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How much land do you need to be self sufficient?

How much land does it take to be self sufficient

A fundamental question asked by many in pursuit of a self sufficient lifestyle is ‘how much land do you need to be self sufficient’? I remember a series of lectures I attended about ecological development which gave out some statistics.

They stated that:

‘a person feeding themselves a vegetarian diet would need about an acre of land a year. If they were to eat meat by raising chickens, goats and cows this would be 3 acres and above’.  

A quick internet search will bring up a certain range of answers to this important question. A study during the 1970s proposed areas as small as a quarter of an acre would be sufficient. There are actually many examples of homesteads which appear to be self sufficient on such small sized plots.

farming

Generally the range we are talking about spans from a fifth of an acre to 10 acres. Perhaps the reason for such a scope of land area requirement is due to the question containing many variables. As hinted at above, a plant based diet requires less land for self-sufficiency than a meat based diet.

However to be truly self sufficient one must not just analyse diet and growing crops. In such a scenario you must also take into consideration fuel, clothing, building materials, water supply and waste management.

These may or may not present a huge difference in land depending on your climate and lifestyle. The land required for a person to be ‘truly self sufficient’ therefore is not just a measure of how much food they can produce.

Add to this the annual need for a ‘production surplus’ in case of drought or emergency. Storage and accessibility is also very important, not all land will be a productive growing space.

Lettuce

These variables are probably responsible for such a range of land sizes in relation to this issue. Hence in this article I will dig a little deeper into the subject to try to reach some outcomes.

I will discuss variables and use case studies to try to put the individual pieces of the puzzle together. This will allow us to finally find out after all ‘how much land do you need to become self sufficient’

Understanding the Variables

I can guarantee you the people typing this question into internet search engines are really asking two separate questions; ‘How much land do you need to be truly self sufficient’ and ‘how much land do you need to be self sufficient in food’.

For the latter it is easy to say the amount of land will be less. However some estimates at the lower end of the spectrum I believe have overlooked some metrics. Variables such as soil fertility are also very important! The same ground will not keep producing year after year unless you have a recycling system. You will not be able to rely on fertilisers derived from fossil fuels!

Self sufficient homesteading

Synthetic or ‘bought in’ fertilisers increases your ecological footprint, hence these can not be included within your land measurement. However the largest elephant in the room is local climate and fuel production.

If you want to heat your water, cook food or survive harsh winters you will need a fuel source. Below I have separated out all the variables when contemplating your individual ecological footprint.

Climate

What climate you live in will make a dramatic difference to type of land you will require to be self sufficient. If you are close to the equator or ‘tropics’ vegetation grows very quickly and there is abundant water.

A greater local biodiversity means you also have a wider choice of different food crops. Such an environment means you can produce more than one crop a year in the same location with no seasonal disruption.

The strength of the sun will allow you to grow ‘layers’ of crops as so in food forests. This boosts crop yield amounts within a single area. Warmer climates also dissolve the need for the combustion of fuels for heating.

Hoesteading

Fuel

Fuel is something human kind has come to take for granted in the past 200 years. Since the mass exploitation of fossil fuels humans have gained a skewed perception of sustainability.

Without fossil fuels fuel energy must be farmed, hence it will take up more land to become self sufficient. This would have to be done using the ancient forestry method of coppicing. This rotational cutting of managed woodland will enable combustible fuel for cooking and heating.

Logging

Forget nuclear, solar, tidal and wind energy! These all have a carbon footprint which far exceeds their proven sustainable worth. So called ‘renewable forms of energy’ rely on a fossil fuel driven economic model to be produced, functioned and maintained. Their future ‘stand alone’ ability to power civilisation therefore is yet to be proven.

Lifestyle

Even just becoming self sufficient in food requires a certain lifestyle adoption to be possible. If you work a day job 5 days a week be ready to substitute a fair proportion of your spare time.

If you like weekends slumped in front of the television perhaps self sufficiency is not for you. That is besides the fact if you are really self sufficient the TV wouldn’t exist. Many people would find getting up at half 5 in the morning to milk the goats a little bit too much!

Water

Water is a fundamental not always discussed when contemplating home much land you need for self sufficiency. How many self-sufficient homesteads on a fifth of an acre turn the tap on to water their vegetables? I am pretty sure it’s all of them!

The fact is you can have all the sunshine and heat you want if there is no water there are no crops! Even in temperate regions with high rainfall how will you irrigate your fields? What about you, what will you drink? Your animals? 

Water supply

Your self sufficient homestead will need some sort of retention pond system and preferably clean running water nearby. Indeed water is very underestimated when working out how much land you need for self sufficiency. Every homestead will at least need a deep irrigation pond approximately 15m x 15m x 2m deep.

Diet

As already touched upon the more plant based your diet the less land your dietary needs will require. However livestock should not be overlooked as they can enhance food production significantly for the land they do inhabit.

For example a field set aside for coppiced wood fuel would only produce wood fuel. If you added 4 chickens to your acre of coppice they could feed themselves on bugs and vegetation. You then have 1000 eggs per year (20 eggs per week) for hardly any extra effort!

People cannot go round eating bugs, snails, caterpillars, grass, weeds and lay 5 eggs a week but chickens can! However generally speaking the more animals you have the more land you will need to offset their feed requirments.

food

You also need to factor in the calories needed to fuel the active lifestyle of self sufficient homesteading.  The average daily calorie allowance for a man is 2,500 calories. However a physical lifestyle working the land could probably raise this to around 4,000 calories per day.

Food production systems

Your method of food production will make a difference to how much land you need for self sufficiency. For example as well as physically growing your crops you will have to manage the land. This includes weeding, digging and cutting hedges etc.

This is if you go down a ‘traditional organic vegetable growing’ route. However there are also different food based systems based on the principles of permaculture and agroforestry.

These require a reasonable establishment period and a different type of land management. These more permanent food systems also allow combining food crops with other functions. These will be discussed later in this article.

Fertility

A typical discrepancy in predictions for how much land you need to be self sufficient is soil fertility. Just because you can grow x amount of crops on land with synthetic fertiliser don’t think you can achieve this off grid.

If you observe medieval farming they had a system of ground rejuvenation called crop rotation. This is a rotational system where less hungry crops are grown in succession. The process prevents soil fertility from being depleted too quickly.  Crops which then feed the soil nitrogen such as beans are grown for a whole season.

composting

Then the soil is left fallow for a year and usually manure is applied. The whole crop rotation cycle typically takes around 4 years. Hence you must take this into consideration for a realistic outcome.

Is it really possible to be self sufficient?

The question is regularly raised; is it really possible to be self sufficient? Once again generally there is a varied view on the matter. This is because different people have varied views on what a self sufficient lifestyle would entail. One particular blog stated ‘only if you wanted to live like a caveman’.

Well small scale agriculture has sustained human civilisation very effectively for 8000 years now! If self sufficiency was not possible human beings would have died out 8,000 years ago. Of course it’s possible! Not only is it possible to survive it is possible to thrive in abundance if you know what you are doing.

The reason people say it’s not possible is because they are approaching the question incorrectly. Can you be self sufficient and wash your clothes in a washing machine? No!

Can you sit around all day and watch TV? No, you would not have a television! Can you be completely self sufficient with a modern, western, lifestyle. Unfortunately not! Yes it is possible to be self sufficient but your lifestyle would be very different to a modern one.

Permaculture

You would need to become an expert in sustainable farming techniques and survival. There would likely be no mains water, electricity or internet connection. You would have to rely on the land to feed, clothe and to house your family.  

If self sufficiency is possible or not is not really the question, the question is, what are your expectations of what a self sufficiency involves? Is your romantic visualisation of self sufficiency actually realistic?

However there is nothing wrong with living the homestead lifestyle to reduce your impact on the planet. This is even if you only manage 50% of your needs off grid!  At least your family will have fresh, organic food and a high standard of living!

Working out your average consumption

For an insight into what crops you would need to produce, start analysing your weekly shopping. Take a note of what quantities of each vegetable your family eats per week.

This way you can do an annual calculation to work out how much you would need to grow. If you are already familiar with growing vegetables you will know how much space is needed to grow them. If you are not familiar with crops spatial requirements these are easily searchable online.

Analyse your weekly shopping and start to consider how you would produce the non vegetable items. For meat, fish, dairy and eggs figure out if these can be substituted for vegetables. If not then you know you will need livestock. Even in self sufficient farms with livestock meat consumption is rarely a daily occurrence.

The more meat you eat the more land you require, the larger the livestock the larger the land. The larger the land the more physical effort and man hours you need to service it.

Thinking seriously about these issues is a pathway to understanding our impact on the planet. Working out your annual consumption will give you a much better idea of how much land you will need.

Would you enjoy a self sufficient homesteading diet?

One important thing to consider when pursuing a self sufficient lifestyle is your diet. Today food has really become a thing of pleasure for many. Our sweet tooth’s and love of delicacies like chocolate have given us an addiction to certain flavours. This is probably why there is an obesity crisis especially in developed countries for sure.

The fact is being completely self sufficient will probably mean a more conservative diet. That does not mean that home produced food will not taste good! Quite the opposite, however you will certainly be restricted in choice compared to the supermarket!

snails

A snails recipe inspired by the self sufficient farmers of Crete, go to our recipes article here

How much land do you need to be self sufficient in food as a Vegan?

Veganism is as much as a movement as it is a diet. Veganism is enjoyed by a following of people with a love of animal welfare and ecological ethics. There is no doubt vegan diets will require much less land for sustenance than other diets.

Veganism is also an extremely healthy diet being made up of 100% plant based products. Below we have put together a simple case study to see how much land is needed for a vegan diet. 

As you can see in the above chart a Vegan diet would require about 0.4 acres to be self sufficient in food. However there are some extra land area amounts we should add on to complete the calculation.

  • Watering hole for irrigation: 100m2
  • Allowance for crop rotation and 30% fallow land: 1000m2
  • Pathways and storage: 400m2
  • Total Extras: 1,500m2
  • Grand total: 0.775 Acres

‘Therefore a single adult Vegan requires 0.775 acres of land to be self sufficient in food for one year’.

How much land do you need to be self sufficient in food as a Vegetarian?

Vegetarianism is a diet which abstains from the consumption of animal flesh including fish, poultry or other meat. A vegetarian diet on the whole focuses around the consumption or fruits and vegetables.

However vegetarians will eat some products produced by animals such as eggs and cheese. The vegetarian diet is ideal for self sufficient homesteading with a plant base and some productive pets.  Below is a typical vegetarian daily diet scenario with corresponding land areas.

As the chart displays above a Vegetarian diet would require about 0.75 acres to be self sufficient in food. There is however some additional land calculations you need to add to complete the totals.

  • Watering hole for irrigation: 100m2
  • Allowance for crop rotation and 30% fallow land: 1000m2
  • Pathways and storage: 400m2
  • Total Extras: 1,500m2
  • Grand total: 1.125 Acres

‘Hence a Vegetarian requires 1.125 acres of land to be self sufficient in food for one year’.

How much land do you need to be self sufficient in food as a meat eater?

Consuming meat has been a part of the human diet since ancient times. However even by historic standards we are currently consuming more meat than ever. There is much scientific evidence to suggest too much meat is bad for our health.

Not only that, the intensive rearing of cheap meat can be extremely cruel. The consumption of red meat in particular is extremely bad for the planet. However from studying self sufficient communities it is clear animals can aid sustenance.

Also in such communities meat consumption is only for special occasions. Eating animals is only allowed because they have come to the end of their production. For example a chicken is no longer laying or a goat no longer produces milk. In a self sufficient sense a diet rich in meat also requires more land and more man hours of labour.

Therefore in this case study I will only use small scale homestead or peasant farming meat production. This generally includes the rearing of chickens, rabbits and pigeons for meat.   Below I have visualised a daily, diet scenario based on small scale meat production.

As the chart shows a meat eater would require about 9.4 acres to be self sufficient in food. There are some extra land area amounts however we need to add to complete the calculation.

  • Watering hole for irrigation & livestock: 200m2
  • Allowance for crop rotation and 30% fallow land: 1000m2
  • Pathways and storage: 400m2
  • Total Extras: 1,600m2
  • Grand total: 9.8 Acres

‘Therefore a meat eater requires 9.8 acres of land to be self sufficient in food for one year’.

Exploring the data further

The above table, charts I have compiled have uncovered some interesting and dramatic conclusions. My calculations put the land area required by a meat eater to be 13 times greater than that of a Vegan!

I was always sceptical of the ‘three times the area size requirements for meat’ as it seemed far too low. I always guessed it would be about 6 times higher. However many info graphics and articles puts it at three times the size.

It is important to note that land areas calculated for rearing animals has been done so ‘without brought in feed’. If you include feed or extra land required to grow feed I feel the calculation isn’t genuine. In order to be truly self sufficient your animals must be self sustained from your land. This is something you can factor in for your specific scenario.

In terms of grazing animals you must also allow for winter when the grass doesn’t grow. Hence extra land must be added for hay meadows to produce winter fodder. You simply cannot borrow energy from the fossil fuel economy to reduce animal rearing sizes.

rabbit

You may notice that the vegan, daily calories amount to 2,536, Vegetarian 2,765 and meat eater at 3,158. 

There is a very simple explanation for this; Meat eaters have to manage more land manually hence a greater number of required daily calories. Furthermore people with more plant based diets ‘generally’ consume fewer calories than meat eaters.

When calculating individual growing areas for crops I have leaned slightly towards the higher end. This is to compensate for pest damage or other unforeseen crop failures.

It is also important to contemplate the need for ‘surplus production’ in self sufficient homesteading. When you and your families lives depend on the food you produce you must aim for surplus production.

Self sustaining livestock areas without feed

The meat eating table only concentrates its attention on two animals; Chickens and Rabbits. These two were selected due to the fact they are the less labour intensive. Both rabbits and chickens are both the most suitable meat livestock for small homesteads.

Having to work out their area requirements without feed is extremely difficult and variable. I had to reach out to homesteaders and farmers to make a good estimate. Both rabbits and Chickens average around the same weight at 2kilograms.

Most rabbits can sustain themselves from species rich grassland and meadows. I came to an annual area calculation per rabbit at 200m2.  For chickens there were even more variables.

For instance most self sufficient homesteads allow chickens to roam freely during the day. With a good foraging range they can devour insects, grass and weeds from the surrounding homestead. Hence many calories can be foraged in this way. However I allowed 200mof meadow per chicken per year for them to forage without feed.

Forest chickens

The significantly larger area required for the meat diet is based on this rabbit and chicken area calculation. However if anything I imagine 200m2  per animal would be on the small side for complete year round sustenance. This is before we even get onto larger livestock such as goats and cattle.

Therefore I am certain the land area needed for meat diets far exceeds plant diets by many factors.  As I have strived to do here you have to work out livestock areas without supplementary feed. If you are truly self sufficient you would not be able to substitute in products from a fossil fuel economy. I have a suspicion this is why other land estimations for meat diets are much lower.

Can Agro-forestry & Permaculture feed more people per acre?

Agroforestry is the establishment of forests consisting of edible crops or useful species. These food forest systems mimic nature to produce low energy input, naturalistic ecosystems. A combination of fruit and nut trees combined with perennial vegetables creates permanent, harvestable food systems.

Permacuture is a design system which replicates ecological relationships to produce sustainable food production. Both agroforestry and permaculture are similar and have many overlaps in their execution.

The biggest similarity is using this idea of stacking food production in forest canopies. This allows a system to harvest the suns energy on many levels. These systems are very productive and many claim they can feed numerous people per acre.

walnut

Many question these systems ability to produce more food than conventional agriculture. This is partly due to the fact grains have a higher calorie content than fruits and vegetables. However this is not a necessarily problem if you are harvesting many crops seasonally from one space.

Nut trees such as walnuts and chestnuts produce 2 tons of carbohydrate per acre. This is exactly the same as wheat but without fossil fuels. Hence it is completely possible that established permaculture and food, forest, systems could feed multiple people per acre.

Champions of these systems claim they can feed up to 10 people per acre. I have no way of testing these numbers for sure but lean towards optimism. From some experience of these disciplines I do believe such densities are indeed possible.

How much land do you need to be self sufficient in bread?

Many people who contemplate going completely self sufficient shudder at the prospect of no flour. No flour means, no bread which means……….. no donuts!

On a serious note, it is possible to grow your own wheat for flour production. Flour is not only useful for baking bread but making pies, pastries and as a calorific thickener. 

Without mechanical ploughing, harvesting and milling, growing wheat is rather labour intensive. If you are completely off grid with no machinery other than a spade this is what you must do. The following process will provide a family 1 loaf of bread or 500 grams of flour a week for a whole year.

Bread making

How to farm your own bread:

  • You will require 10 metres x 10 metres (100m2 ) of fertile, loamy soil in full sun that drains well.
  • You will then need to dig over the area by hand as if you would a vegetable patch. (very labour intensive)
  • On a warm, dry, spring day using a spade smash and crumble the clods of ground into a fine crumb.
  • Sow your wheat grains half an inch deep in drills 3 inches apart with 1 inch spacing’s between grains.  Do this before rain or water well.
  • As your wheat grows keep it weeded so invasive weeds don’t take over.
  • In August during a warm, dry spell cut your wheat at the bottom using a sickle.
  • In a dry under cover place you will need to beat or winnow the wheat to separate the grain from the chaff. (very labour intensive)
  • Now you will have to mill the grain to produce wholemeal flour, you can do this in a blender but can crush it by hand with a rolling pin. (very time consuming)
  • At the end of the process you should have 25kg of wholemeal flour enough to make 50 loafs of bread.
Wheat

There is no doubt that the above process would be time consuming and labour intensive. However if your sole purpose is to farm food it is good to know it is possible.

My estimate for the working time involved would be 14 days of work. This would be from turning the soil to milling the flour. The wheat would take all growing season to grow. It would be up to you to decide if 14 days labour is worth 50 loaves of bread! That’s without the baking! However it would become more energy efficient the more land you applied to growing the wheat.

Obviously with some ingenuity and animal husbandry this process could be mechanised somewhat. However it would have to be within the confines of your plot. This is unless you have a trading relationship with a neighbouring homestead. 

How much land do you need to be self sufficient in fuel?

Fuel is a much overlooked factor in determining how much land you need to be self sufficient. Everyone at least has the desire to make a cup of tea? The truth is even in warm climates fuel is needed for basic functions.

Heating water, cooking food or keeping warm they all require fuel. In a self sufficiency scenario I would again argue electricity is not an option. If you have solar panels or wind turbine generators that’s fine. However we shall explore this scenario without the backing of the fossil fuel system. Hence if you are truly self sufficient you will need to have fire wood.

Logs

How much firewood you are going to need will depend on your climate. If you have long, cold winters then you will need to manage substantial areas of forestry.

In some scenarios some homesteaders may have access to wilderness forests. In this case it is certain you will be able for forage for your wood fuel needs. However if you are starting from scratch you will have to establish a coppice.

Managing coppice for fuel

Coppicing is the felling of trees to a few inches above the ground to encourage vigorous new growth. Such cutting can also be done higher up the trunk for ‘pollarding’ as shown in the image below. This can either be done to existing trees or young saplings and whips can be planted. If you are planting young trees you will have to wait 6 years for your first cropping.

You would aim to plant your coppice trees at a frequency of about 400 per acre. This will provide you with a rough spacing of about 3 metres between trees.

pollard

After 6 years you can start to crop your trees every 5 years on rotation for a continuous supply. Therefore you will need to divide your coppice into 5 sections.

Each coppiced tree should produce about 40kg of timber every 5 years. Consequently 400 trees will harvest 16 tonnes of timber an acre every 5 years.

16 tonnes of timber will be enough to heat an average home of 4 in a cold climate all year. However this will depend on an efficient combustion system and a well insulated building.

Hence if you wanted a sustainable supply of timber every year you would require 5 acres of coppice for a family of 4. Each acre would represent one year of growth for a 5 year coppice rotation.

So to be self sufficient in fuel in a cold climate you would need 5 acres of coppice woodland for a household of 4 people.

This system is more efficient in land area if you have more occupants in a single household. Therefore I would estimate a single person in a small home would consume half this amount.

So a single person living in a cold climate would need 2.5 acres of coppice land for themselves. 

A combined water heating and cooking system such as an Aga system is even more beneficial. This way you can heat your home, water and cook all with the same fire.

heating tank

If you live in a warmer climate and only need timber for hot water and cooking 1.5 acres should be adequate. 

When managing a coppice for fuel it is beneficial to get a secondary use out of the area. If you coppice chestnut and hazel you should also get a nut crop every year 4 and 5. Non browsing livestock like chickens can also be raised and forage in these areas.

Conclusion

It is clear that the amount of land you need to be self sufficient varies greatly depending on multiple factors.  However it is abundantly clear the two biggest contributors are food and fuel production. Our average consumption study has shown that a plant based diet is ‘by far’ more sustainable. However living in a cold climate raises levels of land for fuel production significantly.

Therefore the situation requiring less land would be a vegan living in a warm or tropical climate. Many have theorised this would have been much more typical of our human ancestors. This is due to the fact we have long limbs and a lack of fur.

The scenario which would require the most amount of land would be a meat eater in a cold climate. The combination of fuel requirements for heating and extensive land to raise animals would increase ecological footprint dramatically.

Based on all our findings in this article we have calculated the average total areas needed to be self sufficient. The calculations below combine food requirements based on diet, fuel consumption and other discussed factors. We have also broken these down into three climate types; cold, mild and warm for greater accuracy. 

Hot climate: Sub-tropics or tropical locations

Mild climate: Northern Mediterranean to southern temperate regions.

Cold climate: North temperate to tundra and southern Polar Regions

All fuel calculations below are based on a minimum consumption of 1.5 acres of coppice per household.

This is regardless of climate or occupancy number due to cooking and hot water needs.

Heating a home is more efficient the more people you have living under one roof. Therefore 2.5 acres of coppice has been allowed per person in a cold climate.

Vegan land requirements

The land requirement for a self sufficient vegan in a hot climate would be 2.275 acres per year

The land requirement for a self sufficient vegan in a mild climate would be 3.525 acres per year

The land requirement for a self sufficient vegan in a cold climate would be 4.775 acres per year

Hence an average vegan in an average climate would need 3.525 acres of land to be completely self sufficient.

Vegetarian land requirements

The land requirement for a self sufficient vegetarian in a hot climate would be 2.675 acres per year

The land requirement for a self sufficient vegetarian in a mild climate would be 3.925 acres per year

The land requirement for a self sufficient vegetarian in a cold climate would be 5.175 acres per year

Hence an average vegetarian in an average climate would need 3.925 acres of land to be completely self sufficient.

Meat eater land requirements

The land requirement for a self sufficient meat eater in a hot climate would be 11.3 acres per year

The land requirement for a self sufficient meat eater in a mild climate would be 12.55 acres per year

The land requirement for a self sufficient meat eater in a cold climate would be 13.8 acres per year

Hence an average meat eater in an average climate would need 12.55 acres of land to be completely self sufficient.

Taking into account the many variables therefore we should be able to calculate an average acreage for the average person. This would be a sensible median of all of the land amounts above. This should give us the land amount needed for an average diet in an average climate for a self sufficient homesteader.

Therefore our range will be a meat eater in a cold climate (13.8 acres) to a vegan in a hot climate (2.275).

This will provide us a median land requirement for an average person.

So how much land does the average person need to be self sufficient?

Therefore an average person would require 5.76 acres of land to be completely self sufficient for a year.  

Their lifestyle would be consistent with that of a medieval farmer using no fossil fuels for energy.

They would feed any animals from their own land requiring no bought in grain or feed.

All fuel would be sustainably produced from woodland coppice rotation on site. 85% of their diet would be plant based with meat being an occasional delicacy.

Thank you for reading our article on how much land do you need to be self sufficient. What do you think?

Have you another view on the matter? Please feel free to message us or post your comments below, we would love to hear from you!

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2 Comments

  1. Alicia Simon

    I find these charts to be very skewed against eating meat. I know almost no meat eaters that eat five eggs at breakfast, and also more eggs at lunch. I also know very few who eat meat at every meal. I also find it interesting that for vegetarians you utilized cheese, instead of eggs which would take less space. I found your site looking for good examples of the different diets and how much space they take and am very disappointed to find how absolutely skewed this is. It makes it very inaccurate.

    • admin

      Hi Alicia, Indeed but the variables here are huge. Sure you do not know many meat eaters that eat 5 eggs for breakfast but that’s probably because they are not self sufficient farmers. Self sufficient farmers not relying on a fossil fuel economy and physically working the land would require much more calories. The information is not skewed its merely an attempt to work out land surface areas for rearing meat with no bought in feed. its simply common sense that a meat diet would be many multiples of a plant based diet. I am a meat eater so I am not particularly biased. Please feel free to forward any information you have that can help with this.

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