General overview of farming systems research

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General overview of farming systems research
Norman, D. W.
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1. Material covered in the paper includes the following
(a) The farming family (household)and the environment in which it operates.
(b) Objective of the farming systems research (FSR) approach.
(c) Defining-and operationalizing FSR.
(d) Types of FSR.
(e) Stages and attributes of "downstream" FSR.
(f) Role of social scientists in "downstream" FSR.
(g) Some methodological issues of "downstream" FSR.
(h) Some implementation problems of "downstream" FSR.
2. The farming family (household) and the environment in which it operates (Figure I
2.1 In most types of agriculture in less developed countries there is
considerable overlap between the unit of production and the unit
of consumption. Therefore the means of livelihood and the household
are intimately linked and therefore cannot be separated.
2.2 The specific farming system adopted by a given farming household
results from its members, with their managerial know-how, allocating
the three factors of production (i.e., land, labor and capital) to
which they have access, to three processes (crops, livestock and
off-farm enterprises) in a manner which, within the knowledge they
possess, will maximize the attainment of the goal(s) they are striving
2.3 This farming system is determined by the environment in which the
farming family operates. The "total" environment in which it operates
can be divided into the technical (natural) and human elements.
2.4 The technical element reflects what the potential farming system
can be and therefore provides the necessary condition for its
presence. The technical element can be divided into:
(a) Physical factors--water, soil, solar radiation, temperature, etc.
(b) Biological factors--crop and animal physiology, disease,
insect attack, etc.
Technical scientists have been able to modify the technical element
to some extent.
2.5 The human element has often been neglected in traditional research
approaches to development of improved technologies, which accounts
for their often being rejected or at best being differentially
adopted, thereby resulting in an inequitable distribution of benefits.
The human element, providing the sufficient condition for the
presence of a farming system, determines what the actual farming
system will be--being a subset of the potential defined by the
technical element.
By W. Norman. Prepared for workshop on "Methodological Issues Facing Social Scient:iss in applied Crop and Farming Systems Research," CIMMYT, Mexico, April 1-3, 1980.
No attempt has been made to cite specific references in the paper. A selected list of references--by no means complete--is given at the end of the paper. In addition the paper benefits greatly from many other references and comments from 24 reviewers of the first draft of a paper to be published later this year (Gilbert, Norman, and Winch, 1980).

2.6 The human element can be divided into two components or groups of
factors. The exogenous factors--the social milieu in which -the
farming household operates--are largely out of the control of the
individual farming household but will influence what its members
are able to do. They can be divided into three broad groups:
(a) Community structures, norms and beliefs.
(b) External institutions or support systems. This is often provided
by government, both on the. input (extension, input distribution)
and product (direct and indirect intervention) sides.
(c) Miscellaneous influences-location, population density, etc.
On the other hand endogenous factors-land, labor and capital along
with management--which. are under the control of the individual farming
household, can be used by them to derive a farming system consistent
with their goal(s) subject to the boundary conditions laid down by
the technical element and exogenous factors. The endogenous factors can under certain circumstances be complemented and supplemented in
quantitative and qualitative terms through the influence of exogenous
factors--such as capital through a credit program, management via
extension, etc.
3. Objective of the FSR approach
3.1 The primary aim of the FSR approach is-to increase the overall productivity
of the farming system--and therefore hopefully the welfare of individual
farming families--in the context of the entire range of private and societal goals, given the constraints and potentials imposed by the
determinants of the existing farming systems.
3.2 Increased productivity is achieved through two types of developmental
(a) The first is the development and dissemination of relevant improved
practices (technologies).
(b) The second is through influencing the exogenous factors either to
create opportunities for certain types of improved production
systems to be adopted by individual farming families, or to
provide conditions conducive to the adoption--usually equitable-of technologies already available. Examples would be:
(i) Encouragement of group action on the part -of farmers (e.g. to enable watershed management to be effective).
(ii) Influencing necessary adjustments in agricultural policies and actions of farmer contact agencies.
(c) To date work in FSR has been largely confined to developing
improved crop technologies (a). The type of strategy envisioned
under (b) has as yet not in general been linked to FSR. Therefore
this potential role of FSR still has to be demonstrated to be of
practical value, due in part to bureaucratic inflexibility toward
the "bottom-up" characteristic of FSR.
4. Defining and operationalizing FSR
4.1 Whether or not it is explicitly called FSR, research can be considered
farming systems research if it has the following characteristics:
(a) The farm as a whole is viewed in a comprehensive manner with a
recognition of the interdependencies and the interrelationships
within the natural and human environment in which the farming
system is operated. As such it is more holistic in orientation
than the reductionist approach traditionally used by technical
agricultural scientists. The latter approach has involved
studying one or two factors at a time while attempting to control
all others. The inclusion of the perspective of the whole farm

in the research process means that explicit attention is focused
on such characteristics as goals, components and constraints of
the farming systems that are present.
(b) The choice of priorities for research reflects the initial study
of the whole farm.
(c) The farming system can be broken down into a number of sub-systems
which may overlap and interact with one another. It is legitimate
to consider research on a subsystem as being. FSR provided the
connections with other subsystems are recognized and taken into
account in the research on the subsystem under consideration.
(d) The evaluation of the results and their implementation take the
linkages between the subsystems explicitly into account.
4.2 The methodological complexities of undertaking FSR can be great because
of its systems focus and its "holistic" characteristic. Therefore
in practice, in order to operationalize it, advantage is taken of the
definitional characteristics of FSR mentioned above (see 4.1). In other
words the concept of the "total" environment is preserved but instead of assuming that all factors determining the actual farming system can
be potential variables subject to manipulation, some are treated as
parameters. In addition to methodological considerations, the mixture
of variables to parameters is determined by the scope of the FSR program (i.e., function of the mandate of the institution in which it is located,
and effectiveness of linkages with other institutions, agencies, etc.),
resources available (i.e., time, skill, finances), etc. Therefore
FSR may be called FSR in the small (i.e., small number of variables to
parameters) or FSR in the large (i.e., high ratio of variables to parameters'
5. Types of FSR programs
5.1 As well as FSR programs being differentiated on the basis of the ratio
of variables to parameters (see 4.2 above), they can be classified as
(a) "Upstream" types of FSR programs have a developmental orientation
and usually do not provide results for immediate adoption by
farming families. Perhaps more aptly called resource management
research, "upstream" FSR programs involve using a systems approach
to provide prototype solutions on experiment stations to major
constraints to crop or agricultural improvement (e.g., watershed
management, intercropping, etc.). Along with results from commodity
research programs--reductionist research--they contribute to the
body of knowledge (Figure 2) and are available for feeding into
the "downstream" FSR programs.
(b) "Downstream" types of FSR programs, which are the main concern of
this paper, have an applied orientation and aim at developing
and introducing strategies that will improve the productivity of farming systems for target groups of farming families now and in the short-run. This requires selectively drawing upon available information (i.e., body of knowledge in Figure 2) in the process
of designing practices or recommendations for a particular farming
system on the basis of an analysis of the constraints of that system.
Therefore recommendations are produced which are suited to a
specific local situation. This involves working directly with farmers (i.e., on-farm research) and as a result reducing to a
minimum work on the experiment station.

5.2 FSR type programs are now expar-cing rapidly throughout the world and
are being undertaken at national, regional and international institutes.
Both types of FSR programs (5.1 above) are important. The relative degree of emphasis on one or t-ae other will depend on the nature of
the problem, the research resources available, etc. "Upstream" type
FSR programs are necessary when traditional reductionist research
approaches cannot contribute to solving the problem,which leaves a
gap in the body of knowledge, and inhibits the ability of "downstream"
FSR to produce appropriate or relevant practical strategies for farming families in the short run. However, the research resources required to
undertake "upstream" FSR programs are often great therefore generally
resulting in their being concentrated in regional or international
institutes. On the other hand "downstream" FSR programs, with their
focus firmly on the needs of specific groups of farming families, have
a comparative advantage in being located in national institutions.
Therefore in order to reap a payoff from "upstream" FSR the effectiveness
of the link between it and "downstream" FSR programs becomes a critical
issue. Finally downstreama" FSR could still have a role to play even if the body of knowledge is *iot well developed therefore reducing the
chance of selecting strategies that will improve the welfare of specific
groups of farming families in the short turn. Based on locational
specific work "downstream" FSR can potentially help redefine or refine
research priorities in othe:: types of research programs--both "upstream"
and reductionist--thereby improving the likelihood of creating a relevant body of knowledge at minimal cost.
6. Stages and attributes of "downstream" FSR
6.1 A conventional wisdom is emerging although there are many differences in
details of methodology and implementation. To date, as mentioned earlier
(3.2(c) above) most attention has focused on the crop process and
therefore discussion in the following section tends to reflect this emphasis
6.2 Some of the attributes--d:..stinguishing features and advantages--of
"downstream" FSR are as 0ollows:
(a) There are four successive stages in the research process:
descriptive, design, testing and extension. The descriptive (diagnosti
stage is undertaken to determine constraints (needs) and flexibility
in the current farming system. This provides an input into designing, testing and extending improved strategies, whose potential suitability
will be determined by the application of appropriate evaluation
criteria ascertained during the descriptive stage.
(b) The objectivesof the farmer (farming family) are directly incorporated
into the research process. The farmer is the central unit in the
research process being directly involved in the description, testing
and extension stages. Testing consists of trials at the farm level
(i.e., with farmer providing labor) and farmer testing (i.e., with
farmer providing both labor and management). Involvement of farmers
gives them a "vo:ce" in the research process and ensures the use of
evaluation criteria relevant to them. For the farming family
evaluation criteria for the adoption of improved practices can be divided into the following groups although it should be emphasized
they are not en:.rely mutually exclusive:

(i) Necessary conditions determine whether the farmer would
be able to adopt the improved practices. Such conditions would include technical feasibility, social acceptability
and compatibility with external institutions~--that is
support systems.
(ii) Sufficient conditions determine whether the farmer would
be willing to adopt the improved practices. Obviously the
necessary conditions will be influential in determining
this willingness. Sufficient conditions will include
compatibility of the improved practices with the goal(s)-self-sufficienty, profit maximization, etc.--of the farming
family and the farming system they currently practice.
(c) Efforts are made to incorporate community and societal needs into
the FSR process by trying to ensure a convergence between private
(usually short-run) and societal (usually longer run) interests.
Examples of possible conflicts would be where satisfying short-run
needs of individual farming families would result in long-run
societal costs in terms of degradation of the natural resource base,
increased inequalities-in welfaredistribution, etc. It is necessary
to develop improved strategies (see 8.2(b)) that will avoid such
(d) The FSR approach by including farmers taps the pool of knowledge
in the society and enables research and hence developmental strategies
to build upon the good points of the present farming systems, while
at the same time minimizing the time spent in "rediscovering the
wheel"--for example, the value of intercropping.
(e) FSR recognizes the locational specificity of the technical and
human (exogenous and endogenous factors) elements. This requires
-disaggregating farming families into homogenous subgroups(recommendation
domains) and developing strategies appropriate to each. Farming
families in a particular subgroup will tend to have similar farming activities and to include similar social customs, similar access to
support systems, comparable marketing opportunities and similar
present technology and resource endowment.
(f) The whole farm perspective of FSR compels the adoption of an integrative
function which increases the potential for exploiting complementary
and supplementary relationships between resources and enterprises,
and the derivation of solutions compatible with the needs and
capacities of farming families. The farming systems farmers
practiced traditionally recognized such relationships--for example
crops and livestock, staggered planting dates, etc. To ensure
that the integrative and beneficial relationships are adequately
considered and exploited, requires a multi-disciplinary team-both technical and social scientists--working together at all
four stages of the research process (see also Section 7 below).
(g) The process of FSR is recognized as being dynamic and iterative
with linkages in both directions between farmers, research workers
and funding agencies rather than simply the presence of forward
linkages characteristic of the "top-down" approach. The iterative
characteristic can improve the efficiency of the research process through providing a means to fine-tune improved technologies to a
specific locale--for example, the improved cotton technological
package in northern Nigeria.

(h) FSR, unlike the more traditional agricultural research approaches,
has a wider perspective and is concerned with the productivity
of the entire farming system. Therefore rather than just being
concerned with technical issues it can also encompass non-technical
or institutional issues--for example the Caqueza project in Colombia
and the Technological Package project at Central Luzon State
University in the Philippines. The latter is addressing not only issues with respect to increasing production but also the related
issues of marketing and processing.
(i) Finally FSR complements and does not compete with other research
approaches. Reductionist and commodity based research programs
provide essential inputs into the body of knowledge (Figure 2) which downstream FSR relies on for facilitating quick results
at specific locations. Also, as mentioned above (see 5.2),
the application of downstream FSR can help redefine or refine
research priorities-in other types of research programs.
7. Role of social scientists in "downstream" FSR
(a) The preceding section argued that a multi-disciplinary team consisting
of technical and social scientists is required to undertake "downstream';
FSR. To be effective such teams need to work in an interdisciplinary
manner--that is different disciplines working together rather than
independently on a specific problem. For example, it is important to
understand the relationship between the technical and human elements such as why planting is done late--is it due to climatic donditions,
lack of available labor, a risk aversion strategy against losses
early planting, etc.? An understanding of the reason(s) is important as an input into designing and testing relevant improved developmental
(b) The role of social scientists in "downstream" FSR will vary according
to the stage of the research process and the stage of development of
the target groups of farming households. For example with reference to
the latter it is, as discussed earlier, important that the improved
developmental strategies be compatible with the goal(s) of the farmer.
It is likely however that the objective function of such farmers, and therefore what motivates them, will change as they move from a selfsufficient subsistence type of farm organization to one that is fully commercialized. In the case of the former, understanding the goal(s)
may be a particularly complex task while in the case of the latter the
goals are probably much easier to articulate--for example as profit
maximization. This holds interesting implications concerning the task of social scientists during the descriptive ot diagnostic stage. For farming families who are near the self-sufficient end of the spectrum,
resources will need to be devoted to understanding just what the goal(s)
are while the closer the farming families are to practicing a fully
commercialized system of agriculture, the more emphasis is likely to be
placed by the social scientists on work connected with the external
institutional support system.

8. Some methodological issues of "downstream" FSR
8.1 Due to the fact that the methodology for undertaking "downstream" -FSR
is still going through a period of evolution, -a large variety of
methodological issues require resolution. Not surprisingly perhaps, there are often considerable differences in opinion as to how severe
they. are and how they should be dealt with.
8.2 Some of the most frequently mentioned methodological issues are as.
(a) How holistic should FSR be? As mentioned earlier the methodological
problems increase. as the FSR program becomes more holistic (i.e.,
the ratio of variables to parameters becomes- higher) Also
stressed earlier was the fact that the present state of the arts
of undertaking FSR means that most current work is' on the crop
process and is largely confined to development of improved
technologies (see 3.2(c)). Practical problems also restricting the
scope of "downstream" FSR are the mandates of institutions in which they are located (i.e. usually technical crop research
institutes) and poor or weak linkages with other research institutions,policy making and farmer contact agencies. Related to the question of how holistic "downstream" FSR should be is the issue of whetherthe polic,y-institutional environments should- be treated. as parameters
or ~etIncreasingly it is being suggested that these might be
-treated as variables subject to manipulation, as suggested earlier
(see 3.2(0)). This micro-macro link is important in maintaining
the viability of "downstream" FSR in the long-run through the added
dimension it gives to creating conditions conducive to improving
the productivity of farming systems and therefore hopefully the
welfare of farming families.
(b) What needs or constraints are to receive focus in the research
process? Should they be those articulat-ed by farming families
(i.e., felt needs), those scientifically ascertained by research workers or those reflecting the needs of society? As discussed
earlier (see 6.2(b) and (c)) criteria used in developing improved
strategies should reflect the felt needs of farming families providing they are not incompatible with the needs of society (e.g.,
there is not a decline in soil fertility, nutritional levels,
increasingly inequitable income distribution, etc.) Strategies
developed need to ensure convergence between short run private
interests and those of the society in the long-run. Although there
is in principle agreement with the above, there is of ten disagreement
as to how societal interests can be incorporated practically into
"downstream" FSR. The problem of doing this relates to the
methodological complexity of their incorporation and the time that
would be required in deriving societal impact evaluations.
(c) The needs or constraints that are identified may be technical,
economic or socio-cultural in nature. What approach should be
used in dealing with them? The two approaches generally used are:
(i) Accepting the constraint and developing strategies that
exploit the flexibility that exists in the current farming system while at the same time not further exacerbating the constraint. Socio-cultural constraints should not generally be broken.
(ii) Developing strategies that will overcome the constraint.

The decision as to which approach to use usually depends on the
constraint severity, flexibility that exists in the current
farming system, availability of potential improved strategies
either to break the constraint or to exploit the flexibility,
compatibility with societal goals, etc.
(d) Is it necessary for "downstream" FSR to be expensive? It is
viewed by some to be expensive because of its locational
specificity and therefore the need to focus on limited numbers
of farmers. The expensive nature is emphasized because of the opportunity costs of neglecting other farmers. Therefore the quest for minimzng in the research process is a mjr
ssu. Considerable controversy exists concerning the degree
to which costs can and should be reduced, and the ways in which
they should be reduced. In general three. approaches are being
used to try. to minimize costs:
(i) Seeking ways to reduce time and resources required for moving
through the four research stages--methods used should be
based on the criterion of the lowest possible cost commensurate
with the degree of understanding that is necessary. Can this be done with base data analysis plus an informal exploratory
(sondeo) survey and a one-shot formal survey? Or is a detailed
twice weekly formal survey required for a period of one year?
Can modelling techniques help improve understanding--or does
this come- at too high a cost? In the testing stage should
farmers be selected that are the better farmers, most cooperative farmers or simply representative farmers? Representative farmers
may not for example be so cooperative thereby reducing the
efficiency and effectiveness of dialogue and the timely conclusion of the testing stage. Considerable controversy still
exists concerning the way in which these and other questions
should be resolved in the interests of minimizing costs and time.
(ii) Finding ways to maximize the return from the location specific
nature of "downstream" FSR by determining the transferability of the results to other similar "total" environments. Introducing
some flexibility into the improved practices- increases the
potential of transferability but this may come at some cost in terms of the potential level of return. Is this or is this not
desirable? Controversy exists with respect to this.
(iii) Seeking best of readily available solutions--that is "better but
not necessarily best" or "non-perfectabilitarian." How much
fine tuning should there be thereby extending the testing stage?
(e) In terms of developing improved practices (technologies), should
emphasis be placed on single trait innovations which may preclude the exploitation of possible complementary or synergistic effects betweenthe various components in packages of improved practices?
In theory the former would be desirable but in practice the latter
are much more common. A possible compromise is to design and
develop packages of improved practices that permit, in an explicit
manner, a stepwise approach to the adoption of the various components
of the package.

9. Some implementation problems of "downstream" FSR
(a) Credibility problems in terms of both practical results (i.e.,
incremental and not spectacular although hopefully pervasive)
-and professional respect (i.e., by peers of own discipline) can
result in difficulty of attracting adequate resources (i.e., :ime,
finance and manpower).
(b) IntraLinstitutional adjustments to accommodate "downstream" FSR
programs can be difficult. Traditionally research programs have
been organized along discipline lines and more recently on the basis
of commodities. FSR means crossing both discipline and comodity
lines. Narrow mandates and poor linkages (see 8(a)) cause problems
and sometimes necessitate work on only one process (see 3.2,c)) or even
part of that process. Cooperation between technical and social scientists
may be difficult if they are not working within one institution-which
unfortunately is often the case.
(c) Linkages between FSR programs in national, and regional and international
research institutions need rationalization to exploit the advantages of each. National programs have advantages in emphasizing downstream.FSR
although. problems in (a) and (b) above can be difficult to resolve in
practice at this level. Also the links in national programs with
agricultural policy and farmer-contact agencies are generally weak,
therefore making it difficult for FSR to play a constructive role in
rural development programs. Linkages of FSR programs in regional
and international institutes through networks are important ir providing
justification for their "downstream" FSR-programs and outlets for FSR
programs of an "upstream" type for which they have a comparative advantage.
(d) There is the problem of identifying suitable individualE, to participate
in FSR programs. Training programs in FSR currently available are short term in nature and offered at international and occasionally at regional
and national institutions. FSR training in formal degree programs is not available. In theory a developed country's institutiors can help in this
but at present few staff have first hand experience of ?SR, while
practical experience in the area whould be an important component for
students in the training program. Development of links between a developed
country's institutions and institutions with FSR programs could be
important in facilitating this.
10. Selected references
Asian Cropping Systems Working Group, 1979. Network Methodology and Cropping
System Research in Indonesia. Bogar, Indonesia: Central Institute for
Binswanger, H. P. and J. G. Ryan, 1979. Village Level Stidies as a Focus
for Research and Technology Adaptation. Paper given at International
Symposium on Development and Transfer of Technology for Rainfed Agriculture
and the SAT Farmer, Hyderabad, Aug. 1979. Hyderabac.. India: ICRISAT.
Byerlee, D., S. Biggs, M. Collinson, L. Harrington, J. C. Martinez, E. Moscardi
and D. Winkelmann, 1979. On-Farm Research to Develop Technologies
Appropriate to Farmers. Paper presented at The Con:ference of the International Association of Agricultural Economists, Ban-ff, Canada, Sept., 1979.

CIMMYT Economics Program, 1979. Planning Technologies Appropriate
to Farmers: Concepts and Procedures. Londres, Mexico: CIMMYT (Draft)
Collinson, M. P., 1979. Micro-Level Accomplishments and Challenges for
the Less-Developed World. Paper presented at The Conference of the
International Association of Agricultural Economists, Banff, Canada,
September, 1979.
Elliott, H., 1977. Farming Systems Research in Francophone Africa:
Methods and Results. Paper given at The Middle East and Africa
Agricultural Seminar of the Ford Foundation, Tunis, Tunisia,
Feb. 1-3, 1977.
Gilbert, E. H., D. W. Norman and F. Winch, 1980. Farming Systems
Research in the Third World: Evaluation of Current Research.
(To be published, after revision, in the Rural Development Paper
series at Michigan State University.)
Hildebrand, P. E., 1979. Generating Technology for Traditional Farmers
The Guatamalan Experience. Paper given at International Congress of
Plant Protection, Washington, D. C., August 5-11, 1979.
IRRI (ed.), 1977. Cropping Systems Research and Development for the Asian
Rice Farmer. Los Banos, Philippines: IRRI.
ISRA, 1977. Recherche et Developpement Agricole: les Unites Experimentales
du Senegal. Dakar, Senegal: ISRA.
Jodha, N. S., M. Asokan and J. G. Ryan, 1979. Village Study Methodology
and Resource Endowments of the Selected Villages in ICRISAT's Village Level Studies. Occasional Paper No. 16. Hyderabad, India: ICRISAT.
Kampen, J., 1979. Farming Systems Research and Technology for the SemiArid Trops.. Paper given at International Symposium on Development
and Transfer of Technology for Rainfed Agriculture and the SAT
Farmer, ICRISAT, Hyderabad, India, August 1979.
Menz, K. M., 1979. Unit Farms and Farming Systems Research: the IITA
-Experience. Discussion Paper No. 3/79. Ibadan, Nigeria: IITA.
Navarro, L*. A., 1979. CATIE's Development Orientated Agricultural
Research Effort on the Central American Isthmus. Seminar given
at University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, Sept. 1979.
Norman, D. W., 1979. The Farming Systems Approach: Relevancy for Small
Farmers (In Karaspan, A. S. (ed.), Increasing the Productivity of
Small Farms. Lahore, Pakistan: CENTO). p. 133-152.
Okigbo, B. N., 1979. Cropping Systems in the Humid Tropics of West Africa
and their Improvement. Paper presented at the IITA Research Review,
IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria. 1979.

Ryan, J. G. and H. P. Binswanger, 1979. Socio-Economic Constraints in
the Semi-Arid Tropics and ICRISAT's Approach. Paper given at
International Symposium on Development and Transfer for Rainfed -Agriculture and the SAT Farmer, ICRISAT, Hyderabad, August 1979.
Technical Advisory Committee, 1978. Farming Systems Research at the
International Agricultural Research Centers. Technical Advisory
Committee, Consultative Group on International Agricultural
Research: Washington.
Winkelmann, D. and E. Moscardi, 1979. Aiming Agricultural Research at
the Needs of Farmers. Paper given at the Seminar on Socio-Economic Aspects of Agricultural Research in Developing Countries, Santiago,
Chile, May 7-11, 1979.
Zandstra, H. G., 1979. Cropping Systems Research for the Asian Rice
Farmer, Aricultural Systems, 4: 135-153.

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