A Winter Harvest

Photograph Source: Dwight Sipler – CC BY 2.0

Look out kid
They keep it all hid

– Bob Dylan, 1965

On the winter solstice (December 21st) I finally began pulling the remains of our “high tunnel” tomato crop, cleaning out the greenhouse-ish space in preparation for next year’s planting. We’ve always grown tomatoes outside here in the Northeast and had to deal with the diseases that sicken tomatoes every year when they’re grown that way. And in Maine’s relatively cool weather the crop typically doesn’t ripen until late July or—more commonly— August.

When it rains, dirt gets spattered onto tomato leaves and soil-borne diseases come with the spatter. Under the clear plastic cover of a high tunnel there’s no such splashing and much less disease pressure. And it’s warmer, earlier, longer. Tomatoes do better in there as do other warm weather vegetables. Living things need help.

In our younger years we dealt with the drama of producing outside tomatoes season after season but finally in our autumnal phase we bit-the-bullet and (with assistance from the USDA) installed a tunnel——one of the last operations in our area to do so.  We’re always late to the party,  even when  invited. My wife was— “skeptical”— of the effort noting my advancing age. But like “old soldiers,” farmers “never die, they just fade away.”

I guess.

While the fading is becoming noticeable, we picked tomatoes on July 14th, our anniversary—Bastille Day. That’s a first. By a lot. So there.

But the growing season is past and in the yellowing record book. The cordwood is stacked in the shed. The irrigation pipe is strapped down on the trailer against the force of winter gales. And so it was time to pull what was left of the tomato vines and shovel up the soggy remains of the oft-frozen fruit. This is the kind of “harvest” you get on the first day of winter.

The solace of solstice is that this shortest day of the year marks the feeble beginning of the annual tilt back toward the sun; the coming of another spring. Earthlings in the north have long welcomed the event.

The pump don’t work
‘Cause the vandals took the handle.

Further south, on the Potomac the project of uprooting the policy gains of the 20th century grinds on. Though “storming the twin citadels of the welfare state—Social Security and Medicare”  (see David Stockman, 1986)  has for years become a bipartisan obsession, the Business Party’s Republican wing is often “the tip of the spear.”

CBS reports that, “Under a plan developed by the Republican Study Committee…. Senior citizens would face a five-year delay to claim Medicare….. (to age 70). And the retirement age …. would also increase to 70.”

For decades now the aim has been to beggar and privatize these highly popular programs. The public has been endlessly lectured that the systems are “unsustainable,” facing inevitable “insolvency,” and represent an unwholesome “socialist” sop to the slothful/unworthy. It’s all lies of course, and such piffle wouldn’t stand even casual scrutiny in a less barbaric country. Sadly, we don’t live in one of those.

In countries where national budgets aren’t mostly devoted to armaments, perpetual war, and coddling of hedge-fund sociopaths, life expectancies generally increase. Here they’ve increasingly been going the other way. For 2022 the World Health Organization reports the US moving well down the list at an average of 78.203 years. That’s below Western Europe, China, Turkey and Guam, but just ahead of (the perpetually sanctioned) Cuba and edging out the Czech Republic, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh among others.

The class warriors will tell you that “we are living longer.” Maybe not-so-much.

Recent polling by Gallup suggests that folks are enjoying their shortened lives less as well. On December 21st Gallup announced “Americans’ Reported Mental Health at New Low; Seek More Help.” The pollsters found that, “American’s excellent assessment of their own mental health dropped nine points to 34%, a new low since the measure was first tracked in 2001.”

I haven’t seen a doctor in a while. The “Accountable Care Organization” (ACO) in charge of rationing health care locally has been shedding doctors like 6-year-olds shed teeth. Anyway…. back when I could occasionally  visit, a routine screening question was, “Are you depressed.” My answer was always, “If you’re not depressed, you’re not paying attention.”

Prophetic I guess?

The bitter Winter Harvest yielded by the next congressional session could well include other attacks on Social Security and Medicare. They’ve been announced. Those who might be inclined to rely on reputed Friend of Labor (FoL) Joe Biden should remember that he was a charter member of the “Democratic Leadership Council” along with Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and other enemies of the 20th Century  New Deal coalition. Ryan Grim reminds us of Biden’s 1995 quote: “I tried with Senator Grassley back in the 1980s to freeze all government spending, including Social Security, including everything.”

We turn back to spring (and maybe, the clock).

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. 

Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: rerhames@gmail.com