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The next time I complain about the price of tomatoes, slap me upside the head, please.

A couple of experiences in the last few weeks has made me realize how lucky we are to have access to tomatoes in the first place, and makes me marvel that the price is ever below $5 a pound.

First, I took a little water inspection trip with 30 or so of my closest friends. They call this the agriculture trip because it goes down through the Palo Verde and Imperial valleys.

These ag-heavy areas swallow a significant amount of Colorado River water while growing a fair chunk of our area produce. To be honest, plenty of alfalfa (that's hay for livestock, city slickers) is grown there as well. But one way or another, those farmers are producing food for people.

The complexity of systems to deliver water to those fields is a wonder. At first it seems sort of simple. But when you pile one simple action onto a whole stack of other simple actions, the whole thing is a work of art.

Those farmers get their water dirt cheap (yes, I said that). But, at least as far as I could tell, they are careful stewards, and return as much water to the system as possible.

I could fill columns — books even — about the critical importance of our agriculture industry and the miracle of abundant, affordable food we take for granted. But others do that much better than I ever could.

Besides, the real reason I'm writing about the cost of tomatoes is what I spent last weekend doing.

Those of you who read this column with any sort of regularity (thanks Mari) know a bit about my struggles to grow my own food. A few years ago, we had a bumper crop of tomatoes, and it provided a year's worth of homemade spaghetti sauce, canned tomatoes and gifts for neighbors and friends.

So I figured I knew what I was doing, and not only planted tomatoes again but branched out to other vegetables.

And for the last five years, I think my total yield has been a dozen tomatoes and one small spaghetti squash.

There were lots of reasons, typically different every year. An attempt to eradicate weeds in the alley on the other side of the fence appears to have been the most devastating, and long lasting.

But I'm a stubborn sort (no, really) and I keep trying.

This year, I decided to start over from scratch. I dug out my garden patch, stockpiling the dirt to be used filling all the holes Khloe digs — a column for another day.

I hauled in new, pristine soil infused with nutrients. I bought a new fencing material called a rabbit fence to thwart Khloe's efforts to dig the plants back up. I bought anchors for the fence bottom so Khloe can't dig under the fence like Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape."

Are you beginning to see a pattern here?

I bought a $20 mature lavender plant to attract bees. And I bought three tomato plants.

I can only fit three in my little garden patch because the grape vines take up so  much room. In 10 years, I've had a handful of pea-sized grapes from them, but they grow so well I can't bring myself to get rid of them.

All in all, I spent about $125 on my little gardening project. Now it's a matter of fighting weeds, insects, drought and high water bills for the next three months.

Let's be incredibly optimistic and say I get three dozen tomatoes from each of the three plants. That would be 108  tomatoes. So my materials cost is just over $1 a tomato.

Of course, we haven't added in the water, time, extra plant food and the rest. Have I mentioned how long it took me to actually do the work?

And realistically I should count on a smaller yield.

There is the pleasure of eating something I've grown myself, and it's tough to put a price tag on that.

Still, the next time I go to the grocery store and complain that the price of tomatoes has climbed above $3 a pound, smack me upside the head. Please.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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