Brier Hill Permaculture

1 02 2012

We are official. I picked a name for our little gem of a farm, and I’m sticking to it.

I finally gave in and started calling myself a farmer. I have wanted to be a farmer since I was about 10 years old and living next to a horse pasture. I remember looking out the window at the neighbor’s horses and thinking “Yes, that is what I want; a horse farm is in my future.” As I grew, my dream evolved and changed with my growing knowledge. I wanted a permaculture farm before I even knew what permaculture was. In my young mind’s eye, every farm should be permaculture, with all the different systems supporting each other. I thought real farms were living, breathing organisms, with a life and pulse all their own.

It turns out I was more or less right. I don’t think of industrial agriculture as farming anymore. I think I only ever did because that is what children’s stories and books depict modern farming as: some man of ambiguous age riding a tractor through a monoculture crop of some type of grain. Either that or an idealized version of Old MacDonald’s farm.

In reality, the truth is so much better. I wake up more or less around 5am every day, shortly before the rooster starts crowing. I toss and turn until the urge to relieve myself gets to be too much to ignore. Check the baby one more time before I get up. Starting the day with dawn is just lovely. I step out while the water is boiling for my first cup of tea, breath in the new day’s air, get a feel for what today’s weather might bring. Check the goat’s water and hay, feed the chickens and check for eggs in their new nest buckets. Come back inside, grab my now-cool-enough-to-drink tea and head back into the bedroom so I can wake the baby for another snack, if I keep her full she sleeps later.

As I drink my tea and nurse the baby I think about what I want to get done for the day. Since the snowstorm mid-January, the weather has been nice enough that the house is making a lot of progress on the garden and animal housing. Echo, Bean and I recently spent an afternoon clearing old stubby blackberry canes into a pile for our new hugelkultr bed in the garden while Tricks made some sweet new underground chicken nests since our hens FINALLY started laying eggs. We got 5 the first day!!

Last week I put in my seed order with Sustainable Seed Co, arguably one of the best seed companies I’ve had the pleasure of doing business with. Everything they sell is heirloom and open-pollinated.

So, going back to my original point, I finally gave in and decided to start calling myself a farmer. I feel like I finally got to join some secret club. Like, now that I call myself a farmer, do I get a badge, or an id card? “It’s okay folks, I’m a farmer!”

I have always wanted to be a farmer. My success with growing things it hit or miss, but I keep trying and I keep getting better. I am giving some serious thought to trying to join the local farmer’s market this summer. It runs from mid-May to mid-October, and would be cheaper and easier to start doing than a CSA, at least until I have an established clientel. But I am already about to start hardening off my first seedlings of the year, a mixture of salad greens and radishes. I think I should be able to get the hang of succession planting between now and May, and with all these blackberry vines and manure sitting around, I have an endless supply of materials for more hugelkultr beds.

Once I embraced the woman I have always wanted to be, and I mean I grabbed her by the dirty pigtail braids and gave her a damn good shake to make sure we were all on the same page, everything sort of started falling into place. I don’t feel like I am fighting myself anymore. I am happy more. And I’ve found a way to combine my passions – good food, animals, and gardening, with some more recent needs – working from home so I can also raise our daughter in a way that lines up with my morals and views, with a long time need of making money.

Bean will never have to fight it. She has been born into farming. She’s known goats and chickens since before she was born. She knows goats and chicks now. She has been strapped to my back while I chop wood, cut down trees, clear blackberry vines, build garden beds, herd goats and more. Her first taste of food will be of real food, grown and raised right here on this property. We aren’t that far from the city. We could just let the land keep sitting and it will just do what it does. We could keep trying to find a way to make a living in the corporate rat race, we could struggle trying to make ends meet while living on welfare and food stamps. Or we could use some of those food stamps to buy vegetable seeds (yes, it’s true, you can!) and start a garden. We choose to make a life rather than live one doled out to us one unsatisfying portion at a time.

I’m happy with my choice. I am happy there is dirt under my nails at the end of the day, and that my muscles are so sore that sitting up straight hurts. I think this is a good life we are creating here and I can’t wait to share it with others.





Homestead Crafts Series: Intro

24 01 2012

I’ve come to realize that I have a duty to learn permaculture gardening techniques. I owe it to this piece of land we live on/off of to treat it with respect, and to leave it better than we found it. Part of treating this place with respect is to rid it of invasive species like Himalayan blackberry, the bane of just about anyone with open land in the maritime Northwest. The berries are delicious, but the canes are a monster to deal with if you so much as turn your back on them for even one season.

Lucky for us, goats LOVE blackberries. Well, the leaves actually. I was under the impression before we got goats that they “eat anything.” Sure, they seem to have iron stomachs, but my goats are quite picky eaters. They love blackberry, as long as it is young leaves, tender tips of fresh canes and shoots, and unripe berries. They want nothing to do with the old, tough, woody canes that are left over after picking the choice bits off.

So I am left  to remove the leftover vines with a set of hand pruners (I’m upgrading to a machete or a sickle this year), a pair of leather gloves and a box of band-aids. And then what do I do once I have a big pile of thorny trouble? I have tried making giant piles of old thorny canes in places I don’t want the goats to go, but that keeps me from venturing in those places as well, and it only lasts so long before the goats decide they can just carefully walk over the pile. In goat world, the grass is always greener on the side of whatever you don’t want them crossing.

I’ve tried cutting the canes into pieces small enough to break down relatively fast in the compost, but this takes a lot of time that I would rather be spending doing PRODUCTIVE things. Regardless of the time of year, there are only so many daylight hours in a day, and I don’t want to waste them cutting things into smaller things.

So after a little research and some help from Echo’s amazing google-fu (seriously, where does she find half this stuff?) I have come up with several creative uses for blackberry canes that I hope to blog about with pictures of the finished products in the near future. I may even post some photo-tutorials after I teach a few classes.

I am so excited about this! I have been having a real hard time thinking up solutions to some of my most vexing problems here on the farm. Money is so tight that even finding free supplies on freecycle doesn’t guarantee a solution to my problem: I still need to use gas and drive the car to get things. So the more I can produce, create and reuse with what we already have at our disposal to solve problems, the further what little money we do have goes when I can’t avoid spending it.

 





The rooster crows!

17 01 2012

Our rooster, Vin, finally crowed for the first time this morning. Mr. Ewe, Laydn (the globetrotting housemate) and I all heard him. Laydn chased after him and tried to give him a hug (he’s normally quite amenable to human interaction), Mr. Ewe came in the house to find him a tasty treat, and I hollered out the door “Good Job Buddy! Keep it up!”

I honestly didn’t think he would ever crow. We had our chicks shipped late last June, and by the time they were coming of age, the days were getting drastically shorter, so the chickens reproductive cycles basically went dormant. I understand this can be changed by supplemental lighting in their coop, but they don’t really have a coop yet. They have an old goat shed that we put fencing on the front of, and roosts inside. So they have somewhere to sleep, but not a real, honest-to-goodness coop. Besides, I think I am not too sure about the supplemental lighting. I think I would rather honor the natural rhythm of the chicken and give them some time off from laying in the winter. It means we get an extra year with our hens, too. Because once they are done laying , they will be going to the soup pot.

We have the framing for a coop, but in order to erect the chicken coop, we have to move a compost pile the size of a car, and no one is too eager to do that yet.

But now the days are getting longer, and the rooster has started crowing. Which means my girls will be looking for somewhere to lay their eggs soon, and I don’t want to miss out on fresh eggs because the hens are laying them in the goat beds, or hiding them somewhere. Our chickens have been free-ranging on pasture since they had feathers, and these eggs are going to be amazing.

I am glad eggs are imminent, but this now also means we need to fast-track a building project in the heart of winter. Mr. Ewe and I are just so swamped with projects. Someday they will all be done, and we will feel happy and comfortable here at Brier House, and that should be right around the time we decide to move to southern Oregon.

One idea I’ve had rolling around behind my forehead lately is to use the framing for the chicken coop, and to cob in the walls. I would love if our first cob-project was a chicken coop! I want to put a living roof on it, and a rainwater collection barrel for the livestock drinking supply. The nest boxes could be little cubbies in the back wall, and we could put a hatch door over the top of the next boxes to collect eggs without having to go inside.

I can see it now when I close my eyes. When I open my eyes, I see a lot of work, and the fact that it has started snowing again. Reality sets back in, and I realize this is one more project that is going to have to wait a little while longer.





January on the Farm

15 01 2012

Companion planting guide

January sure did start out warm here, and pretty much the rest of North America from what I gather. It’s hard to argue against the Global Warming theory when it is so much warmer than previous winters.

Mr. Ewe and I took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to get some last minute work done outside. No, the goat barn still doesn’t have a permanent roof, but a bill board-sized tarp seems to be doing the job fairly well, even if it is tacky. But we got all the old dirty hay shoveled out of the the pen (20 wheelbarrow loads worth) and spread it out in the garden where one of my new beds will be going in this spring. We then brought in 20 wheelbarrows loads worth of fruit tree wood chips we had delivered for free from a local tree service company. Then we cleaned out the barn (another 12 wheelbarrow loads!) and put that in the back of the orchard next to the potato tires for our next batch of seed potatoes, as well as for cob mixing and building experiments later this Spring.

I got the chicken coop cleaned out and replaced one of the roost-ladders I had made last summer (that cracked when one of the goats decided to make herself comfortable in the chicken coop) with a couple apple branches the goats had graciously stripped of bark. So now the chicken coop looks pimp. The barn is sweet because Mr. Ewe finally made a hay-bale feeder so we can feed one whole bale at a time, so we put that in there alongside an 8’x2′ pallet/goat bed and they seem to be pretty damn happy lately. They don’t hang out by the gate all day waiting for human hand-outs which I love.

The only problem I have with all of this is that the goats are never hungry anymore. You wouldn’t think that’s a problem, but I can’t let un-hungry goats out of the pen and expect them to just stay in the field and eat. Nope, they are wicked little beasts when they are feeling mischievous.  A week and a half ago, I let them out to forage back in the woods. Nelly took one look at me and took off through the front yard, down the driveway, up around the house, back down the driveway all the way to the road, down the road to the neighbors driveway, down the neighbors driveway to the back of our property and then they all squeezed through a previously unknown hole in the fence and right into our raspberry patch, taking all 6 of the other goats with her. Now this whole time, I am chasing after them waving my shiny aluminum goat-stick and Bean is strapped to my chest in her moby wrap. You should have seen the look on the driver’s faces when we stopped traffic to take a stroll down the road to the neighbor’s place.

What all of this amounts to is that I am done letting the goats out of their pen unless I have a mobile pen to move them to, and I do it one goat at a time. They know I am weak now that I can’t chase after them. They sniff Bean, they aren’t stupid, they know what a baby is. They know a new mom is the slowest member of a herd, and Nelly is challenging my herd queen status while I am slower than her. Just wait, once she kids this spring, she and her daughter from last year are outta here. I will probably sell them off as quick as I can as a starter herd. Good riddance.

Still no word from my buck’s previous owner regarding his registration. I’m really screwed without that, as my entire crop of next year’s kids were supposed to be registered via him. I can only hope she will eventually reply to my emails, and that it all works out.

One more reason those damn goats need a mobile pen is because we are expanding the garden this year. Last year I just got here too late, and had too much else going on, so I just used the one little bed that was full of weeds. I was so miserable with morning sickness I just didn’t give a damn. We got a decent little crop of peas and strawberries, but with a baby that will be eating solids this summer, I want her first foods to be home grown.

Now that I am feeling slightly closer to a more normal version of myself, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about my garden layout. I am planning on expanding by two more raised beds this spring for a total of three. I am planning on turning all of them into covered rows probably for a majority of the year. I am thinking I will just plan that this summer will be as cool and rainy as last year so I plant the proper things.

In order to maximize diversity in my limited space I’ve been doing quite a bit of research into companion planting, and I just picked up TheOne Straw Revolution from the library. Now I just have to find enough time to read, plan and plant a garden. Right now there is only one thing growing, about 100 cloves of garlic.

I can’t even begin to stress how important I think growing a garden is. I’ve really only had three seasons of actual gardening time in my entire life, so I am quite a novice still. But I would rather try growing 100 things and fail at 99 of them, then to not try at all and be at the mercy of the current food supply. Every time I fail in the garden, I learn something to not do next time, and I get better. My goal is to someday be able to produce all of our food ourselves.

I take my job as mother, wife, and living, breathing member of this planet very seriously, and I think knowing how to care for my people and being able to feed them is a big part of that job.

Our power went out this morning, and it was great to realize it wasn’t that big of a deal. We had a fire going, a kettle on the fire place, all the roommates gathered to hang out by the fire. There was nothing upsetting or panicky about not having the energy system turned off, and even once the power came back on, there was no real rush to go back to our electronic gadgets.

There is going to come a day in my lifetime where that is a more common occurrence than not, whether by my own personal design, or a larger collapse of the system. I like a life less electronic. Yes, I understand the irony of the fact that I am typing and you are reading this on a computer. But I can survive without the interwebs, it is not my lifeline to reality, nor is it my reality.





My New Normal – How I Survive as a Stay-at-Home Mom

11 01 2012

Ugh. It’s 5:30 at night, and I am already exhausted. Didn’t I wake up feeling exhausted, too? Yes, I did. Exhausted is my new normal. I stumble through my day, hoping to survive until bedtime, hoping I will get sleep once we lay down.

Bean is now two and a half months old, and we have what most people call a “good” baby. She doesn’t have mysterious bouts of colic, she doesn’t scream, heck, she rarely cries. When she does cry, we know exactly why she is crying. At night, she actually sleeps. Sure, it’s only in 2-3 hour stretches between breastfeeding and diaper changes, but that adds up between 10 pm and 8 am. She doesn’t sleep much during the day, naps are pretty short and infrequent, but thanks to my moby wrap (which I initially HATED) I am still able to get quite a bit done through my haze of fatigue.

Life doesn’t stop just because I have a baby or am tired. The goats still need plenty of care, as do the chickens. Laundry still needs to be washed, firewood restocked, fires made and tended to heat the house, dishes washed and I have to find things to eat during the day.

I try to get up by 6 am every day, which is a drag. I hate getting out of bed in a cold, dark room. But someone has to shut the window and get the space heater turned on. We found sleeping with no heat and extra down comforters keeps all three of us plenty warm, and the cold air on our heads… I don’t know, I just feel more refreshed in the morning. Bean sleeps between us at night, and if I worry she won’t be warm enough she gets an extra layer added in the form of a hand knit merino lap blanket I made her dad when we first met. If it weren’t for Bean sleeping in bed with us I wouldn’t get any rest all. I am already a very light sleeper, always have been. I think I won’t sleep deeply again until she is out of our bed, probably around her 5th birthday. We aren’t worried about it, we are amassing sheep fleeces so we can make our own custom-sized wool-stuff mattress for our family bed. I can’t wait to sleep on all that wool!

After I get up I get a fire started, do a round of yoga (I am using Rodney Yee’s program “Moving Toward Balance” which is a daily workout for 8 weeks. I find it gets me warmed up and I do it right in front of the fire so I can make sure it is good and hot by the time I need to feed Bean, around 7 am. If I’, lucky she falls back asleep for one more hour, which I use to shower, make breakfast and get a chore down.

My morning chore change each day, but it is usually either clean the bathroom, wash dishes, or sweep.

I use my mornings to do a self-study of gardening, cob building, green building techniques, animal care or permaculture, Pretty much whatever seems enjoyable. It is all stuff I try to learn more about and implement into our life, so I consider it important to do and take notes on.

When I have a rare bit a free time and all the chores are done, I like to knit. But as soon as I pick up my knitting, Bean knows it and will wake up or suddenly need me in one way or another. I don’t know how she does it.

I had a problem adjusting to this new pace of life. I felt like I needed to be “working,” as in doing work that results in a paycheck. It is hard to do something like mothering in a society that does not value the contributions a mother makes. We downplay parenting, substituting in machines, gadgets and gizmos to take the place of human interaction with our infants. Not because we don’t want to interact with them, but because we are already stretched so thin and stressed out so much that it just feels like one more thing is going to break us. Babies need a lot of time and attention and physical care in order to be happy and well-adjusted. Before the invention of the nuclear family and single family households, we had extended family, elders and villages of families to help off-set all the demanding work a new baby needs. It is a lot to ask of any new mother to care for herself and her family with no outside help.

I had help from friends and family for about 2 weeks after I had Bean. I was on such an emotional high that I was raring to go, I wanted to get up and get doing. But after an hour or so up and about, I realized that emotions don’t always equate to physical energy, I then I realized I was totally screwed. I didn’t have meals lined up, I didn’t have people signed up to come and help with dished or laundry or animal care. I felt lost, forgotten and neglected. NEXT TIME, I am going to can 3 months worth of soups for myself. I found soup was one of the easiest things to make, eat and reheat the first few weeks. They were extra fluid, and I could add fresh egg yolks and extra butter to hot soups for extra calories.

Here we are, with Bean now 10 weeks old, and I am slowly coming to terms with my new profession, my new pace of life, my new motherhood. I can get maybe 25% of my former workload done in a day. Things have had to just slide. I’ve had to adjust and re-prioritize. I find it is still easy to get overwhelmed if I think about all the things I am not getting done, but the I look at my baby, and remind myself that there is always tomorrow, next week, next month, next season, next year. It doesn’t matter, it will all get done eventually as long as I don’t give up. But I love how little I get done now, because when I do get it done, I’ve got Bean strapped to my chest, and she is watching, learning and growing. And it feels like I’ve done something important.





A New Year, a New Ewe

10 01 2012

So the Bean is now almost three-months old. I was originally planning on blogging about her birth, but it is just not something I am ready to write about in a public space yet. All I will say is this: her labor was hard, and long, and wonderful. My midwives were amazing, and Mr. Ewe and I welcomed her into our arms, on our own bed minutes before midnight. I can’t wait to do it again.

There have been huge adjustments in our lives to make our little family work smoothly. Adjusting to a new baby is never easy, but I would have to say that because of how much we slowed down our lives before the baby came, making that adjustment was that much easier when we had to slow down the pace of our lives even more.

Having this new person in our lives has made us so much more aware of where we are in our lives and in the world, and where we want to be headed. The last three months have involved lots of whispered, late-night conversations between Mr. Ewe and I about the path we are on.

The world seems so much scarier now than it ever was. Resources and time seem to be dwindling at an ever faster pace, and I spend a lot of time worrying about what kind of world my daughter is going to have to live in.

Mr. Ewe and I have always had what seemed like a pipe dream to buy land out in the boonies, build ourselves a small house and just try to live the best, simplest life possible. But with Lamb here now, it seems we can no longer afford for that to be a pipe dream, it is time for us to act.

The problem with acting now is that we are literally starting with almost nothing. I admit that we are quite poor, and saving anything when you find yourself poor is a huge challenge, both physically and mentally. We looked at the ledger and realized that to make a saving account grow, we are going to have to become evenmore resourceful than ever before. I am a stay at home mom, and Mr. Ewe is a full-time student. We are living off of his financial aid and the GI Bill right now. We have to find a way to turn an idea into something tangible with little to get us started. It is scary and a challenge. But here we are, ready to make the leap.

At the end of 2011 Mr. Ewe and I both turned 30 within a  month of each other. We are 30. Standing on the precipice of a third decade on this planet. It seemed like this was a lifetime away when I was turning 10, I had no idea where I was headed when I was 20, and now that I am 30 I have to wonder where I am headed to next.

But each month now we get ourelves a little more ahead than the previous month, and pretty soon I think we will be able to start putting money in savings so that we can put a down payment on land next year.

Our pipe dream of land and a small house has grown quite a bit in those late-night talks. This year we are going to start building on our rental property. I have decided that we are going to build a cob pizza oven, and then maybe a cob garden shed or milking shed. We are going to use this year to narrow down our property search, and start gaining skillz. We need cob-building skills so when we move we don’t have to live in our camper longer than we have to.

Our little house and farm on a few acres has morphed into a small eco-village, based on cob houses, earthships, and lots of permaculture. We don’t want to settle down and forget the world, we want to invite the world in, teach classes and show the world that there is a better way to live. One that does not involve a 30-year mortgage, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and fears that the bank will take back your home because you looked at a teller cross-eyed.

The ability to live in harmony with the world, and the ability to find comfort in having nothing is out there. I am redefining what comfort means to me on a daily basis. I am teaching Lamb how to live in sync with the world around her.

Turns out having a baby is the catalyst I needed to change my life for the better. :)





Tasting Goats Milk

20 09 2011

I saw this post today at The Prairie Homestead, and it got me thinking about my first experiences with goat milk.

When I first got the goats, I had no plan on ever drinking the milk. Strange, right? Why on earth did I agree to get a herd of DAIRY goats, and not plan on drinking the milk?

I loved milk, I still do. I loved the flavor of whole milk, the rich creamy flavor, how it clung to my palate. I liked cream, I would add heavy cream to my whole milk some days just so it was creamier. I was addicted to store bought cow’s milk. Most of the time, I went out of my way and budget to buy organic milk. I thought it tasted better. Once in a blue moon, I would treat myself to the milk that came in the glass bottles. It wasn’t homogenized, but it was still pasteurized. I felt that being able to poor the cream off into my cup and drink it all at once was decadent. And as a very special, rare treat, I would fork over the cash for some raw cow’s milk, when I could find it.

I hated goat’s milk. I had bought some of the stuff that comes in the 1 quart cardboard containers before, and felt it fell flat in flavor to the rich creamy goodness of cow’s milk. Oh, I just didn’t know any difference. The store bought goat’s milk was awful. It tasted so old, so flat, so cardboardy. How could anyone be willing to drink this? And don’t even get me started on the price of store bought goat’s milk products: cheese, milk, yogurt. Those prices are outrageous.

So knowing how I felt about all of this, I still went ahead and took possession of that herd of goats. M and I milked them together the first couple of weeks. It was a terrible experience. The goats didn’t know us, we didn’t know them. They were in a new and strange place with new, strange people and a new, strange routine.

They came to us with everything the previous owner had been feeding them: 1 musty bale of hay that I thought for sure was straw until they started eating it, and 2 bags of C.O.B. mix.(COB is Corn, Oats, and Barley, with a heavy coat of molasses on it. The corn makes the milk taste funky, which we soon found out.) The previous owner would just catch the goats in no particular order, tie them up one at a time to a fence, and start milking.

The goats were so poorly behaved, most of the milk from that first week M and I were milking them ended up on the ground or down the drain.

The precious little we managed to get from the goats that didn’t get stepped in, kicked, or knocked over had an unforgettable “grassy” flavor. It was repulsive. It tasted like a mouthful of grass from the lawnmower bag. It confirmed everything I had previously though about goat milk: it tasted like shit.

So I started making plans to use the milk to make soap, began down sizing my herd, used up that crappy feed the lady had given us and switched all the goats over to ultra-premium hay and grain. It took me a while to realize I didn’t have to control the goats with grain, but I had to get knocked over and stepped on a few times for that lesson to sink in.

But a miraculous thing started to happen. As the goats got better nutrition and started looking, acting and feeling healthier, as we settled into some semblance of routine and order, as we all got more comfortable with each other, the flavor of that milk began to change. It kept getting sweeter, richer and creamier. It became downright delicious, and pretty soon I realized we hadn’t bought cow’s milk in quite a while. When I realized that, I went right out to the store and bought some cow milk. I needed a side by side flavor comparison. What I realized was that the flavor of whole cow’s milk was flat and watery and stale tasting compared to this fresh, raw goat milk. My skin had cleared up, my teeth were whiter and felt stronger, milk no longer left me with stale breath after I drank a glass.

I was drinking more milk than ever, I couldn’t get enough goat milk. I can no longer drink cow milk unless it is a dire emergency. It’s been long enough that my gut gets upset when I drink pasteurized, homogenized cow milk.

My milk is probably more expensive now that it ever was. I spend many hours a day making sure the goats have access to fresh pasture and browse (weeds!) I spend time thinking about them, worrying about them, planning for a future with them. I spend time cleaning their pen and sleeping areas, making sure they have water, and that they are warm and dry when the weather gets bad. I keep my chickens in with the goats so we can keep the bugs down, which adds a whole new level of complexity to caring for the goats. My partner spends several hours a week working to make sure we have money to buy hay for them, and that we have a buck for kids and milk next year. This all takes a great deal of time, energy, and effort. Much more so than going to the store and picking up a gallon when we are low. But all that work makes this milk taste better than anything I could buy from a store.

I love sharing this with other people. I love watching the look of disbelief come over a non-believers face when I force that first sip of fresh milk on them. I love talking to people who remember what real milk used to taste like, and want to get on a mailing list for a goat share next year. I love that there is enough interest in a goat share for me to go ahead and start doing the research this Winter. Next year is going to be amazing, and I am going to have so many people to share it with.








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