Romanticists and realists should see value in farm diversity!

MarylandfarmI cry at (good) movies and I think wistfully about the good ole days when quaint, picturesque, farms of all sizes dotted Maryland’s countryside. Each winter, I read stories of successful homesteaders and pledge to produce most of my own food. However, I know that some farmers went out of business in the “good ole days” and I know that I will be buying most of my food this year– locally sourced, if possible. Both the romanticist and the realist in me knows that a gardener and a farmer needs a backup plan. Whether it is food on the table or farm viability, diversity is key.

tobaccoWhen Maryland emerged as a successful colony, tobacco was its savior. It was in demand in Europe and it had a long shelf life so that it could endure the long, damp trek across the Atlantic. It was so popular, that every square inch of earth was used for tobacco production, even inside some of the forts. So much tobacco was grown in Maryland and Virginia that there was a worldwide glut a number of times. Other times, wars and international politics put a stop to export trade. Families suffered and farms failed.

By the middle of the 19th century, Maryland agriculture diversified as farmers began to supply most of the food for a growing industrial region with towns and cities. Not only was agriculture more diversified, each farm had a number of farm products to trade or sell. Even in the middle of the twentieth century, when I was growing up, farm diversity provided a measure of insurance in the event that the main farm product failed or the market disappeared. I recall asking my father how badly the family suffered during the Great Depression. He replied that, other than not being able to buy a few staples as often at local stores, they felt little impact.

goodlife farm

Good Life Farm in New York grows vegetables, fruit and poultry – from the Groundswell Center website

Agricultural research and innovation in the 20th century produced bumper grain crops. Fewer farmers were needed to produce the same amount of grain. Over-production led to market crashes, jeopardizing farms across the nation. In 1949, congress approved the Agricultural Act, which established a policy of high, fixed-price supports and acreage allotments as a way to regulate production. In 1954, the Act was modified to introduce flexible price supports to commodity programs and then, in 1965, it was revised to provide new income support payments in combination with reduced price supports and continued supply controls.

Price supports and government assisted crop insurance have enabled farmers to rely on one crop as a farm’s source of income. Farmers have moved away from the model of diversity as a key to sustainability. However, government assisted “competitive advantage” may not survive, particularly as trade agreements may render government benefit programs for farmers illegal. Diversity will be a key to sustainability.



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Food security and food safety with locally sourced food

USDA defines food security for a household as “access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” However, food security not only has food access and affordability components, it can be jeopardized by natural and man-made disasters. . .

old farmerAmericans are known for certain cultural traits such as independence, hard-work, inventiveness, and perseverance. The homesteading movement and beginning farmer movement harken back to the notion of being independent and feeding ourselves and our own communities.

Some have found it preposterous that our food is being off-shored or grown here, processed in China, and returned here for sale. The American psyche revolts at the notion that we have to rely on another country for our own food.

There are practical reasons why regions should be planning for more food independence, due to natural and made-made disasters. After 9-11, transportation systems shut down and store shelves emptied. There was speculation as to how many days it would be before major cities would run out of food.

Disruption of transportation and commerce was not the only type of attack considered by the terrorists. On November 19, 2003, Senator Susan Collins of Maine convened a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs on “Agroterrorism: the Threat to America’s Breadbasket.” In her introductory remarks,  she reported that “Hundreds of pages of U.S. agricultural documents recovered from the al Qaeda caves in Afghanistan early last year are a strong indication that terrorists recognize that our agriculture and food industry provides tempting targets.”

Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey noted that “Unfortunately, our food chain from lautenbergproduction to processing to distribution and consumption presents an all too easy target for those who want to harm America, and few targets have the impact that one could conceive as that coming from our food supply, something unknown that takes time to discover and then the time involved in reaching a large group of people in a given area, possibly a huge group if things go as one could imagine.” It would appear that if all of our food production was dispersed in small and medium farms, then the risk of attack on food systems would be lower.

Civil Eats story about Vermont's leadership in the local food movement

Civil Eats story about Vermont’s leadership in the local food movement

Another risk to food security lies in the fact that a majority of U.S. fruits and vegetables is grown in a region that has endured four years of drought and long term projections predict continued dry periods for the rest of the 21st century. Already we have seen the U.S. become more dependent on fruits and vegetables from foreign sources. Over 20% of fresh vegetables and over 50% of all fresh fruits are imported and less than 1%  is actually sampled for food safety compliance.

Due to modern food distribution systems and land use policies in the U.S., it is easier for a tomato from Mexico to reach grocery store shelves than a tomato from nearby farm communities. As reported by Civil Eats, Laurie Ristino, Vermont Law School’s director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, says that current law is heavily bent toward the industrialized food system. Vermont has already made great progress at breaking down the barriers to a “relocalized” food system.

In Maryland, if we level the playing field for local farmers, we can stimulate the local economy, have fresher, tastier food and build in a measure of food security and food safety protection against natural and man-made food disasters. We can start by:

  • supporting local farmers markets,
  • helping farmers gain access to food distribution systems and institutions,
  • making sure that our local and state regulations permit retail sales and allow for value-added production. and
  • including local food production in our comprehensive plans and action strategies.




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Finding a place to grow — on leased land in Maryland


The Piedmont Environmental Council recently released a publication entitled Finding a Place to Grow: How the Next Generation is Gaining Access to Farmland. It consists of a series of stories written by Whitney Pipkin about beginning farmers in Virginia who are farming successfully on leased land.

Maryland farmers are making their own inspiring stories about producing food for the region on leased land. For many reasons, the odds have been stacked against those who lease farmland, yet they seem to persevere. Hands down, the greatest challenge for beginning farmers (those raised on a farm and those who were not) is access to land.

There is nothing new about leased farmland in Maryland or Virginia. In fact, roughly 64% of all Maryland farmland is leased. What is new is that these are not grain farmers. These are vegetable and livestock farmers who have different leasing needs and challenges than grain farmers. They need access to water for their crops and/or livestock. They need fencing to keep their critters in or other critters out. They need housing on the land or nearby to watch over their crops or flocks. They need a viable market nearby.

These farmers are like the farmers of the  first half of the 20th century who sold directly to consumers. By the end of the 20th century, farmers had dropped out of direct sales as major food chains took control of the U.S. food system.  Some farmers scaled up to wholesale operations and others dropped out of farming all together.

Are today’s farmers who sell direct to consumers likely to endure the same fate? Not necessarily.


Primaterra Farm and CSA, a new farm on leased land in Prince George’s County –

What has changed is that consumers want to know their farmers and how they grow their food. The internet is giving farmers the ability to communicate to consumers in a way that levels the marketing field somewhat. And we know more about the soil and how to tease more production from the land with lower input costs, through cover crops, compost, mulch etc.

Leasing land is a practical option for both land owner and farmer. The land owners receive agriculture use assessment for their land, which reduces their tax burden. The farmers avoid the capital costs and/or mortgage burden of buying land and that allows them to invest more into their farm.

Of course the devil is in the details as to whether the owner and the farmer can develop a productive, compatible relationship. On the evening of May 11th, the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Agriculture Law Education Initiative is hosting a farmland leasing webinar.  I will be addressing issues such as finding land to lease and determining if the soils, zoning, and other restrictions will permit a farmer to operate as he/she wishes. Paul Georinger will cover recommended lease documents, average lease rates, and Maryland case law concerning leases. Participants will be able to post questions.

You can also see the first leasing webinar held May 4th, by clicking on Lease Agreements and scrolling down to webinars. The May 11th webinar will be posted at the same location a few days after the event.

Leasing farmland can be a great way for farmers to get started. These webinars provide information to help make that happen.



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Can Maryland be food self-sufficient?


Lexington Market in Baltimore City. Library of Congress

As recently as 70 years ago, Maryland was virtually food self-sufficient, with local farmers providing nearly all the food staples. Since then, modern agriculture practices, food business models, and improved transportation systems have reduced food prices and provided a much wider variety of fruits and vegetables and processed goods in supermarkets. Trade agreements allowed tariff free imports to lower prices and increase variety even more. For a number of reasons, Maryland farms (and East Coast farms in general) have not been able to compete in a number of food products and acres of those products decreased dramatically by the end of the 20th century.

However, in the last few decades a new trend has emerged. Alarmed about loss of farmland in their areas and wanting to know more about how their food is raised, a growing number of consumers began to seek out local food. Farmers markets, CSAs and food and drink festivals have piqued interest. In Maryland, a logical question is how many customers could Maryland farmers supply? Can we ever be food self-sufficient today?

New Report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

New Report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

A new study out of  the Johns Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future begins to answer that question by looking into what food is produced in Maryland and what its 6 million residents may be consuming. At the same time, it cautions that “this comparison is not meant to advocate that the entire state could or should feed its entire population based solely on what it grows within its own borders. Rather this can help create a stronger connection between the local and regional food movements, the foods we choose to buy and eat, and agriculture within the state and region.”

Some findings:

  • Maryland farmers produce more than enough chicken, lima beans, and watermelon to meet Maryland consumer demands.
  • Maryland farmers produce 67% of the spinach demand, 57% of the sweet corn demand, 46% of the egg demand, 28% of the milk demand and 26% of the beef demands.
  • Potatoes are the most popular vegetable and Maryland farmers meet 9% of that demand
  • Tomatoes are the 9th most popular food product on Maryland farms yet we produce only 2.14% of the population’s demand.
  • Maryland farmers produce about 2.8 billion pounds of corn for grain, a lot of which is used for livestock feed, seed, and industrial uses.

Of course, watermelons and lima beans are only produced for a few months and demand for these products (and other perishable products) is year around. In 1940, consumers’ diets were more attuned to the growing season. Now they expect strawberries in January. However, milk and meats are produced year around. Grains can be stored and many greens (and even tomatoes) can be grown year around in high tunnels or greenhouses. Their commercial viability depends price. Price is a factor, but 70% of U.S. residents say that they would pay at least 5% more for locally sourced food.

Maryland is not close to being food self-sufficient, nor will we ever be totally food self-sufficient as long as we are consuming a significant amount of food from tropical plants such as coffee, bananas, oranges, etc. Total food self-sufficiency was not the purpose of the Johns Hopkins report or this blog.

The point is that Maryland does grow an amazing amount of food and can grow more. There are challenges in rebuilding the quantity of food that grows well in this climate, including labor, regulations, aggregation and distribution of food to institutions, etc. but if residents in Maryland want more local food, let’s test their resolve. Maryland’s agriculture industry and our state economy will benefit from the effort!




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All are fed at the farm

f4h.blessing.scene.Written by Priscilla Wentworth and Greg Bowen

Serenity Farm in Charles County should no longer exist. Mid-sized farms in the U.S. have been disappearing at a dramatic rate, as ag operations have continued to scale up to compete in the global markets. In fact, this farm has struggled as farm profits continued to decline in the last few decades.

Ironically, the farm is on the rebound now due to a nonprofit called Farming 4 Hunger,

F4H Founder with former and current participants in DOC's work release program

F4H Founder, Bernie Fowler (behind mic), with former and current participants in DOC’s pre-release program

which had its second Annual Blessing of the Farm event on Saturday. In the last three years, the farm has raised over 3 million pounds of produce that were donated to those in need. The farmers are paid to raise the food and MD Department of Correction (DOC) pre-release participants and hundreds of volunteers harvest it.

Most of the produce raised stays right in Southern Maryland – feeding people in need. But the slogan “All are fed at the farm” goes beyond food. Farming 4 Hunger is now connecting with 27 other farmers. Synergy and profitability for farmers are building the local economy. And lives are changing too.

Farming 4 Hunger’s Founder Bernie Fowler is proud of his relationship with the men from DOC who are at the end of serving their time and want to give back for what they’ve taken from society. Graduates of the program often find jobs in the community and many return to volunteer and share their stories.

f4h.blessing.speechWhen 140 people of different religions and  cultures come out to Farming 4 Hunger to bless the fields for the upcoming growing season to feed people in need fresh vegetables- that is community. Growing food is important but growing food together (and ultimately growing together) is what makes it all worthwhile.

Family farms of all sizes are benefiting from the local food movement. People are learning that food from farms in their region is not only is fresher and tastier, it creates jobs, builds community and it can even change lives. Serenity Farm, with the help of Farming 4 Hunger, is a community farm. As the nonprofit’s website says, “We welcome you to come back time and time again to serve, educate, share, fellowship, rejoice, laugh and learn.”





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Millennials try their hand at farming with the help of a mentor and a farm owner

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 9.02.16 AMWhat a joy to visit with Ross Margulies, Leah Putkammer, and Rebecca Cecere Seward on a Mentor Match farm visit last week. Ross and Leah’s farm, Working over Thyme, is located on rolling hills near the Patuxent River in Prince George’s County. Rebecca’s  farm, Prickly Pear Produce, is a 40-minute drive away, in Charles County.

Ross and Leah are college educated professionals working in Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 9.01.02 AMWashington, D.C. who found that growing food is their passion. Previously, they had taken classes, grown their own gardens, worked in community gardens and sold seedlings. They decided to begin farming through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which consists of a community of individuals who pledge to financially support a farm operation and share the risks and benefits of food production. They applied for a mentor to help them learn how to turn the joy of growing vegetables into a business.

Rebecca graduated with a liberal arts degree from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, not the Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 9.00.01 AMusual form of training for a farmer. However, while at the college, she decided to earn some cash working at the Even’ Star Organic Farm near the campus, which runs one of the largest CSAs in the state. She rose to a “forewoman” position at the farm and found that farming was a perfect trade for her to be able to work outdoors and to promote environmental sustainability and community. Over the last 10+ years, she has worked on a number of farms. Prior to starting her own farm last year, she managed  a CSA and ran an apprenticeship program at the Accokeek Foundation’s Ecosystem Farm in Accokeek Maryland. She has agreed to serve as a mentor for Ross and Leah.

However, this mentorship meeting would not have happened without the help of Yates Clagett. Yates is not a newcomer to agriculture. His family has owned and operated a farm in Prince George’s County for decades and Yates is a District Ag Engineer for the Prince George’s County Soil Conservation District. Like many farms in the state, the family farm has a tenant house. When the tenant house became available, Yates reached out to see if a young farmer might be interested. With the help of Maryland FarmLINK, Ross and Leah met with Yates who offered to lease the tenant house and a small piece of land to help them get started in farming.

Maryland needs young farmers. Ross and Leah did not grow up on a vegetable farm, but farming has become their passion. Becky is willing to share her knowledge and experiences through the Mentor Match Program, supported by the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program. And farm owners like the Clagett family give young farmers a chance to succeed!



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When the consumer wins and the farmer wins!

A 2014 National Grocery Association consumer survey pretty much tells it all. “More locally grown foods” is the second most desired improvement  among surveyed grocery shoppers. It was second to “Price/cost savings.” That sounds like we want our food to be grown locally, but it must be cheap.

Price Rules?

AandPIn his book, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, historian Marc Levinson tells the story of an epic struggle between small business and big business. A&P was the first large grocery chain in the U.S. Before the A&P stores, most food was local. Some was purchased at outdoor markets, like Lexington Market in Baltimore City, that supplied fruits and vegetables from the region. Mom and Pop stores supplied more shelf-stable foods such as canned and dried goods sourced from small and mid-sized industries. Butcher shops supplied meats.

According to Levinson, A&P developed a new business model for grocery stores. It manufactured its own store brands, ran its own warehousing and transportation systems and priced its products well below competitors. In the 1940s the federal government sued the company under antitrust laws, fearing that it would become a monopoly. Ultimately, the federal government won the case and the company owners were fined.

However, consumers liked the lower prices and eventually the sentiment moved toward acceptance of the grocery chain model. Tens of thousands of local groceries stores closed down in the next few decades, but they were not the only losers. As chains grew larger, they began to aggregate food from greater distances, seeking the lowest prices for their consumers. California, with its temperate climate and irrigation systems became the fruit and vegetable baskets of the nation. Farmers everywhere had to scale up or get out. The farmers who survived became less diversified and the small food operations that processed and supplied local cheese, milk, meats, and canned goods disappeared.

Global Competition

By the 1970s, U.S. agriculture set its sites on global markets and in 1992, the U.S. entered in a North American Fair Trade Agreement. It may come as no surprise that labor is the greatest cost associated with the production of fruits and vegetables. Production moved to where labor costs were the cheapest. According to USDA data, since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, Mexican imports of vegetables have risen 306%.

In January 2014, Renee’ Johnson, Specialist in Agricultural Policy for the Congressional Research Service, issued a report entitled “The U.S. Trade Situation for Fruit and Vegetable Products.” She noted that over the last decade (e.g. after the phase out of tariffs) there has been a growing U.S. trade deficit in fresh and processed fruits and vegetables such that there is a $11.2 billion gap between imports and exports. She added that the U.S. has gone from being a net exporter to net importer of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables. Between 1990 and 2010, the import share of fresh fruit has grown from 34.9% to 48.8% and the import share of fresh vegetables has grown from 10.3% to 24.5%.

Life is not rosy on the other side of the border either. Small farms in Mexico are being

Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times

replaced by multinational corporations which operate under limited labor standards. In December, National Public Radio reported on a story entitled Mexican Megafarms Supplying U.S. Market Are Rife With Labor Abuses. The Los Angeles Times’ Richard Marosi had completed an 18-month investigation into labor abuses at megafarms in Mexico that produce tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables for U.S. markets. Marosi called the workers at these labor camps the “invisible people”, making $8 to $12 a day in appalling labor conditions. In one case, workers were held captive and forced to work. Those goods are winding up on grocery shelves at many of the largest chain grocery stores, according to the report.

Back to the Future?

How can Maryland  farmers compete? A 2013  survey by A. T. Kearney reported that 66% market.4.9are choosing to buy local food because it helps local economies. Also, they trust the local farmers and 70% are willing to pay more for local food. Once again, consumers are choosing to buy local produce, meats, dairy products, beer, and wine. They notice the quality, taste and variety.

The internet is a great asset for farmers. Social media has allowed farmers to tell their stories and to market their products. Customers like to visit farms and discuss growing practices at farmers markets.

Local and state food processing regulations are being scaled to fit small operations (though more can be done here). Food aggregation systems (e.g. food hubs and co-ops) are being established to help farms reach schools, colleges, hospitals and other food service facilities.

Finally, USDA reported earlier this year that locally-sourced food is price competitive with national chains. Perhaps we are reaching a place where the customer wins and the farmer wins!



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Where is a Farmers’ Market that accepts WIC and Senior checks? There’s an App for That!

By Cia Morey, Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission

On St. Patrick’s Day last month, I attended Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Annual market.meetingMaryland Farmers’ Market Conference. This all-day conference had numerous speakers and several presentations that covered everything from weighing scale certification, various resources for farmers and markets, information on permits for food safety, marketing presentations and at the end of the day vendor training and certification for accepting WIC at farmers’ market.

The Conference began with a warm welcome from MDA’s new Secretary Joseph Bartendfelder. It was nice hearing about his farm and his days at farmers’ markets in Maryland. I enjoy this annual meeting as it’s a time to visit with colleagues and put a face to a name I may work with throughout the year. It allows us to gear-up for the market season and the information presented is informative and helpful.

marketappOne of the most exciting announcements is MDA’s new mobile site and app called the Farmers Market Finder. The USDA Supplemental Nutrition Grant Program provides grants that allows state agencies to provide checks to low-income participants. The programs are the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) (FMNP) and Seniors (SFMNP). Both checks can be used at farmers’ markets with authorized FMNP farmers. In 2014, Maryland farmers received more than $500,000 through the two programs. The checks are handed to participants at WIC clinics and through the county’s Aging Department. The top reasons for not using the checks at farmers’ markets are:

  • not knowing where to find a farmers’ market,
  • not knowing how to prepare or cook the produce and
  • not remembering to use the checks before expiration.

The solution is a mobile phone app that lists all the Maryland farmers market that have FMNP and SFMNP participants. The app will remind the user how to use their checks at the market, link to videos and phots of featured FMNP farmers, list eligible and ineligible foods for the two programs, recipes, links to agency sites and an option to “opt in” to receive text messages every month to remind them to use their FMNP checks. participants will be able to sign-up for the service when they receive their checks.

Maryland is the first state to pilot this program and it will begin this market season.  This program is a win for low-income folks to have access to local healthy produce and to our market farmers for potential customer-growth.

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Young Farmer Fundraiser draws a crowd!

fb5The Calvert County Farm Bureau decided to celebrate this year’s National Agriculture Week by holding a Farm to Table Breakfast to support young farmers last Saturday. They locally sourced most of the food and farm support businesses helped to pay farmers for local products.

Perhaps it was Ag Week. Perhaps it was the opportunity to support young farmers or the attraction of locally grown food. Either way, the 300+ attendees were enthusiastic about the food and took time to explore the booths around the Banquet Hall at the Calvert County Fairgrounds.

fb3Young Farmer groups have been growing over the last few years. Last fall, about 70 young farmers from the five Southern Maryland counties attended an event. A decade ago, not all of the counties even had young farmer groups. There are also Future Farmers of America chapters in most of the Southern Maryland counties and agriculture is being taught once again in at least three county school systems.

The local food movement has brought more young farmers back to the farm and elected officials are beginning to realize that regional food systems can  also build local economies.

However, there is no time to waste. In the last few decades, the number of young farmers in Calvert County has ccyfdropped off at an alarming rate. And this same story has been playing out across the region, the state and the country.

The 2012 Ag Census shows the first small rebound in the number of young farmers. In my work with Maryland FarmLINK, I have seen the trend continue.

The Farm to Table Breakfast was a great example of how we can eat our way back to a more robust farming industry, build a healthier local economy and support our young farmers!


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Lively discussion and stories at the Southern Maryland Leasing Workshop

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 2.19.43 PM

Jenny Rhodes, far left of the photo

At the workshop on March 16th, roughly 2/3rds of the 36 attendees were leasing land or have land to lease. Some of those who leased land told humorous anecdotes about failed leasing agreements. The remaining third of attendees were actively seeking land to lease.

I was joined by Jenny Rhodes, Extension agent from Queen Anne’s County, Mae Johnson, Director of the Maryland Agricultural Conflict Resolution Service, and Paul Goeringer, an attorney at University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources.

Roughly 64% of all Maryland farmland is leased and nearly all of the leases are arranged by a handshake. That method may be the simplest but it is fraught with potential misunderstandings and disagreements as evidenced by the anecdotes brought up by the attendees.

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 2.17.07 PM

Mae Johnson

My role was to highlight the changes in agriculture and the free leasing resources on Maryland FarmLINK for farmers and land owners. Jenny described her own experiences as a farmer and extension agent with leasing and provided suggestions as to how to improve communication between land owners and farmers leasing the land. Mae described Maryland’s Right to Farm legislation and how her Conflict Resolution Service can keep both parties out of court when misunderstandings turn into disagreements.

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 2.18.25 PM

Paul Goeringer

Paul Goeringer highlighted Maryland’s leasing laws and pressed the point that both parties benefit from a good written lease (a recommendation from all four presenters). Then he presented the key elements of a lease.

We started the meeting with a good meal, had an engaged and appreciative audience and finished on time. We even witnessed discussions between owners and farmers seeking land. Next, our road tour turns to Lower Eastern Shore on April 6th in Princess Anne!

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