Thursday, January 16, 2014
Book Review: The $64 Tomato
Author: William Alexander
Bill Alexander had no idea that his simple dream of having a vegetable garden and small orchard in his backyard would lead him into life-and-death battles with groundhogs, webworms, weeds, and weather; midnight expeditions in the dead of winter to dig up fresh thyme; and skirmishes with neighbors who feed the vermin (i.e., deer). Not to mention the vacations that had to be planned around the harvest, the near electrocution of the tree man, the limitations of his own middle-aged body, and the pity of his wife and kids. When Alexander runs (just for fun!) a costbenefit analysis, adding up everything from the live animal trap to the Velcro tomato wraps and then amortizing it over the life of his garden, it comes as quite a shock to learn that it cost him a staggering $64 to grow each one of his beloved Brandywine tomatoes. But as any gardener will tell you, you can't put a price on the unparalleled pleasures of providing fresh food for your family.
I am a gardener who enjoys reading gardening and farming memoirs, so I was wholeheartedly expecting to love The $64 Tomato. And I almost did.
I would say that I really enjoyed reading 90% of this book. Alexander's gardening mishaps were amusing, and I could relate to a few. I also related to the desire to have a garden - fresh produce all year round, and about as local as you can get. There is something so satisfying about making a meal knowing that you are the one responsible for the growing of the majority of it. Like Alexander, I pore over seed catalogs during the cold days of winter, daydreaming and making wish lists of what I want to plant in the spring. Every year I try to switch it up, and plant different things, and I really look forward to January when the catalogs all start to arrive.
All gardeners have to deal with the pests that invade the garden - it's just the way it goes. But Alexander goes to the extreme in dealing with them, and here is where he loses me. He live traps the ground animals that make a feast of his vegetables, and lets them go elsewhere - this is fine, that makes sense to me. But one day, he caught a possum, a creature he described as spitting mad and extremely angry. I have seen many possums in traps in my volunteer capacity at the city pound, and I have never seen one like that. Most are sitting in the corner of the trap, scared and confused. Others act like it is not their first rodeo, and calmly hang out, all relaxed. So maybe Alexander got a mean one. I can understand that too. I am sure it happens. But Alexander makes the conscious decision to let the possum die in the trap from dehydration and exposure to the hot August day. He intentionally makes the decision to let this animal suffer to death. When after three days it is just barely still alive , he tries to drown it by submerging the trap into a garbage can filled with water. But the water is not deep enough, and the possum clings to the top, trying to keep its head above water. After all is said and done, Alexander frees the possum into the woods, where it probably wobbled off and died, according to him. This makes me sick. If you are going to trap an animal, man up and take care of it, don't leave it to suffer for days on end. That is just torture. But then I guess I am one of those animal rights people you just can't reason with, as he says in his book. I decided to ask my meat eating husband what he thought, and without any prompting on my part, he came to the same conclusion that I did; he says there is no reason that an animal should suffer like that.
I am sure there was something else he could have done, such as contacting animal control; I fairly certain he mentioned a pest control guy lives down the street from him. In addition to torturing the possum, he also installs an electric fence with a 6,000 volt charge to discourage deer from entering his garden. As a result he repeatedly albeit accidentally, electrocutes his tree surgeon. This is full metal gardening.
After reading this book, it was no surprise to me that he grew $64 tomatoes. He paid a professional landscapers to design and create his garden, including "Big Machinery" to move the earth around, not to mention that crazy electric wire. I am glad I don't need to resort to such measures. My garden is regularly raided by rabbits and voles and squirrels, and probably mice too, and while I hate losing produce to them, it is a small price to pay. What we grow is more than plenty, for my family and for the animals. And I am sure my tomatoes wouldn't cost $64, although they are very delicious.