Reportage

Big Blueberry

Crunch, clones and the rise of a global superfood

ONCE A YEAR in Brussels, the world’s best food and drink experts – Michelin-starred chefs and those who cook for presidents and royal families – sit alone at small, separate tables in complete silence at a judging session convened by the International Taste Institute. Wearing their chef whites, these gastronomic gurus ponder the entity before them. The food can be viewed only in natural light on standard white chinaware. Judges don’t know who produced each entry, and gut instinct is not allowed – they must rigorously apply the International Hedonic Sensory Analysis criteria: first impression, vision, olfaction, taste and texture.

In May this year, a blueberry variety bred in Australia was awarded an overall score of 91.8 per cent and bestowed with a three-star Superior Taste Award – a class reserved only for the most exceptional competitors. The cultivar, known as Eureka, was produced by Ridley Bell of Mountain Blue Orchards near Lismore in northern New South Wales. Bell is known as the grandfather of Australia’s blueberry industry and has bred the fruit for forty-seven years. He first saw the Eureka in 2008. Upon seeing (and tasting) the giant orbs dangling from a test bush on his farm, Bell ran to his wife saying, ‘look at this amazing plant’. She said ‘Eureka! You’ve found it!’ And so the fruit was named.

The Eureka is no ordinary blueberry. It’s large – often the width of a dollar coin. It has its own Facebook page. It’s dark blue, firm with a crisp, juicy bite. It’s part of an exclusivity deal with Coles; the branding agency behind the supermarket launch pitched it as a ‘smart breakfast solution for brain rich, time poor Aussies’.

Eureka’s recognition as among the world’s most sumptuous foods is but one high point on the blueberry’s spectacular journey – from a shrub growing wild on North American hillsides to darling of the contemporary fruit world.

Today blueberries are grown across the globe. In Australia, blueberry production tripled in the five years to 2021, and the fruit is grown almost year-round – a perpetual river of fructose and antioxidants shipped across the country to be eaten raw by the handful, pulverised into smoothies or sprinkled on the açaí bowls of Instagram influencers.

Like the old proverb goes, however, ‘a tree is known by its fruit, a man by his deeds’. Blueberries appear as the perfect marriage of plant science and commerce – convenient, sweet, healthy and deeply beguiling. But the blueberry story goes deeper than its ink-dark skin. It’s one of risk, money and passion; one of a forgotten past and an uncertain future.

 

ANDREW BELL STRIDES along a wet gravel path then pushes open the door of an industrial-sized shed. ‘This is where we grow the baby ones,’ he explains as we step inside.

In neat rows of trays sit thousands of tiny blueberry plants about as tall as a thumb. Fans churn overhead. Nothing casts a shadow in here. Diffused sunlight spills through the translucent arched roof above, casting the infants in a dreamy ivory glow.

We’re at Mountain Blue’s nursery near Lismore. Andrew Bell is the affable, soft-spoken managing director, and Ridley’s son. This year the company will propagate about 600,000 blueberry plants to be sent to growers or raised at Mountain Blue’s own farms.

Earlier, Bell junior explained how pollen from one parent plant is deposited, by hand, into the flower of another. Fruit grows from the fertilised flower, ‘then the seeds that come out of it get planted,’ says Bell. Those children grow up, and the lucky few deemed worthy of commercialising are replicated by taking softwood cuttings. The sproutlings we’re looking at now are the elite clones.

Ridley Bell, seventy-two, is a heavyset man with a bad knee and the gift of the gab. He started breeding and growing blueberries in the 1970s while working for the then Victorian Department of Agriculture. In 1976 he took an early blueberry batch to Melbourne’s Footscray Market – at the time a place of far more proletarian produce – to test the appetite of wholesalers. ‘I was walking around with these heavy trays and asking, “do you know what these are?” and no one knew,’ he says. ‘The public awareness was zero in those early days.’ Nonetheless, in 1981 Bell moved to northern NSW to start a blueberry farm.

Over the next couple of decades he and a few other growers chipped away at raising the profile of the little-known berries. They were helped in the late 1990s when scientists discovered blueberries contain more antioxidants than almost any other fruit. Demand soared. Suddenly, the humble blueberry was a superfood: a little blue pill that would smooth wrinkles and cure all manner of ills.

Over Zoom, Bell senior tells me what makes the ideal blueberry: good size, a deep blue skin covered by a waxy bloom, pleasing aroma, the right mix of sweetness and tang and, importantly, crunch. ‘Crunch is front and centre of the whole eating experience,’ he says. ‘When you bite down it should pop – and you go “wow, that’s good”.’ Blueberries are also bred for the traits growers and retailers need, such as pest resistance and shelf life.

Measuring a blueberry’s crunch is an exact science. Bell senior and his team use a Durofel meter, a revolving plate holding fifty blueberries. As the plate turns, a shaft presses into each berry and records the pressure it can withstand. Other breeders test crunch by puncturing the fruit, a metric known as ‘bursting energy’. The International Taste Institute’s jurors examined the Eureka’s texture, of which crunchiness is part, and awarded it 96 per cent.

Each year, Mountain Blue makes about 120 crosses resulting in 10,000-plus hybrid plants. From those, perhaps one new variety each year will end up being grown commercially. ‘It’s very long odds,’ Bell senior says. Testing and assessing the hybrids is a long, finicky process. From cross to commercialisation can take up to fifteen years, but Mountain Blue has got it down to about six.

The company guards its genetics and breeding methods closely. Still, Bell senior says, ‘people do naughty things’. In one case, a grower near Grafton in NSW acquired 15,000 bootlegged versions of Mountain Blue’s Ridley 1111 variety and propagated them. After a protracted legal battle the Federal Court ordered him to pay $290,000 in damages.

Bell senior is philosophical about those who try to rip off his life’s work. ‘Our breeding program is geared towards constant improvement,’ he says. ‘I’m going to concentrate on what we’re doing and just get better and better.’

 

‘WELCOME TO THE Guru Nanak Sikh Temple,’ Satpal Singh Gill declares, gesturing to a white dome-topped building gleaming in the late autumn sun. About thirty-five workers from blueberry supplier Oz Group have come to hear Singh Gill, the group’s chairman, discuss the intricacies of Sikhism.

Singh Gill wears a black turban, thongs and an unfailing smile. The staff listen politely as he explains they’re about to visit the prayer room. ‘We’ll sit for five minutes, take it all in, then come down for lunch,’ he says. ‘Hopefully the tummy won’t grumble too much!’

It’s all part of a team-building exercise for Oz Group, a co-operative of mostly Sikh growers and one of Australia’s biggest blueberry suppliers. The staff here today, a mix of Anglo-Australians and other nationalities, work at the organisation’s head office and packing house south of the temple at Coffs Harbour on the NSW mid-north coast.

About three-quarters of Australia’s blueberries are produced around Coffs. In the past few decades, blueberries have far overtaken bananas as the region’s biggest crop.

‘There are a lot of Sikh families here in their fifth and sixth generation,’ Singh Gill tells the workers. ‘They’re all proud to be Australian, just like you guys.’

From within the prayer room, a mellifluous male voice breezes out the door and across the temple grounds. It’s part of a two-day reading of Sikh scripture to honour a recent marriage. We file inside and sit cross-legged in front of a young, bearded man; he reads the holy text in a voice somewhere between singing and chanting, the words delivered as a single, melodic current. On a nearby screen the Punjabi text is translated into English:

The world is deceived and plundered by riches, youth, greed and egotism.

The drug of emotional attachment has destroyed me, as it has destroyed the whole world.

O my Beloved, I have no one except you.

Without you, nothing else pleases me. Loving you, I am at peace.

The region’s Sikhs know well a world plundered by riches. Singh Gill tells me how workers from India’s Punjab state, including his great-grandfather, were brought to Australia by the British in the late 1800s and put to work as indentured labour on Queensland sugarcane farms. Some historians say the system was little better than slavery. Slashing cane by hand was dirty, backbreaking work. The men worked long, lonely hours, separated from their families back home, their toil feeding the sweet tooth of the wealthier classes.

During the next few decades, the sugar industry transformed as farms were mechanised, global prices fell and indentured labour was phased out. Around the time of World War II, many Sikhs moved south to Coffs Harbour as workers, eventually becoming banana farmers. Later in the 1990s, however, North Queensland ‘went huge into bananas’, Singh Gill says. The Coffs Harbour banana industry went into freefall. One local farm was growing blueberries; struggling banana farmers tried the crop and from there ‘it just exploded’.

A few hours later, the Oz Group staff are given an early mark. Singh Gill offers to drive me out to a few farms, including his own. As we head north, he talks me through the corporate machinery of Australian blueberries. The industry is dominated by a joint venture between American multinational Driscoll’s and Australia’s largest berry grower, Costa. Oz Group also supplies all its berries to Driscoll’s. Singh Gill tells me how Driscoll’s provides plants to growers, then sells the berries they produce. ‘The risk in the middle goes to the grower,’ he says.

Between 2001 and 2016 blueberry farming in NSW grew by 400 per cent – almost all of it around Coffs Harbour. The berry industry has fired up the region’s economy. But its gallop across the landscape has angered some, who say the land-use balance has tipped too far towards blueberries and other horticulture.

As Singh Gill talks, I watch the forested countryside slip by. We’re heading to the major blueberry growing area of Corindi. After ten minutes or so we turn off the main road. The trees thin out and a mass spawning begins: row upon row of plants beneath white tunnels and netting. The blueberry mother lode. Most farms out here belong to Costa Group, which declined to be involved in this article. Costa has more than 300 hectares at Corindi pumping out berries – an area bigger than Sydney’s CBD.

All that infrastructure looks expensive. I ask Singh Gill how much the tunnels cost. ‘Getting up to crop stage would be, like, $200,000 [per hectare]. That’s if you have your own irrigation. If you haven’t it will be another $50,000.’

We turn down a dirt driveway and pull up at the farm of thirty-two-year-old Oz Group grower Paul Singh. He’s just finished picking and greets me with an outstretched hand.

Another picker is toiling behind him, filling a bucket. Singh explains the berry takes about eight weeks to mature. The fruit erupts from the ovary of a pollinated flower, starting off a Granny Smith green then flushing pink, deepening to crimson. In the final days of maturing it darkens to indigo and is ready to harvest. Picked too early, the fruit is tart and insipid. Left on the bush too long, it will be soft and mealy by the time it reaches the shops.

Singh invites me to taste a few blueberries off the bush. I pluck off the most promising specimen and bite into it. A zesty burst fills my mouth. I murmur in appreciation and inquire after the variety: it’s Mountain Blue’s Ridley 1111. Singh explains the picking season only started a week ago. ‘But we might not even get a start if the rain keeps coming,’ he says.

Blueberry plants need well-drained soil. I visited the north coast in late May 2022, two months after floods devastated Lismore. The rain had not let up since. At many farms at least some blueberry plants were steeped in channels of water. Storms shaved 20 per cent off blueberry harvest volumes last year; the same is predicted this season due to rain and a cold snap.

Singh shows me a clump of brown, soggy blueberry flowers. They’ve succumbed to botrytis, a plant disease that thrives in humidity. Singh, who took over the farm from his father, knows the business has its ups and downs. ‘Two years ago we had a drought, now we’re having a La Niña and it’s probably going to rain until August,’ he says. And while it’s wet now, ‘I’m sure there’ll be a drought around the corner.’

Those fine-tuned to the land are often the first to feel the creeping tentacles of climate change. They sense it daily, a slow but perceptible tack. The blueberry farmers of Coffs Harbour already know less fruit is dying in the frost. In future – and perhaps already – climate change means less rain in summer and more in autumn and spring, more very hot days and fewer cold nights. Exactly how these changes will affect blueberry farming is still being understood.

Singh says some blueberry farmers, especially the younger generation, have readied for the upending: buying bore licenses, applying for extra water and planting a greater range of crops such as blackberries, ginger and cucumbers. If all else fails, Singh has an accounting degree to fall back on.

All the same, I’m starting to sense a few cracks in the citadel. Climate change makes any growing endeavour in Australia a deeply uncertain prospect. And blueberry farmers complain of a supermarket triopoly that has scalpelled their profits. Everyone wants in on the blueberry caper nowadays and growers say the market is flooded. Above all, labour shortages and wage costs are a weeping sore.

At harvest time the Coffs Harbour blueberry industry employs thousands of Pacific migrants, backpackers and other workers. In 2020, a report by the McKell Institute alleged wage theft and intentional underpayment of workers were rife. It pointed the finger mostly at ‘nefarious’ labour hire firms; an Ecuadorean backpacker paid by the bucket said he received $120 for a week’s work. He told the ABC it ‘looks like and feels like modern slavery’.

Last year, the Fair Work Commission ruled every farm worker in Australia must be guaranteed the minimum wage of $25 an hour, regardless of how much they pick. As we pull into Singh Gill’s farm I ask him about the change, which came in a month earlier. ‘I can already see it’s going to be hard to employ people who…don’t want to put in the hard work,’ he says. ‘Before, you could have people who weren’t that productive – they wanted to pick for two hours, go sit in their car for half an hour, come back, pick some more. Just backpacker-type people, grey nomads who were just there to pass a bit of time. But that can’t happen anymore.’ Singh Gill says produce prices haven’t kept pace with wage growth ‘so it’s obviously harder to make a profit’.

We alight and Singh Gill leads me across sodden ground to a block of about 4,500 partly defoliated plants. They’ve been struck down by blueberry rust, another disease that thrives in the wet. Singh Gill touches a mottled leaf and it falls weakly into his hand.

‘I had a really good crop on here but it’s all gone. The fruit has just started to fall off.’ He points to another row of denuded plants: ‘This would normally be beautifully green with a lot of fruit, ready to be picked in the next month or so. But now, it’s just nothing.’

For the first time today, Singh Gill is downbeat. He’s clearly done well from the berry game, but it does seem a white-knuckled ride. After a few seconds, however, he brightens. ‘Farmers are quite resilient people,’ he says. ‘You’ve probably hit us at a pessimistic year. But this is farming – it’s just the nature of it.’

 

THE FIRST ACCOUNT of Native Americans using blueberries was recorded by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1615. After founding Quebec he canoed up Canada’s Ottawa River to map the Great Lakes. There he found a gathering of Algonquin women spreading blueberries to dry in the sun.

Native Americans preserved blueberries for winter when food was scarce. They steeped, dried, crushed and boiled the plant parts for medicine – treating babies for colic, relieving coughs and purifying the blood. According to folklore, blueberries were sent by the Great Spirit to ensure First Nations people survived famine. The perfect five-pointed star at the top of each berry – the scar left when the stem detaches – proved its heavenly origin.

De Champlain’s discovery marked the beginning of the blueberry’s global dispersion. We don’t yet know where the odyssey will end – but at Oz Group’s packing house in Coffs Harbour, it shows no signs of slowing.

I’m watching a metre-wide river of blueberries ascend a sloped conveyor belt. They reach an apex and drop onto moving lanes, then briefly disappear under a large steel box. Inside is a camera; it identifies defects by photographing each blueberry up to ten times.

Sue Marshall, Oz Group’s senior production supervisor, has a brisk walk and the situational awareness of an air-traffic controller. After a tour of the cool room and receiving area, she’s led me to the packing room floor. We peer at a screen showing the berries scudding in their lanes beneath the camera. The video is in negative; each blueberry appears as a falling white ball of light – manna from heaven hurtling to Earth in perfect parallel.

‘As they go through they’re getting sorted,’ Marshall says. ‘So at the moment coming out of lane two we’ve got damaged soft. Lane one we’ve got soft. Lane three we’ve got split…lane four is our frozen line and lane five is for packing.’ About fifteen people work the machine but most of it is automated. I watch the berries roll down steel chutes and fall into punnets; the machine can pack 192 plastic clamshells per minute.

From there the fruit is wheeled next door to Driscoll’s, force-cooled to between zero degrees and 2 degrees Celsius, then loaded onto trucks to be driven to the capital-city distribution centres of the major supermarket chains, from where they’re sent across the country.

Later in the staff room, Marshall marvels at the evolution of the industry she joined seventeen years ago. ‘We’re becoming so mechanised in the packhouse, and just trying to get the best price and product from end to end,’ she says. I ask her what Native Americans of bygone days might make of the modern blueberry mega-trade. She laughs and says: ‘They’d think we’re crazy, I’m sure.’

It’s certainly a remarkable feat: so many defectless blueberries bred, planted, raised, harvested, packed and trucked, to be piled into shopping trolleys from Darwin to Dunedoo. But that quest for perfection comes at a cost.

Blueberries are demanding crops. They require a heady mix of nutrients – mostly nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – as well as herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and insecticides. And when it rains, that cocktail has to flow somewhere.

Scientists have found a clear link between blueberry farming and pollution in local waterways. I meet environmental scientist Shane White just north of Coffs Harbour at Hearnes Lake, a serene, green-fringed coastal lagoon. He explains the lake is fed by creeks and other waterways that run past farms upstream – mostly blueberry farms but others, too. After heavy rain, water from the lake rushes into the ocean and the pristine Solitary Islands Marine Park.

White and his colleagues at Southern Cross University have identified a plethora of problems in local waterways. A few days before we met, they released a paper showing nine pesticides were draining into Hearnes Lake and the marine park – some at concentrations that could damage fish health. Other studies found high levels of nitrogen in the lake and other waterways. Nitrogen can create algal blooms – and turn into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 270 times worse than carbon dioxide. In one instance at Hearnes Lake, the nitrous oxide level was ‘very, very high’, Shane says. ‘One of the highest in the world.’

White says by and large blueberry farmers were shocked by the results and keen to act. But the media seized on the findings and the reputational stain hasn’t yet lifted. White and others are now working with blueberry growers to help reduce farm run-off and the industry says it developed a code of conduct to address the issues. I ask White what he wants his work to achieve. ‘Hopefully to get the social licence back for farmers,’ he says.

 

THE YARRAWARRA ABORIGINAL Cultural Centre is a brightly painted, low-slung building nestled among palms just off the main road to Corindi Beach. Yarrawarra means ‘happy meeting place’ in the language of the Gumbaynggirr people. In the centre’s gift shop a staff member is busy organising stock. I tell her I’m working on an article about blueberries, and I’m keen to know what traditional owners think of the local industry. She gives me a swift and bitter opinion, then says: ‘If you want real, raw information, go down to camp.’

The camp is at the end of a long, winding asphalt driveway and comprises a small group of brick homes. I spot Milton Duroux sitting on the balcony of one, savouring the late afternoon sun. I ask if we can chat; he nods and reaches out to shake hands. ‘They call me Uncle Milton,’ he says.

Duroux is a Gumbaynggirr man and an Elder of the Garby tribal group. (I ask his age; he shakes his head and simply says ‘old’.) The local Gumbaynggirr people survived white invasion and colonisation by living outside the Indigenous reserve system in lakeside camps. This one was established more recently.

The Gumbaynggirr are known as the ‘sharing people’ because tribes once travelled to feast on foods that burst forth, in great plenty, from the land and sea. That plenitude happens less these days. Corindi Creek runs down the back of this camp. It used to be a good place for prawns, but few traditional owners will eat them from the creek today.

‘You see change. All the poison, all the chemicals,’ Duroux says. ‘It’s the same as the bananas years ago. Now the blueberries come along. They might cause employment, you know, but what are they putting in the creeks?’ Duroux believes agriculture is not the only culprit: over the years, sewage and road run-off has also sullied the waterway. ‘There’s nothing in the creek now. There’s no frogs jumping, nothing like that,’ he says. ‘Once you could get a turtle out of it. Now there’s only eel, maybe a catfish.’

I thank Duroux and take my leave, heading back to the cultural centre. Lilly Clegg, a young Gumbaynggirr woman, runs weaving classes at the centre and has offered to show me what grows in the lush garden outside.

Clegg wears a red tie-dyed T-shirt and her short hair is dyed a vivid aqua-blue. As we wander the grounds she points out the bounty of edible fruits, their seeds planted naturally by birds congregating in the palms above.

‘That’s saw-sedge,’ she says, pointing to a tussock from which shiny red berries protrude. ‘They’re kind of like popcorn. You fry them up and you can grind them into a powder to make Johnny cakes. They’re like damper but a bit harder.’ Clegg spots a candy-pink fruit hanging from a tree. ‘This is lilly pilly, they’re delicious,’ she says. ‘Good for making relishes and sauces.’

Other native fruit growing around here includes the spiced midyim berries, the uber-sweet sandpaper fig, the roly poly – said to taste like stewed apples – the wombat berry with its coconut-like pulp, and the geebung: so thirst-quenching it’s known as a mini mango.

Finally, Clegg leads me to a native raspberry bush. A single, exquisite fruit hangs jauntily from its thorny stem. It’s plump and scarlet – almost identical to a commercial raspberry but rounder and even more delicately formed. I really want to eat it. I look inquiringly at Clegg. ‘Sure, go ahead,’ she says.

I gingerly tug at the berry and pop it into my mouth. It bursts onto the tongue at a perfect velocity. For first impression, an International Taste Institute judge would surely score it in the top percentile. The taste is somewhere between a strawberry and a peach. I forget to smell it before devouring it. But on texture it’s tender and marshmallowy.

I’m no food critic. Nor am I a scientist, a businessperson or a farmer. But I wonder if these feral fruits – fit for our climate and thriving without an ounce of human help – might, with the involvement of Indigenous Australians, be more widely cultivated than their pernickety exotic counterparts.

Late in the day, I leave Corindi and head south on the Pacific Highway. As I come into Coffs Harbour, the Big Banana rises on my right. It was the first of Australia’s Big Things; as with most of them, it’s much smaller than you’d expect. I pull into the virtually empty car park; it’s late afternoon and the place has just closed.

The Big Banana started as a roadside stall in 1964 during Coffs’ banana heyday. Now it’s a theme park with ice-skating, mini-golf, water slides and laser tag. I peer into the darkened gift shop. In the fluorescent half-light are mementos of an era long departed: souvenir coins, plush toy monkeys, yellow drink bottles bearing the Big Banana tag line: A whole bunch of fun!

Is this how the blueberry story ends – like sugarcane and bananas, just another boom-to-bust chapter in the story of the modern global economy? It’s a pattern humanity seems to have set on repeat – it begins with optimism and cheap labour and builds to vertically integrated supply chains and landscapes and communities subsumed.

Coffs Harbour doesn’t yet have a Big Blueberry, although it’s been considered. I try to picture it but all that springs to mind is the scene from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory when the brattish Violet Beauregarde is repaid for her rapacity by expanding into a giant blueberry. Wonka orders her to the juicing room: ‘She has to be squeezed immediately,’ he says, ‘before she explodes!’

Today, however, it’s hard to imagine blueberries as anything but a supermarket staple. Berries are now the biggest fresh produce category in Australia – worth more than $1 billion. The previous day, I’d asked Singh Gill what lay ahead. ‘I think blueberries are at a plateau now. But the industry will obviously stay in some shape or form,’ he said. ‘The Australian public has really taken to berries.’

Blueberries are now grown in every Australian state. Production spans all seasons, from the sunny winters of Far North Queensland to the cool summers of north-west Tasmania. It’s a strategy geared towards producing a steady year-round supply: news sure to please the blueberry diehards paying $10.99 a punnet in the off-season.

And as a growing global middle class develops a taste for blueberries, Australian growers are keen to satisfy it. Mountain Blue has farms in central India; Costa has farms in China and Morocco and is eyeing off India, Namibia, Laos and New Zealand. All this, and Australia is still just a minnow in the global blueberry trade. Global production more than doubled between 2010 and 2019 to almost one million tonnes, and blueberries are now produced on every continent except Antarctica.

Humans have disseminated blueberries around the world with extraordinary gusto. But who’s really in charge – us or the fruit? Michael Pollan writes in The Botany of Desire that just as plants manipulate the bee into lugging its pollen from flower to flower, they also appeal to human yearnings so we too spread their genes en masse. Fruiting plants, Pollan says, exploit ‘the mammalian sweet tooth’: in exchange for their dewy, nectareous flesh, we plant their seeds across the globe. Blueberries, by that thinking, have lured us to ensure their own survival.

Ridley Bell’s Eureka creation may well have been feted by the world’s best chefs, but it’s already been superseded by its own offspring. Eureka Gold, according to Bell, is his greatest breeding achievement yet. The relatively new variety produces consistently firm, jumbo fruit and a strong bloom. Eating-wise, Bell says, ‘it’s just a wonderful experience. Growers have already come back and said “Wow. That is the best blueberry.”’

But Bell is not on a foolhardy quest for the ultimate fruit. ‘Every blueberry has its imperfections,’ he says. ‘Every year, my aim is just to keep raising the bar and leave the others in our wake, you know?’

This work was supported by a Griffith Review Varuna Writers’ Residency, thanks to the Graeme Wood Foundation.

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