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GUN-TOTING OHIOAN GUARDS 6-POUND TOMATO

Somewhere in southeast Ohio, Robert Ehigh, 63, is standing guard with a rifle to make sure no harm befalls a 6.25-pound tomato that might soon make him $100,000 richer.

If the retired coal miner's tomato continues to grow at its current one-ounce-a-day rate, it would soon surpass in weight the 7-pound, 12-ounce tomato that currently holds the world's record.And if that occurs, Ehigh - who wants the tomato's location kept secret - will win Stern's Miracle-Gro $100,000 Tomato Challenge - described as the largest gardening prize ever offered.

Ehigh reportedly ran out of fertilizer for the plant and, when he tried to purchase additional supplies, he found his area gardening stores were out of the product.

He called the Miracle-Gro company, asking if they could ship him a new supply.

"He mentioned he had a big tomato," said B.L. Ochman, president of B.L. Ochman Public Relations in New York. "They asked him how big it was and when he told them, they got very excited."

Agricultural extension officials Thursday confirmed that Ehigh's tomato, still green and on the vine, weighs 6.25 pounds.

"It could very well grow an ounce or more a day and beat the world record set by Gordon Graham in 1987," said agent Jim Aspenwall. "I've never seen a tomato as big as Mr. Ehigh's in my life!"

Ehigh said he grew his tomato with his grandfather's Beefsteak tomato seeds that he has kept in a jar for more than 40 years.

"We're really worried somebody will vandalize it," Ochman told United Press International. "There are a lot of crazy people out there. "

Ochman said Ehigh has constructed a wooden structure around the tomato and, using plastic sheets, hopes to prevent the fruit from becoming damaged by hail or heavy rainfall. Ochman said Ehigh plans to have a minister bless the tomato during the holiday weekend.

To become the official winner, Ehigh's tomato will have to be declared a whole, natural, unadulterated tomato by the Nationwide Con-sumer Testing Institute in Hoboken, N.J.