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Garbage can root cellar success

 
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I did the garbage can in a hole in the ground thing this winter for potatoes and it worked really well!

I dug a hole a bit bigger than the can cause I didn't want to mash dirt into every crevice of it in case it didn't work and I wanted to take the can out and fill the hole back in. I also didn't drill any drainage or air circulation holes for the same reason. I put the can in the hole, a layer of fist to double fist-sized rocks in the bottom of the can, then layered straw and potatoes to the top. The rocks were to keep the potatoes from sitting in condensation that drained to the bottom. The size of the rocks was to keep them from wicking water up into the straw.

I stuffed a lot of straw around the top foot or so of the can, between it and the edges of the hole. The lid of the can is six inches or so below the ground, and I spread loose straw all over the top of it as well. Then I stuffed straw into two of those paper leaf bags, tied them up so the straw wouldn't leak out, and laid them over the hole.

I made a three-walled enclosure around it with pallets and roofed the enclosure with a pallet as well - a plywood one so the roof was solid. Then I draped a bunch of lumber wrap over it and down the open side to keep snow out. Chunks of wood held the wrap down on the ground and on the pallet.

When I wanted potatoes, I'd clear whatever snow I needed to from the front and flip the lumber wrap up over the roof to access the interior. The bags of straw were nice and light, so I could just pile one on the other and shove them to the back of the enclosure. I had a one by six on the front edge of the hole so I could kneel there without crumbling the edge of the hole. So, kneel on the board, clear loose straw from lid, open lid, collect potatoes. Replace lid and loose straw. Replace bags of straw and close opening.

Really easy. Took me a day of unorganized, off and on labour to make.

I'm still pulling perfect, unsprouted potatoes out. I actually just planted some of them! I haven't got to the very bottom, and the straw is getting a bit damp so I may find moldy potatoes at the bottom. I'll report back.
 
Jan White
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Oops, I never updated this!

So, the straw was a bit damp, but potatoes do live in the ground, so it was fine. No moldy potatoes.

Last year, I dug my Yukon golds at the end of September and ate the last ones in July. They were sprouting a bit, but still good condition.

The first couple years I was really careful about having all the potatoes separated by straw. Not a lot, sometimes even just a few millimeters, but I always had at least a strand or two of straw between potatoes. This winter I had more potatoes to fit in, so the layers are two or three potatoes deep, all touching.

I also grew many new varieties this year, some of them aren't long storage types, and most of them were immature when I dug in the fall. With the heat dome last summer, nothing grew for a month so everything in the garden was really late. Because the potaotes were immature, I cured them, which I don't normally bother doing. I set up racks inside my pallet enclosure to keep them in the dark and let them cure for two weeks, turning them once midway. I haven't collected any potatoes from the bin yet this winter. I'll let you know how they are when I do.
 
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Thanks for the update, Jan!

One thing I really like about your system, is the cover you've made for the bin - most places/people who described using something like this, describe having to dig down just to get to the bin, and I know I'd find that annoying just to get a half-dozen potatoes, and my gang aren't big potato eaters!

A couple of questions:
1. Are you willing to give us some ideas of how many below freezing nights you get and what sort of extreme weather you coped with?
2. Was there any sign of critters moving into your cover area for housing?
3. Have you considered expanding your operation? Several bins for different foods?

The big item I'd like to store better, are apples. I really need to consider if this would work for them. I'm in a very high humidity, high winter rain location, so the ground will be much wetter.
 
Jan White
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Jay Angler wrote: A couple of questions:



Yeah, I knew if I had to dig snow off the top of the hole everytime I wanted something I'd never do it. The bin is buried near a path I have to keep shoveled all winter anyway, so it's hardly any extra shoveling.

1. I'm not sure about nights below freezing specifically, but Environment Canada shows our area as having 120 days with temperatures below 0°C at some point during the 24 hour period.

Typical winter temperatures are +2 to -10, and we have a lot of freeze/thaw cycles. We can get a cold snap anywhere from November through March with temperatures from -15 to -20. I see we did have a record low of -31 in the 1960s, but that's not normal. I don't think I've seen anything lower than -22 in the last 20 years or so that I've been paying attention, and even hitting -20 isn't a yearly event. That wide temperature range means the average temperature for January is only -2.  

So, an example from this winter. We had a cold snap recently. Overnight lows of -18 to -20 and daytime highs of -15 to -18. We had a couple weeks of that, then a week of -12 to -5 kinda temperatures. Now it's mostly above freezing. We had four days in a row where it didn't get below freezing, even overnight. Two days ago it was +4°. Our snow depth went from nearly two feet to less than half that in just a few days.

Our frost depth is only 30 inches. We usually have pretty good snow cover to keep the ground insulated. Again, because of the temperature range it can vary a lot in a short period of time. We get about 200cm of snow over the winter, but the average snow depth in January is only 24cm, with a record of 130cm.
Anywhere from 40-60cm is a typical maximum depth, though.

We don't get much drifting because we don't often get wind like that and when we do, the snow is often wet and heavy or crusted over so you can walk on it. As long as there's a good layer of snow, the ground underneath usually won't even be frozen if you dig down.

2. I expected critters, but haven't noticed any yet. We have lots of mice around, so I'm not sure what's going on there.

3. Potatoes seem to be the only root crop I can grow, so I haven't tried anything else like that yet. I bought 30+ varieties of carrots this year with the aim of establishing a perpetual carrot bed, some always ready to harvest, some reseeding the bed every year. This is how I grow parsley, so I'm hoping carrots will play along, too. Every year I try storage radishes, beets, celeriac, root parsley, turnips, etc. Haven't had much luck yet for various reasons. I don't even try head cabbage since I don't have enough water or nitrogen.

I hadn't considered storing apples like this, but it would probably work since apples like high humidity.
 
Jan White
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This year, I didn't open my potato bin once all winter. I finally got to it in May. When I opened it, there was quite a bit of mycelium through the straw and covering the potatoes. Other than a few potatoes that probably would have rotted anyway, they were all sound. They just needed a wash.

The straw I used to store the potatoes in wasn't great. I couldn't find any good straw last fall to buy, so I used some old stuff I had. It was pretty smashed up and wasn't 100% dry. Then I put way more potatoes in the bin than I have the last couple years. Then I didn't open it all winter. I have no ventilation built in, so opening it a few times over the winter might actually make quite a difference.

So, I learned a bit more about the limitations of the system without losing any potatoes. Another excellent year with my mini root cellar!

I also learned I don't like Amarosa potatoes. They have a very wet flesh and the flavour is meh.
 
Jay Angler
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Jan White wrote:This year, I didn't open my potato bin once all winter. I finally got to it in May. When I opened it, there was quite a bit of mycelium through the straw and covering the potatoes. Other than a few potatoes that probably would have rotted anyway, they were all sound. They just needed a wash.

So, I learned a bit more about the limitations of the system without losing any potatoes. Another excellent year with my mini root cellar!

Sounds like excellent results. I'm sure the mycelium inoculated straw will make good mulch or compost, so I see this as a double win! Better mycelium than some molds.

And wrote:

I also learned I don't like Amarosa potatoes. They have a very wet flesh and the flavour is meh.

Yeah - no point growing and storing stuff one doesn't want to eat, or one's family doesn't want to eat. (Although I've discovered a couple of dishes that I *really* like my blackberry ketchup on, so I get to eat it ALL!!)
 
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I'd like to try a root cellar like this, but I have a unique situation: I live on a shale shelf and can't dig more than a few inches. However, there's a somewhat steep slope near the house and I wondered if I could dig out a shelf for the can to sit on and then berm it with sand bags or earth bags against the side of the slope?
We get many winter days below zero F (up to -28 C) so I don't know if that would work.
 
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I did the big-can-in-the-ground cellar: drilled holes in the bottom, built rodent-proof, insulated 4 inch deep lid, .... Turns out that the water table rises so much in the winter that half of my can was filled with water when I went to get some taters in January. Last fall I amended the storage by putting my taters in a 5 gallon bucket inside the can, then when the water table rose, so did my bucket of taters. My next version will omit the holes, tho a friend pointed out my can may likely be floated out of the ground, so ....? But I will need more cold storage this year (I hope) as I've planted more taters and hope to have more apples to store from the young trees.
 
Jay Angler
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M Wilcox wrote:I'd like to try a root cellar like this, but I have a unique situation: I live on a shale shelf and can't dig more than a few inches. However, there's a somewhat steep slope near the house and I wondered if I could dig out a shelf for the can to sit on and then berm it with sand bags or earth bags against the side of the slope? We get many winter days below zero F (up to -28 C) so I don't know if that would work.

With those temps, you might need to consider a double row of earth bags with insulation in between. With "dirt" the number of feet of it is what does the insulating when above ground. The ground of the slope you're against should have a more stable warm temperature, but you need a way to "capture" that stability. I don't have the extreme cold to worry about, but I do have the high winter water table that Barbary Kocham mentions *and* I've got my age against me - I just don't bend as well as I used to. I've got my eye on the north side of a small bank which is conveniently beside a path, but like you, I would need to build something around it that will give me easier access, but still preserve the temperature. Earth bags are probably too heavy for me to manage, but maybe not if I can use the tractor to do enough of the lifting and fill and tamp in place.
 
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One thing about storing apples is the ethylene gas they emit, it’s just part of their process, but ethylene promotes ripening.  Might be that the level of ethylene promotes the softening and then spoilage of the apples.  

Ethylene will also promote the ripening of other fruits the apples are stored with.  Sometimes we can make that work for us, as in putting an apple into a loosely closed container with under ripe peaches, other times we don’t want to hurry through the edible phase of the fruit’s life.

Dunno about apple’s effect on potatoes and other root vegetables.
 
Jay Angler
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Thekla McDaniels wrote:One thing about storing apples is the ethylene gas they emit, ...
Dunno about apple’s effect on potatoes and other root vegetables.

This is one of the reasons I'm thinking terms of several garbage cans/plastic barrels in the side of the slope. I figure I can put apples in one and potatoes in another and have them each have a separate air input and output. I believe I read somewhere that certain fruit/veg shouldn't be stored together as they'd pick up the other's flavor!  Can't remember where and not sure the source was reliable. Anyone have experience with that?
 
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Thanks for the updates Jan!  I tried the trashcan method many years ago and getting into it was a pain.  I like the idea of building a makeshift roof over it as that would be much more convenient.  Just wondering if anyone has tried this using hay instead of straw?  With so many stories of contaminated straw I don't really feel safe using it and I don't know of anyone growing it locally.
 
Jay Angler
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Michelle Heath wrote:  Just wondering if anyone has tried this using hay instead of straw?  With so many stories of contaminated straw I don't really feel safe using it and I don't know of anyone growing it locally.

I watched a period "how to" about an English farm and they used dried Bracken as the first layer of a thatched shed roof. I wonder if that would work as an insulating layer? We get used coffee sacks locally, and maybe I could stuff them with the Bracken and lay it over the lid?

And wrote:

I tried the trashcan method many years ago and getting into it was a pain.

This is *exactly* why I've not yet done it! I keep mulling over the possibilities and I do think I'm getting closer to something that will work well enough and be easy enough to use that I won't avoid the task of accessing the food until it's gone off!  It needs to be close enough to the house to be functional, it needs to be easy enough to "uncover" the bin I want, AND I need to be able to easily reach the food, preferably without kneeling in mud (which is what our winters are all about)!
 
Jan White
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I've always read not to store potatoes and apples together because of the ethylene, but I don't have experience with it. Just having them in different areas of the root cellar is apparently enough to avoid issues, but I imagine you'd definitely want separate bins for them, if doing the garbage can thing.

My first thought when reading about the high water table was that a clamp kinda thing with the garbage can in the middle might be a good solution. To avoid having to move so much dirt, I'd use straw bales for the bulk of the material surrounding the can. Then I'd cover the whole thing with poly to keep it dry and then cover that with dirt, mounding it up around the bales and overtop to make a hill around the can. Then I'd mulch the whole thing really well so rain didn't wash the dirt away. Could probably last a few years if careful about directing water.

The same method might make it more accessible for unenthusiastic kneelers. One of the common garbage can methods is to have it embedded at an angle into a hillside, kinda like this
https://www.chelseagreen.com/2021/eliot-coleman-creating-root-cellar/
If you raised the whole thing up out of the ground, you could just reach in without having to get down on the ground.

I doubt these above ground structures would store food as long into the spring and summer as below ground ones do, but they could work for winter. Maybe not the really cold ones. I guess you'd have to read about where clamps are used to get an idea of the climate limitations.
four-season_buried-cellar_from-book.jpg
From website above
From website above
 
Jan White
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You could have a thick, insulated cupboard door kinda deal to access the angled barrel.

Hmmm. I'm liking this idea more and more.
 
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This may be a solution to some of the issues.  I have a number of cattle panel - hoop houses that I use for various things.  I have one attached to the entrance of my chicken coop so they have a dry snow free area in the winter so they can come out of the coop and walk around.  What if you built a small hoop house over the garbage can root cellar?  It could be as small as a single panel, or a couple panels for multiple units.  That would alleviate the issue of moving snow to open it, kneeling on the muddy ground, any of those sorts of things.  You may need to use more insulation since it would remove your snow cover, but a couple extra bags of leaves to move seems nothing compared to no longer having the other issues.  You would be able to walk into a nice snow-free area out of the wind to "harvest" your crops.  It would stay dry all the time.  Depending on the cover material you use, it may even be nice and warm inside.  My hoop house easily hit 60 degree F or more on sunny days, even when the temp is 0 F.  Again, extra insulation may be needed.  You may even need to leave one end open, as I do for my chicken coop hoop house to keep it from getting too warm.
 
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I did this with carrots and kept them all winter packed in wood pellets that I had wet until they became damp sawdust. I got an Igloo dog house free from Craigslist and used it as a ... cover.. easy to tip back and not dig snow. We dug a hole big enough to insert a 50 galloon barrel with ends cut off... it is actually the access to our 4' deep buried water shut offs. Put a couple of bricks holding a round piece of 3/4 plywood to protect the valves and pipes..... put a 30 gallon metal trash can... no extra hole in it... filled the can, layering 25#s of carrots in the sawdust, not touching each other.... put a few inches of folded newspaper on top after covering the last veggies. put the lid on..... I pulled carrots out from mid-October to March... At the end a few had small roots, but zero rot..... gonna try potatos this year and put carrots in another hole that we haven't used yet... that hole is 4' x 8', so should hold a few cans, but we have to build a top over it this summer....We are in Zone 8,, Washington State west of mountains, about 20 miles from the coast and 12 miles south of B.C. Canada.... It didn't get way cold, but I am sure we were well below frost line, and the doghouse added another layer of protection... could have put pellets in there too for insulation, but didn't need it.  small can could be lifted up and out fairly easy, but I mostly just got down and reached ok with my super long arms.
 
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Michelle Heath wrote:.  Just wondering if anyone has tried this using hay instead of straw?



I forgot to address this before. I haven't used hay, but based on my one time experience with smashed up damp straw, I think it would be fine. You might want to go a little light on potatoes and a little heavy on hay the first time, just to get an idea of how the whole set up works for you in your climate.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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First thoughts on hay versus straw in the root cellar:

Hay and straw are not interchangeable in all circumstances.  There’s a thread somewhere on permies about the differences.  Later, I or some wonderful helpful and skilled person will likely provide the link to it.

For now, let me just say straw is primarily cellulose and lignin, and other similar complex and indigestible hydrocarbons, with air spaces.  It is the structural component that remains once the annual grain plant has completed its life cycle and made seeds.  As it completed the cycle, just about everything - nutrient wise- was extracted to support the most vigorous possible seeds.

Hay is harvested and dried with highest possible nutrient density, protein and sugars in particular.

This nutrient density in the hay (not present in straw) will support numerous organisms including molds, fungi and bacteria.  

It’s possible that the conditions in the root cellar would minimize the growth of those organisms, but I would not bet on it.  “Nature hates a vacuum ”.  Something will devise a metabolic pathway to utilize an available (food) resource.

Another difference between hay and straw is the air space.  Hay has blades of grass, some hollow  stems (depending on the kind of hay and when in its life cycle it was harvested), and often grain, depending on what stage of its life cycle it was harvested.

Essentially, straw is hay with more air space, more cellulose and much much much less sugar protein and other food stocks.  As compared to hay, straw will support a very diminished community of mold, fungi and microbes, and increased insulation.
 
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Jan White wrote: there was quite a bit of mycelium through the straw and covering the potatoes. Other than a few potatoes that probably would have rotted anyway, they were all sound. They just needed a wash.
.



That was my exact experience also with my spuds.

I've applied and above-ground garbage bin system I found in a library book that has rotated along to other libraries. The bins sit on an angle leaning outwards by sitting on rocks against the east side basement wall, also with rocks inside the bins. Straw a well. Straw in between the bins and straw on top, covered with a tarp and a few firewood logs to hold down the tarp until the snow does the job.

( I also have a dead apartment size freezer beside them at the end of the tarp, where I keep the pig heads and pig/cow legs in get for almost nothing from my farmer for the dog.)

I don't mind playing in the snow so this works great.

I have had varying levels of success with cabbage, kohlrabi, turnips etc., but i also store for convenience loaves of bread, rice, lentils, pearl barley, flaked oats, dehydrated vegetables, flour, pasta etc this way. The dry goods stay relatively cool in the summer as well since the east side is up against forest.

I do keep the dried fruits and nuts under lock and key though because yes I also get varmints nesting on occasion and dread the thought of losing fruit and nuts, but usually they rodents hang out in the hugelkulture but the mice also occasionally bury into the old vehicles, especially the air vents, and i would prefer the cans!

My winters are a bit colder not by much and lots of snow. It is interesting to see you doing the same sort of thing.
 
Barbara Kochan
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I did as intended putting in a second, in-ground garbage can last fall. It is an old can someone was getting rid of due to small holes worn into the bottom. I "fixed" that by placing it in a very heavy plastic garbage bag so the water would not infiltrate. That worked! YAY. It also did not float up as friend suggested it might (when the water table rose over the winter). So now I have 2 cold storage cans which is great so I can store more root crops, and, fairly briefly (just a few months), some of my Kabocha.  (If I had a freeze-free room I would not need the can for the squash, but my simple 'housing' does not include such luxuries).
 
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Barbara Kochan wrote:an old can ... small holes worn into the bottom. I "fixed" that by placing it in a very heavy plastic garbage bag so the water would not infiltrate. That worked! YAY. ... (If I had a freeze-free room I would not need the can for the squash, but my simple 'housing' does not include such luxuries).



YAY ideed!
Thank you Barbara for a great solution.
I have about 50 cans in all for grain etc and some of them were shipped dented so badly that they won't stand up -- and the company sent some replacements for the worst ones some that were also butchered.

Now I can use those ones for my fall collection of cans against the basement wall.
I have a garbage can full of oversize 3 mil contractor garbage bags in clear and black -- I will make use of some and use my worst cans for the food storage.

I also have minimal indoor space. I can bet almost all of us in that scenario.

It occurs to me the basement probably doesn't get too cold regardless of minimal insulation in an old building, because of about 8 feet of straw and plastic covering then snow insulating that side: never really thought about it before, but that keeps the storage warmer and the whole lot including the basement is better insulated as a result.
 
M Wilcox
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Jay Angler wrote:. I don't have the extreme cold to worry about, but I do have the high winter water table that Barbary Kocham mentions *and* I've got my age against me - I just don't bend as well as I used to. I've got my eye on the north side of a small bank which is conveniently beside a path, but like you, I would need to build something around it that will give me easier access, but still preserve the temperature. Earth bags are probably too heavy for me to manage, but maybe not if I can use the tractor to do enough of the lifting and fill and tamp in place.



Hey, do you think one could build a form around it and fill it with expanded clay aggregate, scrap styrofoam, perlite, or something like that? Maybe put some tyvek on top and pour a little concrete to seal it, and plaster/stucco the outside of the form? I could use sand bags but I'd rather do something lighter.
 
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forest garden food preservation homestead
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Lots of great ideas for using garbage cans to create a root cellar.
I'm in Iowa and can get super cold with lots of snow.
Now my brain is working on how to do this hear and where
is best place.
Thanks so much for sharing!
 
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Posts: 3487
Location: Fraser River Headwaters, Zone3, Lat: 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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I read the first half dozen posts here and thought I should add my experience with this sort of thing and my thoughts.  When I lived on Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) off the North Coast of B.C., Canada where it gets really wet in the winter but not super cold I had a similar system, with 5 gallon, and 2.5 gallon pails in holes dug into an old forested beach dune along the trail to the outhouse.  Some of these stored root veg including carrots potatoes and beets stored in moss.  Others were like a pantry, holding buckets of bulk containers of tahini, peanut butter, raisons, dates, nuts, seeds, honey, etc that I would order in large bulk amounts through a food co-op.  At any rate, I had multiple 5 gallon pails in a pit, double stacked on top of one another, and covered with garbage bags full of moss.  scrap plywood covered the holes.  Thats it.  It got around minus 15 C with zero issues.  It was never really cold for long there, maybe a couple days of cold and then it would warm up and rain. Not much snow and if there was it wouldn't last long.  

I should maybe try out this method here on the Western edge of the Canadian Rockies.  It is way colder here than where Jan lives.  We saw colder than minus 40 last winter and cold snaps of minus 25 and 30 C are fairly normal.  It can warm up and rain or have warmer snowy days off and on through the winter, and sometimes, like last winter, it can be minus 20 in early winter with almost no snow yet.  The frost pounded deep into the ground last winter because of lack of snow for insulation.   I think that I'd have to dig the hole quite a bit deeper than Jan does, and add a couple garbage bags full of moss over them, but it is doable, I think.  We have a lot of wind drifting with the snow, and I'd have to put a pole up to find the spot, probably.   I think it might be a good idea in my case, to maybe have two large garbage size pails in the hole side by side and have them with home made lids that are strong enough that I could kneel on one while I gained access to the other.  Otherwise it would be challenging if it was just one and it was in a hole that was deep enough to be below the extreme potential frost line of our local winter.  I probably would have a spare grocery bag or two of moss or leaves or other insulation materials that I could put in the cans as I empty them to add insulative value.  Any large air space is bound to cool off substantially around here, so eliminating that would be a priority.
 
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