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$64 tomato

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Read an Excerpt from The $64 Tomato

I first heard about Superchuck before I saw him. Anne told me a groundhog was eating the tomatoes. I had so much faith in my fencing that I was a little skeptical at first. I picked a blade of grass and touched it to the fence. Ouch. The fence was working.

"Maybe a large bird," I suggested.

"Then we better keep the kids inside until you capture it. Look at the size of this bite," Anne said, displaying a tomato with a huge chunk missing.

It did look like a groundhog bite. Then, visual confirmation: over the next few weeks, we occasionally saw him lounging and eating in our garden. I hauled out a Havahart trap, baited it up with apples, and set it in the garden. No luck, of course. After all, why would he go into a little cage for food, when he has the entire bounty of the garden spread before him? For several days we observed him eating, sunning, and just generally hanging out in the garden like Brigitte Bardot on the Riviera. I never saw him enter, but when startled, he dashed between the electric wires like they weren't there. I spent a morning adding a few more strands of wire close to the ground. My wires were now about three inches apart. There was no way he could slip between them without getting shocked. Nevertheless, the next day, there he was again, munching on the lettuce.

This didn't make sense. I checked the voltage on the fence. Only 3,000 volts. It should have been registering at least 6,000. Ah-ha! A rational explanation! His thick fur was insulating him from the "mere" 3,000-volt current. After the fence company's technical people walked me through some tests, they determined that my charger was bad. Rather than repair it (and be without it for a week), I opted to buy a new, more powerful one with a 10,000-volt charge. "Can I ask you a question?" Anne said, noting the escalation into five-digit voltage. "Is this safe?"

Now that was an interesting question. The catalog naturally insisted that fences were safe for humans, but did include a disturbing disclaimer. There was indeed, out of the thousands of chargers and fences they had sold, a single case of a human fatality. I told Anne the story as she blanched. At this point I would have put up a fence with a hundred thousand volts if that's what it took to protect my Brandywine tomatoes, so I forged ahead and phoned in the order. The new charger arrived in the mail two days and half-dozen tomatoes later. I hooked it up and waited for the remaining tomatoes to ripen.

As did Superchuck. He was coming into and going out of the garden so frequently now it wasn't uncommon to see him penetrating the fence from my kitchen window. Once I actually saw him crawl through, jerking violently from a shock, and continue on. He was willing to absorb a 10,000-volt shock to get a tomato! This was not supposed to happen. The whole idea of an electric fence is deterrence — pain — and it is based on the science that animals do not like shocks. But Superchuck had figured out that the shock wasn't going to kill him, and after all, I was growing heirloom Brandywines.

At least he had good taste. Brandywine tomatoes are one of the best-tasting tomatoes in the world and nearly impossible to find at farm stands. The Brandywine was first introduced by Amish farmers in 1885, but has only become well known to gardeners and gourmands in the past decade or so. I think they would be more widely sold were it not for the fact that they are prone to cracking near the stem, a visual defect only, but as with apples, a near-fatal one in our image-obsessed society.

The cracking didn't bother Superchuck, who preferred the Brandywines to the cherry and French tomatoes. A few days later, there he was again, in the garden. I was starting to develop a kind of respect for this fat, ugly, Brandywine-loving groundhog who was rewriting the book on pest control. I should have captured him for science, but I was in a war, and losing. In order to maximize the voltage, I went out and bought some 4-foot long galvanized steel grounding rods and pounded them deep into the earth to get a better earth contact for the ground wires. I ran more wire between the other strands. I smeared the whole thing with peanut butter. Still he continued to raid the tomatoes. Then one day, in what seemed like a rare moment of lucidity, I put the trap, baited with cut-up apples, outside the fence, hoping that he would tire of the shock and go for the easy meal in the Havahart. I set the trap up the morning before going to work. That evening, there was nothing but browned apples in the trap. Now you really shouldn't leave the trap loaded overnight, because you might catch a skunk or some other nocturnal animal, but Superchuck was an early riser — much earlier than I, so I left it loaded with the browned apples and went to bed.

The next morning, as I made coffee, a movement outside the window caught my eye. The trap! Victory! I wanted to release him as soon as possible before Houdini could work an escape.

"Zach, would you put the cage in the back of the wagon, please?"

Zach grumbled, rubbed the sleep out his eyes and shuffled out the kitchen door. A moment later he reappeared, panting and white as a sheet, slamming the door behind him as if being hotly pursued. I was alarmed.

"Zach, what's the matter? Are you all right?"

His eyes were as big as apples.

"Dad, that's no groundhog." he panted.

"Then what is it?"

He mutely shook his head from side to side.

I decided I'd better go out and have a look. Clearly I wasn't going to get any useful information out of my squeamish son. Really, I thought to myself, I've got to do a better job of introducing these kids to nature.

A moment later I was back in the kitchen, panting and white as a sheet.

As I had approached the trap, before I was within six feet, a snarling, teeth-baring, drooling opossum had starting leaping for my jugular. I had never been close to an opossum, but I had trapped squirrels and groundhogs, and I had never been afraid of an animal in the trap. Until that moment. An opossum is one nasty animal, with a long, tapered tail, sharp, pointy teeth, and really, really unpleasant eyes. And this one was clearly not happy with me.

If you've never had the pleasure of using a Havahart, the way you release the animal is by approaching the door end of the trap. The animal generally retreats to the opposite end, and you release the latch, open the door, and poke a stick through to keep it open. Not until you walk away will the frightened animal venture out. At least, that's the way it had always worked with groundhogs, squirrels, and birds. But it didn't look like the possum understood the rules, and this time I was the frightened animal.

I explained the situation to Anne.

"What are you going to do?" she asked.

"It hasn't been doing us any harm. I guess we really should just release it." I considered the unwelcome prospect of returning to the trap. "How much do you love me?" I ventured.

"Oh, no. I'm not going anywhere near that thing. He's your pet." So I swallowed my fear, grabbed a stick and approached the trap. The snarling, teeth-baring, drooling opossum from Hell, instead of retreating to the other end, started snapping at me, with each leap the cage rattling violently and inching closer. Frankly, I was terrified, and returned to the kitchen.

"What if he's rabid?" I asked Anne. "I mean, he's acting really weirdly. I'm getting freaked out."

"Foaming at the mouth?"

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.

"Not you, him. Is the possum foaming at the mouth?"

"I think he's drooling. Maybe I'll just let him sit for a while and calm down."

"You both need to calm down," Anne said, patting me on the back as she left the room. Midday, I approached again, with the same result. Neither of us was showing signs of calming down anytime soon. I returned to the kitchen, where the family had gathered for lunch.

"Dad, what are you going to do with the possum?" Katie asked. There was long, silent moment during which I felt the collective stare. I had already decided what I was going to do; I was just stuck figuring out how to explain it.

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