robert said he made it with twice the fruit and twice the sugar.

Weber, Mike and Sadie from Bee Heaven Farm helped with prep.

I’ve been to several dinner events at Robert’s and with this one he had outdone himself. His cooking and presentation gets better and better with each event, and it doesn’t hurt that he had excellent fresh local ingredients to work with and lots of willing helpers. Yes, there were a few minor glitches — the appetizer and soup courses didn’t come out of the kitchen in order, others weren’t paced evenly, and a few stray cobwebs lingered in a chandelier. But for the most part, the event went smoothly. Food presentation was professional and the service (by volunteers!) was very, very good. Kudos to Kathy, Karen, Sadie, Mike and Weber!

<< to be continued >>

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