Jonah Raskin’s Field Days continues the tradition of memoirs covering a single year in the life of an author undertaking a particular course of action, journey, or experiment. Previous books in this tradition include Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence (1991), Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously (2005), and Elizabeth Bishop’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything in Italy, India, and Indonesia (2007). Raskin’s memoir chronicles the author’s investigation of farming, eating, and drinking in California. He explains that part of the project’s motivation grew out of the love that he shared with his parents of rural environments.
Recalling fondly a boyhood spent on Long Island, New York, when it was still covered with farmland, Raskin took the opportunity in the 1970’s to move to California. There, he joined his parents, who, seeking to recapture such a rural environment, had retired to Sonoma County. Raskin has relished living in Sonoma, a place of Mediterranean climate with a nine-month growing season. He sees it as a near paradise. After working in academia for many years teaching writing and communications, Raskin developed a longing at age sixty-five to connect with the soil. He decided he could do so while continuing in his teaching position at Sonoma State University. He planned to utilize his writing to describe his exploration of the small-farm, local-food movement developing in Northern California and throughout the country.
Field Days, the resulting book, explores the resurgence of organic farming on small farms and the rising popularity of fresh, seasonal produce purchased by buyers interested in flavor and healthy eating. It describes the farmers and their supporters, who stand in sharp contrast to large-scale agribusiness. Industrialized farms produce mass quantities of often-tasteless fruits and vegetables on huge farms, spraying their produce with chemicals to protect them from disease and pests. These mass-produced fruits and vegetables, available year-round from suppliers around the globe, have caused Americans at least to grow accustomed to every fruit and vegetable being available in supermarkets all year long.
Raskin investigates the growers, buyers, and environmentalists who have begun to change Americans’ ideas about the aesthetic, nutritional, and environmental value of agricultural products. Rather than year-round availability and shelf life, these people emphasize the value of flavor, nutrition, and care for the environment. Raskin discovers the influence of Bob Cannard, recognized by California growers as one of the founders of organic farming, who supplies Alice Waters of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley with the produce she uses in developing her menus of seasonal foods.
Raskin begins what he calls his search for healthier food and connection with place in Marin County at a propitious time: Farms in Marin and elsewhere have been changing. Before Rachel Carson’s polemic book Silent Spring (1962) exposed the terrible effects of DDT, many farmers had the attitude that the land was theirs to treat however they wanted. Raskin recalls days on his parents’ farm when clouds of pesticide spray floated over the valley, poisoning all around it. By contrast, Bob Cannard and other organic farmers tolerate weeds as part of a healthy ecosystem and focus on nourishing the soil as well as growing a product. Slowly, they are challenging farms focused only on profit.
Raskin starts his journey by talking with the sister of an old friend, Mimi Luebbermann, a farmer in Chellano Valley. Luebbermann advocated buying local produce and supporting local farmers before it became fashionable to do so. Through her, Raskin meets photographer Paige Green, who takes the photographs that appear in the book and on its cover. He then develops networks that lead him to other local growers and shoppers.
(The entire section is 1623 words.)