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An interview with ALFA’s new Chief

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Jimmy Parnell, is the new president, CEO and Chairman of the Board of ALFA. He is a native of Stanton, Al., and a graduate of Auburn University in agricultural business and economics. He served on Alfa’s board of directors from 1999-2008; was chairman of the Alabama Farmers Federation Young Farmers State Committee in 1997; and has been president of the Chilton County Farmers Federation since 2006. In 1999, he and his family were named Alabama’s Outstanding Young Farm Family.

Parnell, 48, is fifth-generation farmer and a partner in his family’s beef cattle farm and timber business. In 2006, the Alabama Forestry Association named him Alabama Logger of the Year. He has served in numerous leadership roles for business, environmental, agricultural organizations that include Central Alabama Farmers Co-op board of directors, Chilton County Water Authority, Chilton County Soil and Water Conservation District, National Cattlemen Beef Association and the Alabama Forest Fund.

This year he was elected to lead ALFA into the future, we were privileged to speak with Mr. Parnell, at the ALFA headquarters in Montgomery. The Following is a partial transcript of out conversation. 

APR: If you would please tell us a little about yourself, your backround and anything you would like to share?

jimmy_parnellParnell: I’d be glad to. I was born and raised in Chilton county. My family has been there for multiple generations. I think my family was there when they took the first census in Alabama. I don’t remember what year but a long, long time ago.

I come from a small family. What I mean by that is that there are not thousands of Parnells in the world, we are a relatively small little group.

The family has always been in the timber business and had a farm for multiple generations. They always had cotton, cows, corn and pigs, normal little farms in Alabama. But the men in the family have always worked in the woods. Some of the family members are in sawmills, some logged. So that is my heritage, what I come from.

As a child, loved to farm, maybe more than normal farm kids because I knew that is what I wanted to do is be involved in agriculture from my earliest memories. I grew up trading and selling eggs, goats, chickens and working in the garden.

My parents taught me to work early and think. They gave me a lot of opportunities to figure out things.

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I was born to a young family, Mother and Daddy were teenagers when I was born so we kind of grew up together. Because of the closeness in our age we kind of reversed roles a little bit. What I mean by that is Daddy loved to work and he would send me to take care of business. I grew up kind of being the lead person in the businesses. By the time I was 12 I was doing payroll and paying the men, handling the landowners, that was just me. That is kind of my background. Thought one time that I wanted to be a veterinarian and started college along that track and decided there was no way I could go to college that long. I changed majors to Ag, Business and Economics. Graduated from Auburn with a degree in Agriculture and Business. The whole time I was at Auburn I was running the farm and businesses at home. I was at Auburn during the week and as soon as I could get out of class on Thursday evening or Friday, I headed home in time to pay men Friday evening. I was not the normal college kid, I guess. I don’t guess I have ever been normal.

I like what I do and I love working. I love being involved with people in agriculture and people in general. I just like people. I like to visit with people and understand them, hear what they have going on.

APR: What made you decide to run for president of ALFA?

Parnell: I had been on the board here for 9 years as an elected person, one year as Young Farmer Chairman prior to that. Even before that I was involved in the organization as a young farmer. Many years ago Mr. Doug Ritney who, at that time, was executive director federation, I was back here in one of these offices visiting with somebody about an issue, he came in and just as nonchalant as you can imagine he said, “Someday, you are going to be president of this organization.” That was the first time that it ever crossed my mind. It seemed impossible to me but he planted a seed. I had other comments throughout the years from other individuals, so I guess the seed was there and it just kind of grew over the years. I ran five years ago against an incumbent and didn’t make it. I have had it in my mind for a good while now, worked hard and got it done this time.

APR: If you could, give us an idea of how you see the future of ALFA. You all do a lot of different things.

Parnell: Basically, there are two different organizations. You have the Federation that is involved in political issues and agriculture issues and basically anything that affects people in the state of Alabama. That side of the house, that is sort of their marching orders is to see after the things that are conservative goals of our membership.

Then we have the insurance side of the house. We are modeled after Farm Bureau, we were a Farm Bureau and changed names and now we are back to Farm Bureau but the same concept. It is all over the country with the two organizations.

In the insurance side, I am focused on growing our business, servicing our customers better, trying to say “yes” to our customers rather than “no.” With all that has been going on in the state over the last few years (what I mean by that is the weather issues), we have been saying “no” a lot. I want to reverse that and learn how to say “yes,” find a way to service those customers. That is my goal there.

We have an excellent organization and we are going to build upon the good people. That is our best asset, our greatest asset is our people. We have people in every county in Alabama that are, for the most part, the kind of guys and ladies that you see at church. They are on a committee at church and they are at the little league ballgame, they might be on a town council, they are the heart and soul of their communities. They are good people that are respected by their neighbors. That is how we sell insurance, by being there and building those relationships. We want to build on that and allow people to do more that they are good at.

We are focusing on running the business better in order to allow them to sell more insurance. We have to cut expenses, make good decisions. We have to do all of the things that it takes to run a business properly in order to be able to service the customer. That is our goal on the insurance side. I would like to see some growth.

On the federation side we would also like to see growth. Basically there is a mutual interest among the two. If one grows, maybe the other one will. That will allow us on the political side to be more active if we have growth in membership on our Federation side. We are very optimistic there that we can make this happen, that we can better represent the farmers and agriculture in the state of Alabama while at the same time represent the conservative beliefs of the majority of the people of Alabama.

APR: With the Republican legislature and a Republican governor in the state, there are even Republican journalists if you can believe that, there is more of an emphasis on things that are conservative. However, everything that appears it is going to be conservative is not necessarily going to be. We all come at it from a different perspective. We all have the same goals. We are not real different, we are very similar in the way we view things. We have tried to explain to people, if you are not from the South you don’t get it.

Parnell: I agree, they can’t comprehend.

APR: Are there any particular things that are on your mind about the upcoming session?

Parnell: We’ve done our homework. We think there are several bills that concern us or are of interest to us. One is this concept of efficiency in government where you have one or [at least] fewer organizations that are involved in law enforcement, kind of a unification of that.

There is more than one bill out there. The thing that interests us is that each of the individuals that are talking about this and promoting these bills are all interested in some ag investigators. We have lost all of our ag investigators. There used to be the Department of Ag. We think they are a vital role. Not knocking any other branch of law enforcement, they are all good people and they are doing a good job, but they do not understand that if somebody tells the average deputy in Alabama, he lost an Angus cow, they don’t know what color that cow is. You need somebody with some ag background to pursue these kind of ag investigations.

A lot of issues, cattle rustling is at an all time high or at least a recent all time high because the price is a little higher when it comes to cattle. We have suffered for several years with copper theft on farms. They can come in and take out a 10 foot piece of electrical wire off of a center pivot and it doesn’t seem like a big deal but it is thousands of dollars once you replace the whole wiring.

That is the kind of things that we are talking about.

A huge issue across the state is 4-wheeler or ATV theft. For some reason the regular law enforcement just don’t seem to get their arms around issues like that. We feel like an ag investigator would be more oriented. It is farm equipment on most farms.

APR: Is it that under the consolidation, you want the ag investigators to come back?

Parnell: We want ag investigators.Each proposal is talking about an ag investigator. Also the Commissioner of Agriculture is looking for a way to get ag investigators back. We think we may be able to get what we want out of one of these deals. Hopefully we can get somebody that is focused on agriculture investigations.

APR: So it is not really the consolidation that you are interested in?

Parnell: We are interested in anything that will save money for the state of Alabama but we are particularly interested in those ag investigators being available to protect the people.

APR: I received a call the other day where somebody was concerned that there is nobody to check scales and gas pumps.

Parnell: That is definitely an issue. It is hard for the Commissioner of Agriculture to do currently with his budget constraints. He has some ideas on that that are interesting. He is talking about privatizing Weights and Measures. We all need to make sure we get a full gallon of gas if we buy a gallon of gas.

Jeff Helms: We are actually pretty encouraged that everybody talking so far about the law enforcement consolidation has at least mentioned and acknowledged the need for ag investigation, whether it is Senator Marsh with his plan or the Governor with his plan or the Commissioner trying to get funding in the legislature, they all understand the need is there. That is the first battle, to make sure that everybody understand that there is a need.

Parnell: That’s a positive move for us and we are going to work with all of them to try to find the right blend. I don’t think we are going to disagree on any of it particularly if they are trying to help us.

Also, one thing that our membership is interested in is the payback bill for the trust fund. We have a positive feeling that is going to be the first piece of legislation. That’s important. They said they were going to do it. I look forward to it being done, where we have a commitment in place that we are going to put this money back that we borrowed out of that trust fund. If you and I had written that bill we would have included it. It should have been in there and I think they all realize that. They are trying to fix it.

Last year, we promoted, and it passed, a bill that gave some tax credit for farmers putting in irrigation systems. We think that is very important to the South. When you travel through the Midwest, and even the Farwest, where it is so dry. They have put in irrigation out there for the most part with government money, years ago. A type of infrastructure with government money and the farmer did it on his farm. It also includes some upgrades [to existing systems] to save water. We want to continue to promote things like that. Things that help our farmers.

There is a huge demand in the South for corn. All of these poultry farms need it. Last year was a fair year in the South. I am told that with a pretty good crop of corn we generated three days of feed for the chickens in Alabama. So there is a lot of room that we could market ourselves if we could grow more corn irrigation is going to be essential.

As far as infrastructure, we feel that we need to be looking at some of our rural roads. Farm-to-market roads were built by our grandparents and we are still using those roads and they are beginning to show it. At some point we have to figure out a mechanism to improve some of these rural roads. Some of them are getting in bad shape. We may have that problem of getting something to market if we don’t address that.

The other thing that is a big issue with us is career tech and proper funding for career tech. It not only effects agriculture, it effects the whole state. We need people with skills to do work. We talk about unemployment and it is a big problem. The biggest problem is that a lot people don’t have a skill set to go to work. If they had a skill set they could get a job. We think career tech is a vital role in that. I don’t know at what the age but at the right age, this kid in early high school needs to think, “Well, I am probably not going to college. What could I do?” He might learn how to weld, he might learn how to do something else. There is a whole range of skills for people that are interested in working.

Mr. Parnell, is an engaging man, who appears to have a firm grasp on the helm at ALFA. We wish him and the company great success, for a bright future.

 

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Health

Three mental health crisis centers coming to Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville

“Today marks a culture change in Alabama for treatment of individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders,” Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear said.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey Press held a press conference with Alabama Dept. of Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear for the announcement of Crisis Center Awards Wednesday, October 28, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday announced an $18 million project to create three new mental health crisis centers to be located in Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville. 

These centers, once in operation, will reduce the number of people suffering from mental health crises who are hospitalized or jailed, Ivey said during a press briefing in front of the Capitol Building in Montgomery. 

“When these facilities are open and fully staffed, these centers will become a safe haven for people facing mental health challenges,” Ivey said. 

Lynn Beshear, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, said during the briefing that the centers will provide “recovery based” care with “short term stays of a few hours, or up to a few days, to provide treatment, support, and connection to care in the community.” 

“Today marks a culture change in Alabama for treatment of individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders,” Beshear said. 

Beshear said AltaPointe Health in Mobile will operate one of the three facilities, and once built it is to serve Mobile, Baldwin, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia, Monroe and Washington counties with 21 new beds, including 15 temporary observation beds. Altapointe will begin with a temporary space while constructing the new facilities, she said. 

Beshear said the Montgomery Area Mental Health Authority is partnering with the East Alabama Mental Health Authority and the Central Alabama Mental Health Authority to serve the 11 counties in Region 3 with 21 new beds, including 10 temporary observation and respite beds. 

“The regional crisis center will be located in Montgomery, and will be open to walk-ins and for drop off by law enforcement, first responders and referrals from emergency rooms,” Beshear said. 

Wellstone Behavioral Health in Huntsville was selected to open the third center, and will do so at a temporary site while a new facility is being built, with the help of an additional $2.1 million from local governments, Beshear said. That facility will eventually have 39 beds, including 15 for temporary observation and 24 for extended observation.

“There’s not a day that goes by that after-hours care is not an issue in our state,” said Jeremy Blair, CEO of Wellstone Behavioral Health, speaking at the press conference. “And so I applaud the Department of Mental Health and the leaders for their efforts in recognizing that and taking it a step further and funding our efforts here.” 

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Asked by a reporter why a center wasn’t located in Jefferson County, one of the most populous counties with a great need for such a center, Ivey said those residents will be served in one of the other regions. 

“Plans are underway to continue this effort. Today’s beginning, with these three crisis centers, is just the beginning,” Ivey said. 

Ivey added that request for proposals were sent out for these three centers and “it was a strong competition for the location of these three crisis centers.” 

Alabama House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said during the briefing that more than a year ago, Ivey asked him what the state should be looking at, and that he replied “we’re failing miserably in mental health.”

Gov. Kay Ivey Press held a press conference with Alabama Dept. of Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear and House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter for the announcement of Crisis Center Awards Wednesday, October 28, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor’s Office/Hal Yeager)

Ledbetter said Ivey asked him to take on the challenge of correcting the state’s response to mental health, and a team was created to do just that. 

“Working together, today’s announcement will not only change Alabamians lives, but will help to save lives,” Ledbetter said.

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Health

Ainsworth returns to work after testing positive for COVID

Ainsworth’s office on Sept. 21 announced he had tested positive earlier that week, having been tested after someone in his Sunday school class tested positive for the disease. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth speaks during a video message. (LT. GOVERNOR'S OFFICE)

Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth on Wednesday announced that he was returning to work that day and had met public health requirements for quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19 some time last week.

Ainsworth’s office on Sept. 21 announced he had tested positive earlier that week, having been tested after someone in his Sunday school class tested positive for the disease. 

“While many have battled with coronavirus, my symptoms never progressed beyond some mild congestion that I usually experience with seasonal allergies,” Ainsworth said in a statement. “During the quarantine period, I participated in several Zoom calls, caught up on some office work, spent some quality time with my family, and completed a number of overdue projects on my farm.”

Members of Ainsworth’s staff who were in close contact with him haven’t tested positive for COVID-19 but will remain in quarantine for a full 14-day period as a precaution, according to a press release from Ainsworth’s office Wednesday. 

“Ainsworth once again urges all Alabamians to practice personal responsibility, which may include wearing masks, maintaining social distancing whenever possible, and taking other precautions to lessen chances of exposure to COVID-19,” the press release states.

Ainsworth still disagrees with Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide mask mandate, he said. According to the release, he considers such orders “a one-size-fits-all governmental overreach that erodes basic freedoms and liberties while removing an individual’s right to make their own health-related choices.” 

The wearing of cloth or medical masks has been proven to inhibit the spread of COVID-19 and the more people who wear masks, the better. While not perfect, masks limit the spread of respiratory droplets that may contain infectious virus shed from the nose and mouth of the mask wearer.

It is possible — even likely — for symptomatic, pre-symptomatic and mildly symptomatic people to spread the virus. That’s why it’s important to wear a mask even when you’re not sick.

Cloth masks offer only minimal protection from others who are not masked, meaning that masks are not simply a matter of personal safety but safety of others. Masks are also only effective when worn over both the mouth and the nose. [Here’s a guide on how to wear masks properly.]

VIA UAB

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Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, told Ivey after she announced the statewide mask order that it was a “brilliant” idea. The order has been credited by Alabama infectious disease experts as having dramatically reduced the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the weeks after the order went into effect. 

Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told APR on Tuesday that from personal observation he is seeing more people not wearing masks, or wearing them improperly, and said the state could dramatically reduce the risk of COVID-19 if the public regularly wore masks and wore them properly.

Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in Alabama on Monday crossed the 1,000 mark for the first time since Aug. 31 — a sign that Alabama may be headed for another peak in hospitalizations as the state prepares for winter and flu season.

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Elections

Faith in Action Alabama calls on law enforcement to protect voters from harassment

“In these harrowing days it is incumbent upon all of us as citizens and you and your colleagues as law enforcement professionals to do all we can to maintain this right secured by so much courage and sacrifice.”

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Nine clergy members from across the state have signed an open letter calling on local and state law enforcement to protect voters against intimidation and harassment at the polls.

The clergy are leaders in Faith in Action Alabama, a regional association of Christian congregations affiliated with the national group Faith in Action, the largest grassroots, faith-based organizing network in the country. It seeks to address a range of issues like gun violence, health care, immigration and voting rights.

This is their letter:

Across our country and here in Alabama, it is being seen that citizens are turning out in record numbers to vote early and by absentee ballots. It is very heartening to see so many of our fellow citizens energized and committed to exercising that most fundamental and critical duty of citizenship, the use of their franchise.  As servant leaders of an ecumenical association of nearly 2,000 faith communities across our state we are certainly encouraging our congregants to fulfill this duty either through early, absentee or day of election voting. For us this is not only part of our civic duty, but as people of faith obligation as well.

Unfortunately, it it also largely known that there are forces in our country that are actively, publicly and fervently at work to suppress the votes of some of our fellow citizens. We write to implore you to use the full authority of your office and department to ensure that those who seek to vote, especially on November 3, 2020 are not assailed or intimidated by illegal harassment in their polling places. We believe these threats are pervasive enough and real enough that proactive measures should be in place as citizens come to vote throughout that day. The strong, visible presence of uniformed legitimate law officers will hopefully prevent any attempts at confrontation or intimidation and violence.

The history of our state is marked by the efforts of tens of thousands of Alabamians who marched, protested, brought legal actions, shed their blood and some even gave their lives that every citizen of this state might have full and free access to the ballot box. In these harrowing days it is incumbent upon all of us as citizens and you and your colleagues as law enforcement professionals to do all we can to maintain this right secured by so much courage and sacrifice.

Please be assured of our prayers for you and the men and women of your department who have the awesome responsibility of providing public safety and equal protection under the law for every Alabamian. If we, the members of Faith in Action Alabama’s Clergy Leadership Team, can be of assistance please do not hesitate to call upon us.

Sincerely,

Rev. Jeremiah Chester, St. Mark Baptist Church, Huntsville

Rev. David Frazier, Sr., Revelation Missionary Baptist Church, Mobile, and Moderator, Mobile Baptist Sunlight Association

Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, Fifth Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

Bishop Russell Kendrick, Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast

Bishop Seth O. Lartey, Alabama-Florida Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

President Melvin Owens, Alabama State Missionary Baptist Convention

Bishop Harry L. Seawright, Ninth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church

Dr. A.B. Sutton, Jr., Living Stones Temple, Fultondale

Father Manuel Williams, C.R., Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South, Montgomery

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National

Report: Alabama’s Black Belt lags behind state in economic prospects

Black Belt counties lag behind others in economic prospects and investments in businesses.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(APR GRAPHIC)

It took Marquis Forge five years and 18 banks before he and his partner were able to open their company, Eleven86 Water, in Autauga County, just north of the Black Belt, and a report released Tuesday shows how Black Belt counties lag behind others in economic prospects and investments in businesses. 

Forge, a former University of Alabama football player, told reporters during a briefing Monday that he considers Autauga County, which borders the Black Belt’s Lowndes County, part of the Black Belt, and said it shouldn’t have been so difficult to access the capital needed to start a business. 

The report released Tuesday by the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center titled “Black Belt manufacturing and Economic Prospects” is the last in the center’s Black Belt 2020 series, and found that only four of the state’s 24 Black Belt counties, as defined by the center, are above the statewide average of 22.4 businesses per 1,000 residents, and just one, Montgomery County, was above the 2018 statewide average of personal income of $43,229. 

Researchers also found that just three Black Belt counties are above the state’s average in gross domestic product being produced by counties of $45,348. 

“To achieve Governor Ivey’s ambitious goal of 500,000 a million more Alabama workers with skills by 2025, all hands have to be ‘on deck.’ It will require higher labor force participation rates, particularly in the Black Belt, where the average is 20 points below the statewide average,” said Stephen Katsinas, director of the university’s Education Policy Center and one of the authors of the report. 

“Due to smaller economies of scale, our approaches to  education, workforce development, and community building will have to be different to reach Alabama’s Black Belt,” Katsinas continued. “In the longer term, we first must define the Black Belt, because you can’t measure what you can’t define. Then we must do what West Alabama Works is doing–go where the people are to bring hope by connecting them to a well-aligned lifelong learning system that makes work pay.”   

Donny Jones, COO of Chamber of Commerce West Alabama and Executive Director of West AlabamaWorks, told reporters Monday that one of the keys to helping the Black Belt will  be helping state and Congressional legislators understand the nuances of rural Alabama. 

Jones said the state should look at how colleges are graded, and that many smaller colleges don’t get credit for putting students through programs that get them short-term certificates that lead to jobs. 

“Those are some of the things on the statewide level that we can really start to work on,” Jones said, adding that they’ve already begun teaching modern manufacturing in Black Belt high schools that gives students college credits toward an associates degree while still in high school. 

“I think that’s very important for individuals to understand the impact that we can have in our higher ed and our K-12 system, really works hand in glove to move the needle for workforce development,” Jones said. 

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Jim Purcell, State Higher Education executive officer of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, told reporters that it’s also important to look at one’s own community and identifying what is “unique and special,” and said he was recently in Autauga County, where he is from, and bought two cases of Eleven86 Water because he remembered how good the water there was. 

“I think that’s what you’ve done, is you’ve taken the gift that Autauga’s environment has and enhanced it, so that the people can benefit from it,” Purcell said to Forge. “I think that’s the key.” 

Asked what he’d tell state legislators to spur them to make changes so that other entrepreneurs wouldn’t have to struggle as hard as he did to open a business, Forge said he would ask for a clearer path for assistance. 

“Instead of digging down through a tunnel with a spoon I would have someone outline the tracks on getting funds and assistance from local, state and the national level, because there are funds out there,” Forge said. 

After going to 18 banks to get the financing he needed, he still had to liquify all his assets to make it happen, Forge said. 

“How many people are going to do that?” he asked. “We shouldn’t have to do that.”

To read all of the Education Policy Center’s reports on Alabama’s Black Belt, visit here.

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