The Next Chapter – Vidhatakulam Farm

Vidhatakulam farm is a large operation based in Madurai, south of Tamil Nadu. The farm is spread across two areas of land, one 470 acres and the other, 50 acres. It is run by three supervisors and 36 workers. Crops were produced semi-organically, using pesticides and artificial inputs when they deemed it necessary, but even with intervention, there have been struggles with yields for some time. Situated in an arid climate with sandy soils makes it challenging to grow a number of crops efficiently.

Through a friend, Raja heard about the difficulties being faced at the farm and decided to go and work with the supervisors and workers to regenerate the farm land, starting with the crux of all successful farming – building and restoring a healthy soil ecosystem.

The first steps were to observe the environment and assess the requirements needed to enable the farm ecosystem to thrive. The initial observations were that there were major problems with retaining water and nutrients in the soil (and root zone) for the crops, which was likely attributed to soil degradation and the soil type, ranging from sandy to a very sandy loam. It was evident that before any crop care could take place, soil care had to happen first.

Raja advised that the farm land needed to be planned well so that day-to-day management and crop rotations could be efficient, complimentory and lead to an overall higher yield. After the farm was partitioned into four areas, the soil care was undertaken.

Compost, compost and a little more compost. But don’t forget the mulch.

If you are going to practise organic farming, one must appreciate that what comes out of the soil must inevitably go back in. Life is a cycle of breaking matter down and using that matter to synthesise new material. Compost and mulch are two very effective ways to incorporate organic matter (a carbon-rich material containing vital vitamins and minerals, as well as important fauna) into the soil. They also provide other services to your organic operation. In different ways, both mulches and compost can help retain water in the soil, and mulches also reduce the burden of weeds. Vidhatakulam farm began receiving regular applications of compost and most beds and tree planted were mulched heavily.

The bed was mulched with Glircidia leaves to help improve soil carbon and nitrogen, as well as reduce soil erosion from the wind moving (sandy) soil partciles. The bed was then mulched with straw to improve moisture retention and increase soil nitrogen.

The papaya were also mulched with straw to help improve the mosture retention.

The farmers had never grown corriander on the farm for the fear that the crop would fail due to water drought-related issues due to the heat. With heavy mulches of rice husk to reduce the top soil temperature, combined with raised beds and drip irrigation, the corriander was a success!

 

Raised beds for a better crop

The beds were raised to enhance the nutrient availability to plants and help reduce water loss through the gradual production of humus-rich soil around the root zone of the crops. (In areas where water drainage is an issue, raised beds can also be used to improve water drainage) The raised beds were standardised to enable a good crop rotation and a wide crop variety were planted next to their companions to help with pest management and nutrient availability (click here for companion planting chart). The mulches and applications of compost reduced watering to every three days.

Variety of crops:

Area A: mixed vegetables, papaya, corn, squash, ginger, corriander, sweet potatoes, bush beans, marigold flowers

Area B: (tarted with tomatoes, then carrots, two beds of flowers, aubergine, grasses for mulch to be dried

Area C: vines growing on trellices – beans & ivy goard, pumpkin, some beds had onion, cluster beans, lady finger

All beds, apart from tree crops were planted in raised beds with compost and plant litter incorporated into the soil, drip irriagtion placed over the beds, then mulched with appropriate organic matter such as grasses, glircidia leaves or leaf litter.

Winds block are necessary on most farms, especially arid/semi-arid ones

Wind blocks were created from living matter; glircidia, tapeoca and velvet beans. The wind blocks helped to reduce soil degradation from wind erosion (click learn) and evaporation from the air circulation (click learn) which are essential on most farms, but especially semi-arid ones.

Changing your soil ecosystem to improve structure, chemical composition and stability

Natural inputs and pest management are crucial to organic farming. The following are promoted and used by Aranya Eco Village, and they have so far produced very good results:

Bioenzymes: these are used to change the state of the soil you have. Just like adding lime to an acidic soil to increase the pH (to neutral, pH of 6-7), you can use bacteria to change the chemical and physical composition of the soil to your required needs (alongside other inputs such as the right mulch, compost/manure and particles like clay, sand, silt and so forth). A quick internet search can bring up a lot of information surrounding bio-enzyme activity to improve soil chemical and structural stability.

Fish amino acids: provides an abundance of crucial nutrients to plants and soil microorganisms which live around the root zone breaking down soil organic matter releasing further nutrients in the form plants can use.

Fermented glircidia leaf juice: fed via drip irrigation, this liquid feed provides the plants with important nutrients, but as a liquid feed it doesn’t add high organic carbon containing compounds to the soil. This would require a glircidia mulch or manure.

Reducing annual crops for better soil ecosystems and higher financial returns

One of the regions of the farm was turned into a forest made up of cashew nuts, guagva, jack fruit, mango, sweet lime, lemon, mulberry and small berry varieties which would provide a perminent crop that requires less labour and inputs but generates an equally, if not better, income.

pruning guava tree

An area left bare was converted into a food forest containing local native forest trees and fruit and nut trees. Under the soon-to-be canopy, nitrogen fixing plants were established. These plants help retain soil water, increase soil carbon and nitrogen levels and reduce soil degradation.

All tree crops were given root treatment, heavy mulching and high compost/manure incorporation before they were planted. This helped the plants establish in the arid soil.

Seed saving – saves finances and improves crop success

Along the way, Raja started a small seed bank, picking varieties of crops that proved to be most successful in the environment. By seed saving and using varieties that have demonstrated great success previously, you can gain autonomy from having to source externally. This can reduce operational costs and lead to more reliable, high yielding crops.

The crucial message

The overall advise from Raja was to stop using artificial inputs and utilise organic, soil building, methods to improve yields; mulching, applying compost, root treatments on perennials, building raised beds, creating wind blocks, not leaving land bare, treating pests with natural methods (home-made inputs and companion planting), pruning correctly, selecting good seed varieties and overall, observing ways to establish a more perminant (permaculture) design to manage the farm …a couple of months down the line saw an incredible result. A lot of the crop yields took a 5x increase from previous harvests.

…This was the point Raja decided it was time to mobe onto the next adventure!

Some pictures of the farm…

 

 

 

 

 

 

So far… April 2019

This month’s blog post is to celebrate all the wonderful volunteers who have stayed at Aranya Eco Village and helped us on our journey.

Thank you all!..

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Our helpful friend pointed out that we are yet to include volunteer experiences in our blog posts… and they were right! All of our wonderful volunteers over the years have had little opportunity to let us know about their experience of Aranya Eco Village – what they liked and what they didn’t so much enjoy. So we would like to dedicate this blog post to our past volunteers – who have grafted in the early mornings, herded the cow(s) in the later afternoons, sown many seeds in their trays and watered all the crops along the way – who have, at the end of the day, made Aranya Eco Village what it is today.

We have been left with wonderful artistic sculptures, kitchen garden beds, new windows, doors and walls for a number of buildings and an ever-ending list of things that have come about from their generosity and hard work. They have been great and we are so grateful they chose to volunteer with us.

Sharing your experience of Aranya Eco Village

Have you stayed as a volunteer at Aranya Eco Village? Would you be happy to share your story? Whether the experience was good or bad, we’d really love to know all about it. This can be in as little or as much detail as you would like to share and can be discussed or merely acknowledged, we’ll leave you to direct the flow of conversation.

To help us develop our volunteer experience we must know what does and doesn’t work, from your perspective, not ours. Through hearing about your experiences (with your permission), we can take on recommendations and feedback to develop our volunteering programme in ways that really work for our volunteers.  If you enjoyed a certain activity, felt there was not enough time for… breakfast, for example, or found it too hot to work at certain times, these details can be taken on board and make a big difference to future volunteers. We also really want to hear about your overall experience and grasp your perspectives on Aranya Eco Village – feedback or not, we’d welcome an honest perspective about all that we are doing.

If you would like to share your volunteering experience, as well as any recommendations you may have, please get in touch through our email: ecovillagemovements@gmail.com or our Facebook page.  You can also visit our contact page in the above bar.

 Little farm update before we go

Whilst Raja (founder) was away in the North of India, we didn’t update to blog very much and most of the updates we did went through our Facebook page. Apologies to those of you who keep in touch through the blog posts, we will be updating regularly from now on.

Raja returned from the North of India in early April and brought his friends along too for a week of …thinking, really. You see, at the moment, we are looking at different ways for Aranya to develop itself, so we thought a spot of brain-storming with a dynamic group of people was the best way to do it. Whilst the group was at the farm, as well as brain-storming, they also helped with a lot of general farm tasks and lent their skills with landscaping and construction. As this is our first blog post since, we would like to take the opportunity to thank the group who were with us for that week – lots of great work took place and there was plenty of ‘food for thought’ generated – thank you Tribe!

As well as the group’s help, thanks to the big help we have received from Omar, Dhanu and Gundu (“thank you, thank you”), the farm now has a number of things growing in the beds; two types of chilli, peppers, red amaranth, four varieties of beans, corn, carrots, tomatoes, okra and zucchini – yum yum yum!

Here are a few snaps from the farm…

…plus a lovely video of all the fun had with the group – thank you friends for the video!

 

So this month’s post has really been a big thank you to all the hard-working, caring individuals we have been blessed to spend time with over the last few years. Where ever you all are now, we hope you are happy, healthy and enjoying life’s journey. Remember to send us a message if you have any comments on your experience of volunteering at Aranya Eco Village – we’re looking forward to hearing from you all!

Until the next time – wishing you all a lovely, productive month of May.

 

So Far… March 2019

It feels like only last month that we were writing about how time flies when you’re having fun… It was nine weeks ago since that blog post and what we said couldn’t be more true! Time has flown by whilst we have been enjoying these hot sunny days with lots of lovely volunteers from many different walks of life (“thank you for all your hard work!”).

Raja (founder) is still away in the North of India spending time with his family and learning about lots of interesting tips and tricks to aid with organic farming (mushroom farming in particular), natural building and sustainable living. We are looking forward to his return to hear all about his curious adventures, and of course, to just have him back at the farm with us all. And of course, once his stories have been shared with us, we will be sure to share them with you too.

…Until that point though, here are a couple of pictures of the month(s) activities, which we must admit, have been hindered slightly by the dry heats of February and March. It has been so hot, even the ponds no longer exist, so we are hoping it is a generous monsoon this year to refresh the farm… And us!

 

 

Happy Vibes from Aranya Eco Village!

…We’ll be back soon.

 

So far… The beginning of a New Year

Time flies by when you are having fun! At least that is what we think has happened these past few weeks into the New Year…

The month of December was lovely. Lots of seeds were planted in the crop rotation fields and kitchen garden, with hopes to have crops of sunflowers, eggplants, palak spinach, tomatoes, cow peas, amaranth and early banana.

 

 

So what went on, hey? Well, Raja (the founder of Aranya) planned a trip home to Bihar that turned out to be no ordinary trip in the end. He decided to hitch-hike his way from the farm in Tamil Nadu up to a Gender Freedom conference being held in his home town and organised by his brother who Ride(s) For Gender Freedom, educating people about gender equality. The conference was his Brother’s final stop on his cycle tour and it attracted lots of supporters and curious individuals to celebrate the journey. It was held on the 22-24th of December, 2018 and after a long but very rewarding journey, Raja and his friend, Ramesh, made it to the conference some 3000km away.

The journey began on the 16th of December and finished on the 24th of December, 2018. Raja decided to operate it on a gift-exchange – #Exchanging Kindness for Aranya Eco Village, which meant that when a kind stranger offered a lift or helping hand on the journey, they were exchanged for a stay at Aranya with food and board for 2 nights. We are unsure how many smiles will be seen again, but we are all so grateful for the kindness exchanged on Raja and Ramesh’s journey, helping them travel 2400km.

 

 

Of course Raja didn’t miss the opportunity to put the Electric Unicycle to the test – that little rechargeable mode of transport helped them a lot on their way to Bihar whilst also attracting lots of questions and interest. From what we hear, many people tried it out!

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Unfortunately, in the first week of Raja leaving Aranya, there was a minor set back created by an unexpected visit from a heard of passing elephants, most probably looking for a midnight snack… They found plenty of yummy bananas in one area of the farm and luckily decided to snack there and carry on moving, we expect, toward the elephant forest.

 

 

At first the visit came as a shock, especially to those back at the farm. We have now realised the need for some extra safety measures to ensure visitors and volunteers, as well as all of us, are safe from hungry elephants. We don’t want to stop the elephants from being able to trek through the lands, for it gives them a place to go and also, when an elephant eats, it will shortly after poop, leaving behind elephant dung full of useful fungi and nutrients for the soil. We simple need to mark off some areas they can go.  So overall, it was a win-win situation for Aranya and the elephants and it also taught us a valuable lesson about preparing for the unexpected.

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At present, Raja is still in Bihar working closely with his brother to help improve the local villages ecology, something we will speak more of in time but whilst he has been away the farm has been bustling with activity. Construction work has kept a good pace with the help of some wonderful volunteers (“thank you all!”). New features such as windows and furniture are being created regularly, helping to bring it all together bit-by-bit.

 

Overall, it has been a productive start to 2019 and we are sure that it will be a good year ahead, full of experiences to learn from, new friends to make and places to explore.

Wishing you a happy and healthy 2019 from all of us at Aranya Eco Village.

 

 

 

 

So far… October 2018

What a fun-filled October it has been! October started off with a visit from the travelling Korean school, Habana, that we have been blessed to get to know over the years from their visits to Auroville (a place almost like a second home to Raja). Habana is an unusual, creative school, based in South Korea. The whole ethos of the school is to learn not only the curriculum, but also to value the creative and expressionist features of life. They emphasise practical approaches to learning, through a variety of experiences, even in different cultural settings. Each year, the oldest group of students get the opportunity to spend the summer travelling the world, performing and learning along the way.  Performances can change depending on the group’s interests at the time, but often the talents shared with the world are drumming, body percussion, dance and singing.

Performance in the village by Habana travelling school:

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The values of the school, combined with the genuine curiosity of both students and staff members, means that the atmosphere, when gifted with their visits, is always bustling with questions and enthusiasm for the new activities underway. Rammed mud building, Electric Unicycle learning, cooking new cuisines and simply enjoying the regular farming duties is all met with a joy to learn and an eagerness to understand and internalise the knowledge being shared.

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In the video above, you can see the long process of ramming the mud and creating the smooth surface required for plastering. Quite of a lot of progress has actually been made on the farmhouse over this month. We not only had help from Habana, we also regularly had students from Snenagram co-learning at Aranya, helping with odd jobs through the day. The current developments have mostly been the left wall and patio seating area, under the Tamarind tree. We hope to create a tiled seating area for breaks out of the sun, tables for the weekend cafe and almost an extension to the farmhouse kitchen.

 

The rest of October has been much the norm – growing crops, caring for the plants and animals, farmers markets, networking and making new friends, teaching Electric Unicycle to eager learners and promoting nutrition, organic alternatives to rural dietary requirements. Here’s the month in pictures:

 

Have a Nourishing November!

So far… September 2018

A very quick “hello!” from us today to share the progress of the geo-dome which is slowly forming into the intended end result. It will be an open space for daytime activities, including workshops, and in the evening, it will act as a dormitory for volunteers and guests.

Because of the amount of different activities going on simultaneously at the farm, for example, finishing the farmhouse, toilet blocks and keeping the farm running, it has meant that some projects have made better headway than others. It is now time to get the geo-dome up and running.

We have managed to get hold of recycled cream sheeting to be used on the exterior, allowing light to pass through for the purpose of keeping seedlings in there in the day, whilst providing sturdy shelter for guests to sleep in at night. Unfortunately… we have not managed to acquire the stones needed for the flooring. Originally, the floor was going to made from a rammed mud technique, use coconut chippings, but after a reevaluation of the area and local species, the question of termites was raised. Termites are a common insect in the area and known for their destructive abilities. We felt the coconut flooring would have been a real termite attraction, so we decided to replicate the flooring of the farmhouse – a mural of naturally occurring flagstones, filled with stone chipping to smooth the surface. It can be found in our older post here.

 

 

If you have been following our progress from the beginning, you may be wondering why everything is taking it’s time. In all honesty, it is not a lack of passion, nor ideas, but merely constraints on human and resource capital. Because we self-fund the whole project, relying on generous members of the public, and our own incomes, there is only so much to go around. But if you stick by us, keep checking in from time to time, and have confidence, we ensure, in due time, you will not be disappointed with the end result. Also, we just wanted to mention again that this project is a big learning curve for us all, so we are always welcoming input – if you realise you may know a better way of doing something, have a skill you want to come and share with us, or simply just want to get involved in a way that suits you, just send us an email and we would love to spend the time.

Before we say our “goodbyes”, we would like to introduce you to a school that we are being blessed with a visit from in October. The school is called Habana and is based in South Korea. The values of the school put great emphasis on creative and expressionist learning alongside integrated cultural education, which is why for many years the older students have been given the opportunity to travel around the world learning different skills and exploring varied cultures. They are an inspiring school to be visited by, not only because of the amazing students themselves, but also, the skills and talents they bring with them to share with the world. Luckily enough, we were visiting Sadhana Forest, in Auroville, at the same time as their stay their and we were able to catch one of their performances. In 2016, Auroville danced the night away! 

 

We stopped recording at that point to go and join the fun! 

Thanks for checking in, we appreciate all of the support. Wishing you a wonderful September wherever you are in the world! 

 

So far… August 2018

August has been a month of everything – finishing up on old jobs, starting new ones and keeping the farm running. We haven’t had much time to sow new crops, so we intend to catch up with our food production in the coming month. We’re happy to announce, though, that the farmhouse is now in the process of being plastered! The feature photograph above shows the blue, which is one of the colours we are using for the interior, the other colours will follow.

Many of you who regularly check in will know that Aranya Eco Village is trying to create all the constructions in the most environmentally sustainable way possible, to minimise ecological harm and both direct and indirect degradation to the environment. The farmhouse is a natural build, made from rammed mud and recycled resources, and on similar lines, the plastering material is made from a mixture of two types of mud, lime and iron oxides, in a range of different colours.

Tamil Nadu is blessed with a wide variety of soils, including high fertility Black soils and low fertility Red soils, that when mixed with set ratios of lime, plus the iron oxides for colouring, make up superb plastering material. If you’re curious about the characteristics of black and red soils, follow the links. To find out a bit more about the use of Iron Oxides as colourants, follow the link here.

 

We are using red, yellow and brown oxides from completely natural origins, alongside blue and green oxides that have been derived from natural oxides and modified to produce the blue and green pigments. 

At the moment, it is hard to visually capture the plastering taking place, as it is happening bit by bit, but soon we will be able to post photographs of the whole interior. On a side note, in the far right photograph featured above, you might notice a bizarre little yellow thing, with one wheel… that is Raja’s new mode of transport, an Electric Unicycle, that can reach a speed of 20kph (12mph). It’s a wonderful new transport technology that can run off any form of electric, including solar power – the route Raja has taken to power his own. The organisation promoting these fantastic alternatives is based in Bangalore and is actually a club, the Electric Unicycle Club, that’s networking the unicycle through #RideTheFuture on Facebook and other social media outlets, so keep your eyes out for their work!

Just to give you a taste, have a look at their recent video…

Cool… right! So maybe if you’re looking for a handy vehicle to get you around town, instead of a motorbike or scooter, this could be an affordable and sustainable alternative to consider? 

Whilst we’re on the subject of ‘cool’ things, Raja bumped into a group of really cool 40172908_10215170141518534_7055484596959313920_opeople who were selling their produce on a stall at the roadside. A group of people who already knew Raja from around five years ago when he helped them to start their organic farming at Snehagram! They have enthusiastic young minds and are eager to learn the best ways to organically cultivate food crops. At the moment they’re growing 15 different crops as well as a large variety of South Asian crops. These strong minded individuals work hard alongside their studies to cultivate delicious food crops. Two of these hard-working individuals are Kalesh, 18 years old and Lakshmikanth, also 18. 

After talking for some time with Raja, Kalesh and Lakshmikanth setup an arrangement to be tutored by him. The tutoring will range from organic farming, farm management and seed selecting to natural fertiliser and pest management. In return, they agreed to spend some time helping at Aranya Eco Village farm to support crop production.

Snehagram is an unusual and wonderful place. It is a home, a place for learning and a nurturing environment for adolescents who have faced hardships brought about by health circumstances. They enable young adults to pursue a wide variety of both academic and vocational development courses, allowing Kalesh and Lakshmikanth to study for a university degree whilst they manage their organic food farm and dairy farm. We can’t praise the organisation, nor the dedicated students that live and develop there, enough.  It is wonderful to have rekindled the bond between Aranya and the group.

Kalesh has lived his life in the shadow of fear, due to the health complications he has experienced. His dream is to one day lead a healthy, happy and fulfilling life with his dear family. This is the beginning of his journey to actualise that vision for himself. So if you are passing their regular stall on a …., located …., why don’t you pull up and check out their variety of fresh available produce. It’s organic and grown with passion and the money filters back to supporting the hard work of both the organisation and these wonderful young farmers.

So that’s been the month of August. A here, there and everywhere month with a lot to catch up on before the arrival a travelling school! Come back in September to hear more about the unusual school that sends their students all over the world to learn, develop and share their skills and knowledge. It is another example of a pretty ‘cool’ school. 

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So far… July 2018

The farm has been running itself for most of July, with of course a little help from Gowda39406841_1072171989609789_5759930110375362560_n and some friends. Luckily, it’s been the monsoon season, so all the crops were gifted with plenty of water which meant Raja could leave the farm without worrying too much. It was a month of wedding celebrations for dear friends which was filled with lots of laughter, and left wonderful memories. We hope your July has been filled with joy too!

Since June, when we talked of our weekly market, we have changed the frequency from ‘weekly’ to every ‘two weeks’. We found that the amount of produce we were transporting and the costs of transportation, for now, deemed it more appropriate to hold the market twice a month, on a Saturday morning, working out to be around every two weeks.

Apart from the transportation costs, the market seems to be going quite well. We have a growing customer base and the word seems to be spreading about our ‘pop-up’ market. From the farmers’ perspectives, overall, we’ve had positive feedback. We still need to increase the public’s awareness of the market and correct the small details that are costing profit, such as the transportation, but we are getting there.

Since 2017, Raja has been learning the art of natural soap making, using essential oils, Aloe Vera, Hibiscus flower, Hibiscus leaf and naturally occurring soap called saponin, which is found inside the berries produced by the Sapindus Mukorossa tree, native to the Himalayan region. The combination of ingredients was passed on from other natural soap makers in the North, we have merely modified the scent and health benefiting properties of the soap (the essential oils). We are now producing shampoo bars, body wash and baby care bars, which are made with extra care for sensitive skin. The reviews so far give us confidence that they are fit for their purpose; leaving hair silky smooth and skin without any irritation. The plus to it all is that they are environmentally friendly! These are now available at the weekly market or directly through Raja.

We will be back in August to show you all the progress with the farmhouse and plastering. It’s getting there… splash of colour by splash of colour.

Although this video was produced in June, we thought it would be a nice to have a look into the farm-life. Enjoy the rest of July!

 

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So far… June 2018

June has been a food-filled month!

The market is starting up in Bangalore at the moment. We’ve had sporadic markets in the past, but we now plan to make weekly. The market will supply people with oil seeds, oils, pulses, grains, vegetables, fruits, spices and herbs. We are also selling some handmade natural soap and shampoo bars, nutritious treats and healthy ferments. poster for farm market.png

The market is designed to allow small-scale organic farmers and growers to market their produce directly to the customers. People can ask them questions, build a relationship and also find out more about future produce that will be available.

We’re hoping the market will become a social hub, s space for creativity and learning. Film screenings and hosted talks will become a regular event, providing an opportunity for people to drop in and learn about food, nutrition, farming, the environment and many other things.

We want the market to become a really positive and enjoyable experience for both the farmers and the customers.

So here’s a look at the market. We have small stalls dotted about and we are welcoming other organic smallholders to set up their own stalls and also reap some benefits. At the first market, the turn-out wasn’t what we were hoping for, but that’s down to our own marketing, or should we say, lack of it. We’re tackling this by spreading the word through social media and putting posters up around town. Social media has become an integral part of our marketing because it reduces paper use and improves our ability to communicate with the public through providing a free platform to give regular updates. So if you are wanting to know more about the market, keep an eye on our Facebook Page.

We’ll leave it short and sweet today. Enjoy what’s left of June.

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