Usual climate intangibles fertilized with the stress of a global pandemic

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Leave Winnipeg in any direction and you’ll quickly find yourself coasting down a flat highway surrounded by a wide expanse of farmer’s fields. It’s hard to grasp the scope from the road, but a quilt of cropland covers nearly all of southern Manitoba with urban centres poking occasional holes in the arable fabric.

Despite the size of the agricultural footprint in this province, many people outside the industry don’t know what it takes to get food from farm to table.

A 2019 public trust report from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity found that 91 per cent of Canadians know little or nothing about modern farming practices. The survey also found 60 per cent of Canadians are interested in learning more about the industry.

The Winnipeg Free Press is heading beyond the Perimeter in 2020 to look at modern farm life and the province’s next generation of food producers. Reporter Eva Wasney and photojournalist Mike Deal are following three sets of young farmers through the inevitable ups and downs of this year’s growing season.

The following is the first of three dispatches: spring and the global pandemic.


Some people have seasonal allergies. Colin Penner has seasonal anxiety.

“I’m usually a pretty chill guy,” says the 34-year-old mixed-grain farmer. “But that anticipation before seeding is probably like the worst anxiety that I have — this is setting up the farm for success or failure.”

Penner grows canola, wheat, oats, soybeans, corn, ryegrass and alfalfa on 4,000 acres near Elm Creek with his dad and younger brother. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Penner grows canola, wheat, oats, soybeans, corn, ryegrass and alfalfa on 4,000 acres near Elm Creek with his dad and younger brother.

His first attempt at seeding in early May was a messy one. The heavy clay soil was still saturated from last year’s wild October snowstorm, causing machines to stick and tear up the fields.

While Penner was able to get most of his crop off before the storm, the weather event put a dent in this year’s field prep. Fertilizer that’s usually applied in the fall had to wait until spring and a swath of corn stubble left over from harvest had to be burned off.

Seeding commenced a week after the false start and continued all day, every day for nearly two weeks.

Penner gets out to the field by 5:30 a.m. and spends the first few hours of each day calibrating his equipment and keeping tabs on what’s going on behind him — his tractor cab has six computer monitors to track everything from seed placement to row spacing. By mid-season he’s practically one with the machine.

“You kind of get used to the sound and the feel of the tractor,” he says.

Once things are going smoothly, he’ll turn on a podcast — favourites include Freakonomics and Radiolab — and log in to see what’s happening on #mbag Twitter (with auto-steer engaged, of course). The day usually ends with Penner prepping seed and fertilizer for the next morning and his dad wrapping up the late seeding shift around midnight.

“Physically, it’s not hard work, but mentally it does stack up,” he says. “You’re pretty tired even though you’ve sat on your rear end for most of the day.”

Springtime in his neighbourhood, about 60 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, looks a bit otherworldly. Giant machines roll along the flat prairie as far as the eye can see, kicking up dust as they deposit tiny seeds precisely into the dirt.

Penner’s grandparents purchased the yardsite where he lives with his wife Lori and their three kids in 1950. His parents live in a separate home on the property and his brother is a few kilometres up the gravel road.

Like many farm kids from his generation, Penner hightailed it away from the family operation when he graduated high school. He spent a while snowboarding in the mountains and working in the oilfields before returning home in 2008 when he realized he preferred being his own boss. Today, he farms full time and teaches farm management at the University of Manitoba in the winter.

Penner's first attempt at seeding in early May was a messy one. The heavy clay soil was still saturated from last year’s October snowstorm, causing machines to stick and tear up the fields. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Penner’s first attempt at seeding in early May was a messy one. The heavy clay soil was still saturated from last year’s October snowstorm, causing machines to stick and tear up the fields. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

His portion of the operation is incorporated under the name Pennmann Farms Ltd. — a mash-up of his and his wife’s maiden name, Franzmann — for tax and liability purposes. His dad and brother are incorporated separately so no one is beholden to the others’ decisions (or blunders).

In the last few years, the operation has more than doubled in size through consolidation and new rental agreements. Penner would like to own more of his acreage, but farmland in the area costs roughly $5,000 an acre and is hard to come by, since many older farmers are keeping their plots longer.

“A lot of the wealth is tied up by the older generation,” he says. “It’s encouraging the older generation to retire, but also figuring out how I’m going to afford millions of dollars worth of land.”

Farm Credit Canada’s 2019 farmland values report showed a four per cent average increase in cultivated land prices across the province last year. The Central Plains-Pembina Valley region, where Penner lives, is one of the priciest areas to farm with values ranging from $1,700 to $7,700 an acre thanks to the region’s proximity to Winnipeg and its high-quality soil, says Jean-Philippe Gervais, vice-president and chief agricultural economist with FCC.

A brief, incomplete history

“Not only are prices going up in absolute dollars, but they’re also going up faster compared to farm income or farm revenues and that’s what makes it harder… for all operations that are looking to expand,” Gervais says. “Land prices compared to income is at the highest point that it’s ever been since we’ve had data to measure that.”

He says the coronavirus pandemic could make buyers more cautious and put a cap on the year-over-year farmland value increases seen in Manitoba for at least the last decade.

Grain farmers haven’t been impacted by COVID-19 the way other ag sectors have.

Livestock producers are facing lower prices and supply-chain issues while vegetable growers are having a hard time recruiting enough temporary foreign workers, says Chuck Fossay, a director with Keystone Agricultural Producers. Both industries have made the news in Canada for outbreak clusters connected to employee work and living conditions.

“We were very fortunate that we were not as severely or directly impacted as they were,” says Fossay, who represents the interests of grain, oilseed and pulse producers.

Concerns about seed and equipment shipping delays when borders closed proved unfounded and a backlog of grain exports, created when CN rail workers went on strike last November, actually got cleared up in the midst of the pandemic.

“Other manufactured goods weren’t being exported or imported, so the railroads had additional capacity to deal with grain movement,” Fossay says.

For Penner, COVID-19 has meant lower gas prices for his tractor and slightly higher wheat prices at the local flour mill thanks to all the pandemic baking, as well as physical distancing during trips to the John Deere store.

The weekend after Penner finished seeding, the farm got more than 50 millimetres of rain, turning some fields into lakes. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The weekend after Penner finished seeding, the farm got more than 50 millimetres of rain, turning some fields into lakes. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The weather, as always, has created more pressing concerns.

“It’s absolutely terrifying,” Penner says of the unpredictability of Mother Nature. “I think I have six weather apps on my phone — if I don’t like the results from one, I’ll go check another one.”

The weekend after he wrapped seeding, the farm got more than 50 millimetres of rain, turning some fields into lakes. Water had to be diverted into surrounding ditches and one quarter section (160 acres) of canola had to be reseeded entirely, the cost of which was covered by crop insurance.

“Typically our reseeding is human error, we forgot to turn something on or something got bumped,” he says, adding that five acres is usually the most they have to redo. “This year it was definitely significant.”


Jake Ayre’s passion for agriculture is infectious. While the 23 year old talks excitedly about farm technology and management trends, it’s hard to imagine that a few short years ago he wasn’t planning to farm. 

“(I) went to university not really planning on studying agriculture and, miraculously, I fell in with the Aggies and that’s all I ended up taking,” he says. “I missed being out on the land, connected with nature, the job that we do is so diverse.”

That boomerang is something Ayre is seeing more of among young people who grew up in a farming family.  

“They miss the lifestyle, and by lifestyle I’m not talking finances,” he says. “(They don’t) do it for the financial reason, that’s not why anyone does it, you’ve got to love it to do it.”

Of the 20,140 farmers working in the province in 2016, more than 50 per cent were 55 years of age and older. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Of the 20,140 farmers working in the province in 2016, more than 50 per cent were 55 years of age and older. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

In the latest Statistics Canada agriculture census, Manitoba had the highest proportion of farm operators under 35 years of age in the country. Still, of the 20,140 farmers working in the province in 2016, more than 50 per cent were 55 years of age and older.

Ayre farms with his family near Minto in the southwestern corner of the province. He is the second vice-president of Keystone Agricultural Producers and co-chair of the organization’s Manitoba Young Farmers policy committee with Colin Penner.

Even though money isn’t the main motivator for young producers, it is one of the biggest barriers to entry for those trying to pursue a career in commodity agriculture. Access — to land and to the kind of money needed to acquire land and equipment — is a hot topic of conversation among committee members.

“No matter what sort of a farming operation you may have, that is one thing that all young farmers talk about,” says Ayre, adding that succession planning and off-farm income are also areas of concern. In 2016, nearly 60 per cent of farmers under 40 reported working off-farm jobs to support their operations. 

But it’s not all bad. Ayre sees opportunities for farmers willing to try new things and share their operations with the public — either literally through agritourism or digitally through social media. 

“We’ve definitely seen demand from the public who want to know where their food comes from and how it’s produced,” he says. “Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram has given that opportunity for us to share our lives.”


Hundreds of big brown eyes are trained on Graham Tapley as he drives his red quad over the rutted ground. It was a wet start to the season and the 150 head of cattle Graham, 30, owns with his wife Kristine, 32, have stamped deep hoofprints across the couple’s winter grazing paddock near Langruth.

He’s heading for the northern edge of the property towards a lone cow and her hours-old calf. The babe is already walking and needs to be documented, weighed and initiated into the herd, with an ear tag and tattoo. Graham separates the two quickly and straddles the small black calf to keep it from scampering away during the process.

Graham and Kristine Tapley have 150 head of cattle near Langruth. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Graham and Kristine Tapley have 150 head of cattle near Langruth. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

“Ninety pounds,” he calls to Kristine, who is following along in the beat-up green farm truck with their two-year-old son Walker and five-month-old daughter Jocelyn.

It’s early June and calving season — which started in April and saw seven or eight calves born each day at its peak — is coming to a close.

This is the first spring in more than seven years that the Tapleys have calved on familiar ground.

“We’ve been very nomadic,” Kristine says, laughing.

The pair met at the University of Manitoba, where Kristine was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in agroecology and later a masters in animal science and Graham was working towards a bachelor’s in agronomy.

She hails from a long, unbroken line of rural cattle producers and he grew up in Winnipeg with long-held dreams of taking over his grandparents’ grain farm and getting back on the land. When cost and family logistics put that goal out of reach, Kristine and Graham decided to start their own cow-calf operation.

“My agricultural general knowledge was, I think, decent,” he says. “But as far as cows go, I was pretty green.”

They bought some heifers — female cows that haven’t yet given birth — and kept them on Kristine’s 100-year-old family farm in Woodside, where her parents still raise cattle.

As their herd grew, so did their land needs. They started buying and renting small tracts of pasture along Highway 50 and commuting to their cows from their home in Gladstone.

Seven years later, Kristine and Graham are slightly more settled. They live in a small house on a quarter section and operate under the name Old Shore Cattle Co. — an homage to Lake Manitoba, which decades ago would have made its shore along their property line.

Kristine and Graham Tapley have two children,  Walker (second from right) and Jocelyn. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Kristine and Graham Tapley have two children, Walker (second from right) and Jocelyn. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

They own roughly 1,000 acres and rent 1,000 more, but much of it still isn’t connected.

“People think of a farm as a block and you just move your cows around all your property,” Kristine says. “If I didn’t have to own a trailer, that would be amazing.”

Uncultivated grazing land is becoming harder to find and more expensive as competition for cropland grows, even for the kind of marginal land Kristine and Graham run their herd on.

“Land that you would typically say is cattle land, it’s rocky, it’s got slough, there’s trees,” she says. “As grain farmers get more and more strapped and have to look for more and more acres they’re turning it over (to cropland). It’s tough.”

As a producer, Kristine sees herself and her cattle as stewards for the land. She is currently on mat leave from her job with Ducks Unlimited Canada, where she works to keep grasslands intact for grazing and habitat conservation.

“Having cattle on there keeps those prairies healthy,” she says. “If you’re able to have some economic value or have someone managing that land… then it’s not going to get cultivated for crops.”

To access enough grass, the Tapleys are sending a third of their herd to the local community pasture — 43,500 acres of marsh and supervised grazing land owned by the RM of Westlake-Gladstone and managed by the Big Grass Grazers Co-op, of which Graham is a director.

Community pastures have a long history in Manitoba.

Following the dust bowl era of the 1930s, the federal government established pockets of natural grazing land through the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) to deal with soil erosion and water conservation.

In 2014, the Association of Manitoba Community Pastures took over 20 of the province’s 24 community pastures after the PFRA disbanded. Association general manager Barry Ross says the pastures have become important conservation areas and a way for young people to get into the beef industry.

“They can get in with 20, 30 cattle and get a start without buying land and I think that’s an important part of the cattle industry,” he says.

Herd sizes range from 800 to 4,000 head of cattle and the animals are supervised by riders on horseback, as has always been the tradition.

The pastures are at capacity this summer for the first time since the association took over.

“There’s just not the grazing out there that there used to be,” Ross says.

The temporary shutdown of Cargill’s meat-processing plants in Quebec and Alberta created a backlog in the system and a drop in cattle prices. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The temporary shutdown of Cargill’s meat-processing plants in Quebec and Alberta created a backlog in the system and a drop in cattle prices. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

For Kristine and Graham, checking fences damaged by the fall snowstorm and turning their cows, calves and bulls out to pasture are the final chores of an unnerving spring.

On the farm, calving season rolled on with few surprises — aside from having to build a homemade cast for a calf with a broken leg (at the suggestion of their vet).

Off-farm, however, the coronavirus pandemic has created serious concerns about the future.

The temporary shutdown of Cargill’s meat-processing plants in Quebec and Alberta created a backlog in the system and a drop in cattle prices. The shutdown followed a number of cases of COVID-19, and several deaths, among plant workers.

“That was major, and really scary that those plants could be closed down for an extended time,” Graham says.

The pandemic is the latest blow to an industry that has been struggling with dry conditions and feed shortages for the last two years.

“Just about everybody in the province went into the winter with a shortage of feed,” says Dianne Riding, president of Manitoba Beef Producers.

The province has the third-largest cattle herd in the country, but the inventory and the number of farms have been steadily declining. Riding expects to see more producers leave the industry this year with the added stress of COVID-19.

“Depending on that calf market this fall, we may see our herd shrink smaller… because folks can’t keep running beef cows and at least not make a little bit of money,” she says, adding that many regions are gearing up for another drier-than-usual season. “People cannot weather one more year of that, either.”

When asked how she’s coping with the pandemic, Kristine takes a moment and lets out a sigh before responding.

“Agriculture is stressful in general, and it seems like the last couple of years our stress has been consumed by drought and we’ve had some breeding issues in the past — it seems like there’s always something,” she says, a tired smile parting across her face. “You just have to roll with it.”

For Graham, the independence afforded by farming outweighs the pitfalls.

Uncultivated grazing land is becoming harder to find and more expensive as competition for cropland grows, even for the kind of marginal land Kristine and Graham Tapley run their herd on.

Uncultivated grazing land is becoming harder to find and more expensive as competition for cropland grows, even for the kind of marginal land Kristine and Graham Tapley run their herd on.

“It always bugged me that I was missing family time and busting my ass… to help someone else get ahead,” he says, referring to his former job as a full-time agronomist.

“I live and die by (my) decisions, if it was a bad decision and things don’t work out there’s no one to blame but me. But it feels pretty good when things do work out.”


While farmers aren’t known for talking about their problems, the global pandemic appears to have more producers picking up the phone.

Manitoba Farm, Rural & Northern Support Services, a program of Klinic Community Health, saw a 32 per cent increase in calls to its counselling line between March and June compared to the same period last year. Of those calls, 18 per cent were related to the coronavirus.

“There is a long history in farming culture of not talking about your problems, there’s a culture of pride and independence which, of course, (has) helped them get through difficult times.”
‐ Janet Smith, Klinic’s manager of community outreach, farm, rural and northern

“They’re describing things like isolation, concern about the future, difficulties in relationships, depression and anxiety,” says Janet Smith, manager of community outreach, farm, rural and northern with Klinic.

A common turn of phrase among callers is, “Things were tough before, but COVID made it worse,” says Smith, who has worked with the support line since 2003. Over that time, she has counselled farmers through droughts, floods, trade wars and the bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “mad cow” crisis. If previous disasters are any indication, she expects COVID-19 calls to continue well into the future.

Mental Health Supports

Click to Expand

Manitoba Farm Rural & Northern Support Services (Klinic)

1-866-367-3276, www.supportline.ca

Manitoba Suicide Prevention & Support Line (Klinic)

1-877-435-7170, www.reasontolive.ca

Calm In The Storm App

www.calminthestormapp.com

Mental Health Services in RHA’s

www.gov.mb.ca/health/mh/crisis.html

“We don’t tend to hear from farmers during the events and that kind of makes sense when you think about it, they’re really busy trying to handle them,” Smith says.

Over the last 17 years, she has also seen a shift in attitude among farmers — something she credits to more agriculture-specific mental health research and programming.

“There is a long history in farming culture of not talking about your problems, there’s a culture of pride and independence which, of course, (has) helped them get through difficult times,” Smith says. “On the flip side of that, it comes with the stigma that is attached to reaching out for help and it is changing.”

The support line averages 1,600 calls a year and is soon to become 24-7.


If all goes as planned, this is going to be a growth year for Britt Embry and Justin Girard.

The couple has been farming together for six years on a 30-acre slice of land nestled along the winding banks of the La Salle River just south of Elie.

Britt Embry (left) and Justin Girard have been farming together for six years on a 30-acre slice of land just south of Elie. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Britt Embry (left) and Justin Girard have been farming together for six years on a 30-acre slice of land just south of Elie. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Hearts and Roots is a certified organic market-garden operation that has relied heavily on selling produce through subscription boxes, restaurants, farmer’s markets and boutique grocers in Winnipeg. This year, however, Embry and Girard, both 35, have pared down their vegetable garden in order to focus on future goals.

“We used annuals as the engine to build the farm, but they actually became our master,” says Girard, while walking around the property on a windy, overcast day in May. Farm dogs Merle and Bob trail close behind.

The greenhouse is still half-full of plants waiting to find their permanent home in the dirt and there are a half-dozen new projects taking shape around the yard. The landscape is an exciting mess of ideas.

“I really love spring because you still have the energy,” Embry says. “Sometimes those projects fall to the wayside come July, but right now we’re still fully invested in all of them.”

Mushroom spores are inoculating logs, compost piles are decomposing and lambs are settling into a recently sown pasture. The biggest task on the docket is adding 400 saplings to the farm’s shelterbelt and planting 200 trees and bushes that will one day become an orchard of apples, pears, haskaps, plums, apricots and hazelnuts. They’re happy to have Girard’s sister, Renée, helping out on the farm this year.

“My sister got laid off, which was a huge boon for us,” he says, jokingly. 

The siblings grew up on the farm and Girard is the fourth generation to try growing in the dense Red River clay. Their parents, who still live on the homestead, ran a u-pick strawberry patch for years until the flood of ’97 effectively ended the operation.

“They were terrific farmers, just unlucky,” Girard says.

Girard harvests asparagus daily. It is one of the crops that currently needs constant attention. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Girard harvests asparagus daily. It is one of the crops that currently needs constant attention. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

He was well-versed on the “hazards of farming” and strongly encouraged to get an education before committing to the family business. He moved to the city and finished a masters degree in English literature with a focus on cultural studies.

“I got the most useless education I could possibly get at the highest level,” he says, with a laugh. “But that was a wonderful experience and I don’t regret it.”

Embry is from downtown Toronto and “didn’t even know anyone who grew vegetables” when she was a kid. The couple met more than a decade ago while working at the former Bread & Circuses cafe off Corydon Avenue. Farming was a recurring topic of conversation.

“I couldn’t not farm, I would always regret it,” Girard says.

They spent the first two years after moving out to the homested turning an old barn into a home before starting to farm in earnest.

For Embry, books and WhatsApp chats with other farmers have been important resources while she navigates the operation as a first-generation farmer.

“I was intrigued by the farming thing. My interest was in livestock, I really was curious about that,” she says. “It’s been an enormous learning curve for me, but a really rich one.”

The couple raise chickens, geese, ducks, goats and sheep for food and fibre with goals of expanding their flock in the future.

Definitions are slippery, but Embry and Girard are practising what some might call regenerative agriculture. They are treading lightly on the land — quite literally, as they are “machine averse” — and building a complex ecosystem of cultivated plants and animals.

“I like the word resilient,” Embry says. “That’s what we’re striving towards.”

“We’re trying to build a farm that can weather, no matter the weather,” adds Girard. “Building capacity to take on challenges, to take on calamity.”

Gale-force wind was the calamity of choice last summer. In July, 100 km/h winds tore up their hoop houses and scattered the two-metre-tall plastic and metal structures across the property. While their tomatoes suffered from lack of protection, the sheep didn’t bat an eye and their cover crops thrived.

This year, the obvious calamity would be COVID-19, but Girard and Embry’s direct marketing business model is providing a different kind of resilience.

Instead of selling at the currently closed Downtown Farmers Market, they’ve built an online farm stand and are offering weekly produce drop-offs in Winnipeg. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Instead of selling at the currently closed Downtown Farmers Market, they’ve built an online farm stand and are offering weekly produce drop-offs in Winnipeg. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Instead of selling at the currently closed Downtown Farmers Market — which has accounted for nearly a third of Hearts and Roots’ income in previous years — they’ve built an online farm stand and are offering weekly produce drop-offs in Winnipeg. The first few deliveries of asparagus went seamlessly, thanks to a high-tech online payment system and a low-tech folding table buffer between customers.

“We were able to pivot very easily to this new system,” says Embry.

Direct Farm Manitoba — of which Girard is a board member — has been helping its members navigate pandemic guidelines. The organization, formed in 2017, represents 50 market groups and about 120 individual farm operations.

Public health orders have had varying impacts on the sector. Some markets haven’t opened because of location and washroom access and some farms have struggled to find enough seasonal staff.

“Small farms can rely quite heavily on paid labour,” says Phillip Veldhuis, president of Direct Farm and proprietor of Phil’s Honey. “Even if it’s the neighbour’s kid that helps you weed the garden or university students that are going to help you run your beehives, like I rely on.”

It’s not all bad, though; many meat and vegetable producers have seen an uptick in orders from new customers looking for an alternative to shopping at the grocery store.

“It’s a tragedy that I hope we don’t simply endure. It could be a catalyst to create more localized, stronger food economies with more participation, more diversity.”
‐ Justin Girard on his post-pandemic hope

Direct marketing has been part of farming since time immemorial, but Veldhuis says the local farm scene gained popularity in the mid-2000s when the idea of a 100-mile diet rose to prominence.

“That got traction within the broader community and we saw a tremendous increase in participation in farmers’ market customers around that time,” he says. “Now, they’re a small portion of the population — we have a lineup at the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market once a week and Costco has a lineup every day.”

Girard hopes the global pandemic causes more people to support local food systems.

“It’s a tragedy that I hope we don’t simply endure,” he says. “It could be a catalyst to create more localized, stronger food economies with more participation, more diversity.”

Of Manitoba’s 11.5 million acres of cropland 4,789 acres are dedicated to growing vegetables and 694 acres produce fruits, berries and nuts — the latter is the smallest area in Canada.

Veldhuis believes direct marketing allows a wider variety of farms and farmers to succeed in the local ag community.

“If you didn’t win the genetic lottery and are going to succeed your parents and grandparents on an existing farm, there really is no opportunity to engage in conventional agriculture,” he says. “I don’t want to slam those folks at all, they’re very good at what they do… and they produce food that we all need, but they don’t fill the whole dinner plate.”

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

@evawasney

Eva Wasney
Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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