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June 23, 2012 | Editor's View | Jackie Roembke | Views: 195

Organic Valley: A Social Experiment

Organic cooperative discusses its social media crisis communication strategy

Production and animal agriculture producers may or may not be shocked to discover that its organic brethren is also frequently subjected to the wrath of critics — and, often, based on similar accusations. Agvocates of all sorts can learn a thing or two from the crisis communications strategies of Organic Valley (OV).

Two marketing representatives from the La Farge, WI-based organic farm cooperative discussed their proactive approach to social media and engagement management at a Social Media Breakfast event held in Madison, WI. While Leslie Kruempel, OV’s social media specialist, focused on the creative business-to-consumer programs it uses Facebook and Twitter to promote, the frank discussion of the cooperative’s struggle with three social-media-fueled PR crises proved especially interesting.

Greg Brickl, OV’s marketing communications director, explained that compared to its primary competition, a publically traded company who sources some of its organic products from factory farms (a faux pas within the organic community), OV’s dedication to organic ideology and its commitment to small family farms made the decision to enter the social sphere “a no brainer.” Today, the company has more than 15,000 Twitter followers and 206,000 Facebook “likes,” a fan base primarily comprised of the mothers of young children.

Social media damage control

According to Brickl, community engagement in its social space breaks into two factions: “98% Love vs. 2% Something Else.” His presentation focused on the later, highlighting three recent incidents that incited public outcry across its social media channels and how the cooperative managed the discourse.

The “Three Meltdown – 10 Months” break down as such: 

  • Raw milk: In late 2011, OV’s board of directors decided to uphold a long-standing tenant of its membership agreement that stipulates that all milk produced on the OV member farms be delivered to the cooperative for production and sale, measure that not only addressed supply concerns, but safe-guarding the cooperative from any potential public safety issues. “Passionate” raw milk consumers, who purchased their raw milk from these dairies, turned to Facebook for four weeks, bombarding its page with hostile commentary.

    “Legit beef? Maybe. I understand that we were coming between them and their raw milk source,” Brickl said, but insisted the action was within the cooperative’s right to protect the integrity of the brand. 

    During this time the cooperative could not effectively use social media as a marketing tool. Even though OV had "hid" its comment wall, anytime it posted an image or a status update — regardless of the content of the post — the Facebook comment streams would be taken over by the raw milk advocates. As a result, the marketing team spent a lot of energy responding to the negative feedback.
  • Egg/hen + PETA: After and PETA posted a picture purported to expose a subpar OV egg laying facility, consumers leveled an attack on OV’s social sites yet again.

    “They weren’t our chickens, it wasn’t one of our farms, but we spent another month dealing with consumer vitriol,” said Brickl, he noted that Organic Valley strictly abides by organic poultry standards.
  • Coexistence: In 2010, OV’s CEO met with Secretary Tom Vilsack and biotechnology to discuss the deregulation of genetically modified alfalfa, a staple of a dairy cow's diet. While OV advocated to keep GM alfalfa illegal, once the USDA took that option off the table, OV advocated for very strict restrictions. OV’s acceptance of coexistence and its willingness to work with biotech and the USDA led to the cooperative’s latest social media challenge as angry followers insinuated OV “was in bed with Monsanto,” a claim the cooperative vehemently denies.

    “Anybody who knows anything about us knows we’ve spent the entirety of our existence fighting for a food system that is the antithesis of what Monsanto stands for,” Brickl asserted.

    The marketing team deems the severity of this ongoing issue a 10 because they have come under attack from many angles, and incorrect Internet articles are difficult to rebut when the source is not a legit news outlet.

Social crisis communications tactics

“We learned very quickly that we needed to establish a plan,” Brickl said. He suggests that companies have a social media crisis communications plan in place prior to an incident. Here are the actions OV took to manage the various issues it has faced:

  • Stick to the plan, but be ready to change it for effect
  • Respond to every complaint quickly
  • Formulate responses not just for the one, but for many (the people reading the feed)
  • Do not use robotic PR speak
  • Do not censor posts or ban users unless they violate etiquette guidelines
  • Tell the truth!
 [Source: Organic Valley's “Social Media and Food” slideshow.]

One tactful way to address individuals determined to derail productive engagement is to develop and post etiquette guidelines on the site as you “can’t ban someone unless you’ve given them the rules.” Brickl advises page administrators not block or delete the comments of its critics; however, should it need to block unruly commentators, these guidelines will support that action without reeking of censorship.

In the end, it’s the responsibility of all producers — organic or not — to educate consumers about the truths of farming and agribusiness rather than allow misinformed detractors to control perceptions. Social media offers the direct messaging opportunities and instant feedback unrivaled by traditional advertising and public relations campaigns.

Additional take-a-ways from the presentation:

  • Not everyone knows the difference between pasture butter and regular butter. Consumers and producers debate the differences here.
  • To evoke comments and engagement, don’t be afraid to post cutesy photos and light-hearted banter to add character to the brand as demonstrated with this image.
  • If there is a Social Media Breakfast in your area, it’s free so I suggest you attend. Visit the website or “like” it on Facebook for a list of events.

To view a photo gallery from the event, visit Social Media Breakfast Madison’s Facebook album.

June 18, 2012 | Tech Talk | Jackie Roembke | Views: 184

Drop the Complexity of Document Management with Dropbox

Advice on how document storage and sharing services can help grain elevator and feed mill managers

Have you ever found yourself needing access to a particular document you had stored on a jump drive or work computer? If you use multiple computers and mobile devices such as phones or tablets there is no doubt this has happened to you. 

Dropbox is brilliant technology that gives you secure access to all your work documents such as client invoices, grain contracts, pictures, marketing pieces and any other documents. These files can be accessed by any computer or mobile device and can be setup to automatically synchronize whenever an internet connection is detected.

Sharing files with employees or customers is as simple as sending an email invitation to the individual. Once the invitation is accepted they have access to only the file you chose to share with them. Grain elevators or other ag businesses can use Dropbox to give clients access to private files and documents such as grain contracts, cash grain bids, invoices or other data you wish to share with one or multiple clients. When you update a document, the client will also have access to the updated file. Below you will see “ABC Grain Elevator” and then three subfolders “Carlson Farms,” “Frank Farms” and “Grain Bids.” The two client subfolders will be used to share client specific grain contracts or other private data. The “Grain Bids” file will be used to share daily grain bids with all clients. 

Documents too large? Have you ever tried to attach a large document to an email only to have it be rejected by the email provider? Dropbox is a quick fix for those large documents, simply store the file on Dropbox and share it with the intended recipients; it’s that easy. 

The best news is that you get two gigabytes of space for free, that is a lot of space if all you’re saving is text files such as grain contracts or cash grain bids. If you choose to store all your files on dropbox it will only run you around $10/month for up to 50 gigabytes.

Link to Dropbox:

Edit note: Mark Frank’s blog posts will focus on how agribusinesses can use new technology to improve daily operations.

June 15, 2012 | Views on the News | | Views: 155

Corn Roles

The commodity plays double-duty as food and fuel source, but which is best for industry?

As I delve into research for my next Focus on Biofuels article, which will analyze the impact of the EPA’s decision to approve the sale of higher ethanol/gasoline blends, I’m confronted with the fact I’m quite torn on the issue of using corn for fuel.

Evidence both in support of and against the widespread adoption of ethanol is mounting. The positives, as pointed out by groups like the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) and the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), as well as the U.S. government include:

  • Reduced dependency on foreign oil imports
  • Rural American jobs creation
  • Creation of the beef, dairy and swine feed option, DDGS 
  • Reduced gas prices

As the economy continues to flounder and the news on jobs and unemployment is grim, it’s encouraging to know there is a sector right here in the Midwest (Wisconsin girl talking) that isn’t losing jobs. In fact, the NCGA reported that in 2011, the U.S. ethanol industry helped support more than 400,000 jobs and contributed $42.4 billion to the Gross Domestic Product, adding $30 billion to household incomes. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

And of course, I, as well as every car-driving American, could live with cheaper gas prices any day. But are we really getting a better value with this less expensive fuel? Let’s examine some negatives to help make that call.

Ethanol’s first downside:  lower gas mileage, as a Consumer Reports article from 2011 noted. It tested a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe FFV (Flex Fuel Vehicle) and recorded a drop from 21 highway miles per gallon with conventional gasoline to only 15 with E85 (gasoline blended with 15% ethanol). Similar results were produced with in-city driving tests and the authors noted that a drop in gas mileage should be expected with all current FFVs.

On June 15 the EPA approved the use of E85 in all vehicle manufactured in 2001 or later. I can hardly imagine that cars and trucks that were not designed specifically for E85 would fare any better than the Tahoe FFV in mpg tests.

Not to mention there is evidence that E85 may even be harmful to vehicle and light truck engines, according to an American Petroleum Institute (API) study. (In all fairness, this study was funded by an association that represents the oil and natural gas industry, and the American Coalition for Ethanol quickly pointed out its flaws). The study found that using higher blends such as E85 and E80 (20% ethanol) in vehicle engines resulted in more corrosion, adhesion and abrasion because ethanol has less lubricity than gasoline and it can absorb 50 times more H2O than gasoline alone.

Bringing the debate a little closer to the feed and grain realm, let’s look at ethanol policy and its correlation to corn prices. The Renewable Fuels Standard was a mandate enacted in 2005 that required 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline by 2012. To the feed industry, this definitely goes under the negative column.

The early 2000s saw skyrocketing corn prices, consequentially leading to economic catastrophes for the poultry, swine and beef industries, as corn makes up nearly 60% of the cost of meat production. The RFS is thought to be a main driver of the sharp incline in corn prices and the feed industry continues to support alternative legislation that will reduce strain on the corn market.

Although the EPA’s recent decision about E85 does not regulate the blending of more ethanol into gasoline, it is a green light for ethanol companies to produce 5% more ethanol than they previously were allowed to. Considering 14 billion gallons of ethanol were produced last year, a 5% increase equals a lot of corn.

What do you think? Is corn a good source of renewable fuel or should the government and industry invest more in cellulosic, wind, solar or other green energy sources? 

June 01, 2012 | Editor's View | Jackie Roembke | Views: 178

GMO Labeling Gains Popularity

As GMOs face the court the public opinion, are you doing your part to educate the public on agriculture

The 117th edition of the National Grain and Feed Association’s (NGFA) Annual Convention, held in San Francisco in mid-March, drove this sentiment home in its general sessions: While agriculture is one of the greatest growth industries, the coming years will be filled with the unique challenge of restoring the public’s trust in the food system. For those working and living agriculture, it should come as no surprise that much of the content presented by the event’s diverse set of speakers focused on the anti-biotechnology battle being waged in this country — specifically the one against genetically modified (GM) grains and food stuffs.

GMOLargely driven by emotion and misinformation, the vitriolic arguments presented by biotech’s opponents run contrary to the extensive scientific research backing the legitimacy and safety of GM foods. Why then does this movement have such momentum? According to Chris Policinski, Land O’Lakes president and CEO, agriculture has failed to manage the public’s opinions on the food supply by not effectively telling its productivity story, the one only made possible through the use of biotechnology.

Let’s face it, the public has been conditioned to be suspicious of big business (often rightfully so) — and agriculture surely is not exempt from this scrutiny. Big is bad — and consumers intrinsically question whether or not greed-driven corporations (and politicians) have their interests and well-being in mind.

California’s Proposition 37 (also known as “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act”) highlights this movement. The statute would have called for the mandatory labeling of genetically modified consumer food products. While Prop 37 was defeated during the 2012 election by a narrow margin, the push certainly didn’t end in California. In fact, a number of U.S. states have proposed legislation and pending ballot initiatives in motion.

Do consumers deserve to know where their food comes from and how it is sourced? Absolutely. Should the industry be more transparent? I think so. The tide has shifted, perhaps it’s time the industry takes the initiative and addresses the matter on its own terms.

Earlier this month, Whole Foods became the first major retailer requiring products containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) to be labeled by 2018 — and, in time, other major retailers are likely to follow suit. Not knowing where the consumer’s interest in the supply chain will end, grain handling and feed manufacturing industries should keep a keen eye on this issue because we are, after all, ultimately one industry.

Policinski urges individuals and agribusinesses to actively engage with the public in real time via social media and that they reach out to their local and state politicians to tell the story about an industry revving up to feed a growing global population.

What are you doing to tell our story?

May 15, 2012 | Views on the News | | Views: 124

Time to Re-prioritize 2012 Farm Bill Cuts

Ag research funding deserves long-term investment

Now in the final stages of Senate mark-up, the 2012 Farm Bill will no doubt see its fair share of reduction in government program funding. Crop subsidies are an easy target that most people can live with — even farmers. Farmer group leaders have noted that the direct payments programs first authorized in the 1996 Farm Bill were temporary measures that have outlived their necessity.

Jon Scholl, president of American Farmland Trust (AFT) said last year, “ … our country must address the national debt level — with no options left off the table. The direct payments program — in which farmers receive payments without regard to need — has long been a staple in farm policy and appears likely to change. Numerous producers across the country have told AFT that they would welcome change in farm programs, and I believe the 2012 Farm Bill represents an opportunity to create a better safety net.”

With recent University of Illinois reports indicating net returns for 2012 at $269/acre for corn and $136/acre for soybeans, one can easily argue the farmers no longer need such a “safety net.”

But one Farm Bill cutback that few in the agriculture industry are content to make is in research. According to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), agricultural research and development boasts high rates of return — in excess of 30%. Unfortunately, R&D investments have withered away steadily since the late 1980s and have resulted in plummeting productivity growth rates.

An AEI report concluded that annual spending on ag R&D for productivity growth must increase by $1 billion to prevent further losses in farm productivity and increase competiveness — a goal that is highly unlikely to materialize given the current economical climate. Agriculture research is considered discretionary spending — the kind most likely to be targeted by the Farm Bill next year.

The House Appropriations Committee’s agriculture subcommittee already approved its version of the FY2012 funding bill and cut the research budget by 13.7% from last year. If those cuts become law, federally funded ag research would drop by 20% from the 2010 fiscal year — more than $600 million. 

The full benefits of ag research take time to materialize — in the form of minimizing crop threats and curing animal diseases — so now is hardly the time to be tight-fisted with the purse strings, given the already high price of food and no decline in the foreseeable future.

Cutting spending to reduce the financial burden for future generations is a worthy cause, and sacrifices must be made somewhere. But let’s not sacrifice our future ability to provide a safe and steady food supply for our children and grandchildren.

May 08, 2012 | Editor's View | Jackie Roembke | Views: 195

New Mediums Shape the Media

Almost 50% of adults own smart phones; iPads boast greatest adoption rate ever

Last year Feed & Grain's parent company, Cygnus Business Media, adopted the tagline: “Because the world is changing very fast.” Fitting for a publishing company considering the last decade has delivered the most extraordinary changes in information consumption and delivery for print media since the advent of the printing press. OK, maybe the widespread adoption of the the PC draws a better comparison — but, regardless, everything has changed.

Game changer #1: The smart phones, for example, has not only changes the way we receive news, it’s altered the way we communicate with the world. I’m not just talking about the nonsense abbreviations (LOL, BRB, OMG), I mean texting, social media access — even the inclination to drop land lines all together. I, for one, have not had a “home phone number” in a decade. Yes, a decade.

According to Pew Research’s Internet & American Life Project, in February of 2012 nearly half (46%) of American adults are smartphone users — a statistic that falls very closely in line with the number identified in a recent Feed & Grain smart technology reader survey (56%).

Game changer #2: Tablets have seen a similar surge in the adoption rate. The iPad, for example, has earned the title of “fastest selling electronic device in history,” selling three million units in the first 80 days after its release. According to, iPads capture 50% of newspaper and magazine readers who consume the media on the tablet. (Good for advertisers too since they cite increased receptivity to advertisements.)

Of the 350 survey respondees, 1/3 said they own a tablet (either an iPad or something similar) and those who did not, well, 14% said they planned to purchase one in the next 12 months. Most of the participants with tablets use them for news consumption and magazines subscriptions — statistics that also align with MediaBistro's findings.

I must confess, though I love the tangible crispness of a new print edition, I'm a sucker for reading my magazine subscriptions on my iPad. The draw: Rich media enhancements that can't be delivered in print or displayed properly online. One example, the 360-degree image rotation. Not the best example, but imagine viewing ancient artifacts or the Titanic in 3-D — complete with zoom capabilities — it makes for a seriously interesting user experience. Thank you, National Geographic.

Anyway, as the world changes ever faster, it makes you wonder what innovations await media dissemination in the next decade. Long live print!

May 01, 2012 | From the Field | Jackie Roembke | Views: 154

Agribusiness Stresses Safety in Ag Classes

Teach kids about potential hazards to prevent incidents

I recently read an article in the Janesville Gazette where a high school ag instructor was conducting a FFA farm safety class for her ag students. She had the local firefighters and EMTs, a local grain and feed elevator along with a helicopter company to demonstrate and train for farm accident rescues such as a grain bin extraction, auger entrapment an anhydrous ammonia leak and a tractor rollover. What a great idea — farm safety in the classroom!

As I read the article, I also found it interesting that the FFA President was the son of the local grain company. This young man plans on majoring in agriculture management and business law at UW-Madison, and will eventually work in the family business. He has a special appreciation for the welfare of ag workers, as his family has always taken extra precautions when it comes to the safety of its employees and customers. This young man is dedicated to coming back from his secondary education and bringing his safety training with him. 

Why do I mention this? Today, there are fewer kids on the farm, which translates fewer kids who know the inherent dangers of ag equipment both at home and at the elevator/mill. This story exemplifies the opportunity agribusinesses have to partner with the rural community leaders and/or the local Vocational Agriculture Technical schools to teach these young kids the dangers of working in the agriculture field. 

Unskilled labor has to come from somewhere, and many of these young kids will come from the city. They will need to be trained sometime, so why not start in the ag classrooms? Who knows, they may be your next feed mill manger or grain elevator manager or even your fertilizer/petroleum manager. Plus, it's great PR opportunity.

So place a call to your local high school’s ag department. Inquire if they have any type of safety related classes. If not, here is a great opportunity to take the lead and put together a couple of hours of ag safety in the classroom. Being in business in a community means you owe the community a safe, clean facility. If the public knew the potential hazards that lurk at many of these facilities, they would not take this information lightly. Again, here is another opportunity to educate not only the students but perhaps their parents. Safety training makes good sense and keeps them in good neighbor status for years to come.

By chance, if your local high school is already doing this — that’s great — but as a business manager, take time to make a difference in a kid’s life — and perhaps save a life as well.

Go ahead and make the call. 

April 25, 2012 | Views on the News | | Views: 136

Mad Cow Disease Reported in California

Tom Vilsack tells public to eat beef, maintain confidence in U.S. food supply

“I am going home, and I’m having beef tonight for dinner.”

That’s what Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on CNN the night the USDA confirmed its first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a.k.a. mad cow disease, in the United States in six years.

The case was detected at a Baker Commodities, Inc. rendering plant in Hanford, CA, on April 24. Among 60 deceased cows randomly tested as part of the plant’s standard operating procedure, only one came back positive for BSE. It was quarantined immediately and Baker disposed of the animal according with USDA’s instructions for contaminated carcass handling.

When most Americans think of mad cow disease, visions of brain-eating zombie cows come to the forefront, making them hesitant to serve their families beef. This mentality can have real consequences, as it did in Europe in the 1990s when an outbreak affected 180,000 livestock and consumers began seeking other sources of protein. The circumstances nearly crippled the British beef industry.

In the wake of the news of California’s confirmed BSE case, South Korean grocer LotteMart promptly removed all American beef from its shelves. South Korea is one of the world's largest importers of U.S. beef and even a temporary suspension of beef imports could be detrimental to the United States cattle and feed industry. Fortunately, the South Korean government said it will not halt imports, but only step up checks on U.S. beef for now.

But in reality, there is nearly zero chance anyone could be sickened with BSE from American beef. Our stringent food and feed safety standards are among the most sophisticated and science-based in the world and inspections are regularly conducted. Since 1997, the FDA has done over 93,000 inspections, according to a report released by FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine in February.

To ensure BSE never makes it into the food supply, the USDA’s feed ban list includes any rendered cow parts thought to transmit the disease to humans, including brain or spinal cord.  

Dr. John Clifford, USDA’s chief veterinary officer said the dairy cow in California contracted BSE from a random mutation, not from contaminated feed or feed ingredients, meaning there is no need to trace back its food sources or to be concerned other animals may have contracted the disease. 

“This was a very rare circumstance, and I can assure you and everyone watching this tonight that our food supply is safe and will continue to be safe,” Vilsack said to CNN’s John King.

Instead of looking at this as an example of a food safety failure, view it as an example of America’s food system at work, catching the contaminated specimen before it entered the feed supply.

As members of the feed and grain industry, you possess a from-the-trenches perspective on how the United States provides a safe and healthy food supply. Use this opportunity to educate your friends and neighbors on what you know about HACCP and the Food Safety Modernization Act.  

April 20, 2012 | Editor's View | Jackie Roembke | Views: 180

Careers in Agriculture Offer Stability to Floundering Generation Y

Job postings up 18% since 2010

As the school year winds down, and high school seniors prepare for their future, those who will be pursuing a degree in agricultural science have chosen a decent career path. According to the Wall Street Journal article, “Which College Majors Pay Best?,” the top 10% of earners in agricultural science fair well, but post-graduate educations in the field will deliver a 10% wage increase — an added incentive to committing to this area of study. Combining the top tier professions of economics or finance with a background in agriculture, as is the case with the merchandisers and ag bankers of the future, these graduates will be in pretty good shape.

Forecasts for the future of agriculture are exceedingly positive. Truth is, ag has been a bright spot during the deepest troughs of the economic downturn. Put on your shades, graduates, and get on board. According to's 2011 U.S. Agribusiness Job Report:

"Total number of job postings in the United States and Canada were over 43,000, up 18%
from 2010. The number of jobs posted was over 3,600 each month throughout the United States and Canada, with the largest number of jobs posted in the Midwest region of the United States with more than 26,000 jobs (up 18% from 2010)."

Good news especially since the economy doesn't look like it will be recovering anytime soon. According to the Pew Research Center study, "Young, Underemployed and Optimistic," unemployment among individuals in the 18 to 25 age demographic sits around 46% for a "broad swath of young people who were still in high school or college when the downturn began."

On a personal note, having entered the feed and grain industries from the recession-ravaged wreckage of shuttered woodworking publications, a job in agriculture has offered me stability and refuge from the uncertainty of the economy (and, ultimately, the depressed job market). Playing on the adage, "Nothing is certain except for death and taxes," I'd like to add another certainty to the list — at least within the context of job security: People and animals need to eat. Period. 

While agriculture certainly does embody a degree of chance — weather, global demand, natural disasters — one can assume that the cyclical nature of things (and the fundamental nutrition demands of the majority of consumers) will eventually trend upward.

I would urge the children of Generation Y, the Millennials, the Occupy-Your-Parents'-Basement Generation — whatever we're calling this group that, in many ways, seems lost — to abandon their pie-in-the-sky career delusions of a $150,000 starting salary and dispel the lifestyle myths perpetuated by reality TV. Get real, kids, and do whatever it takes to pay the bills. (Yes, I feel I can frankly comment on youth culture with an insider's credibility because I sit in the grey area between Gen X and the new wave.)

If I were ever to have a conversation with a high school senior, despite their inclination to pursue the least useful college majors (like I did), I would tell them to target their education toward a proven, evergreen career paths, ones that will in fact land them a job once they graduate (and, yes, I was lucky). Unless, of course, they truly aspire to live with their parents until they become an "adult," then they’re on their own. (Note: According to the Journal of Family Psychology, individuals between the ages of 18 and 25 years old are now considered "emerging adults.")

In my opinion, and since this is my first blog post I'm going to take liberties with making my opinion known, "emerging adults" would be best served in taking a long-view approach to higher education by looking in to college (or even high school) programs in agriculture or any other viable professional. I admit this advice may be hard to swallow for those without a background in the field or farm — but for the rest, at least consider it.

I'll end this blog with an open letter to the Millennials:

Dear Generation Y,
Take control of your future and employment options before you have to start paying back your egregious college loans.
The editor of Feed & Grain magazine

March 26, 2012 | Editor's View | Jackie Roembke | Views: 555

OSHA Amplifies Efforts

First-time violators targeted with hopes of ascribing 'repeat' status

Popularized in by the misspeak of former president George W. Bush, we're all familiar the following idiom, though I ask that you allow me to take liberties with it for the purposes of this column:

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