Field Days–Jonah Raskin’s Year-long Odyssey to find the Perfect Local Farm Yields an Abundant Harvest. Photographs on view at Sonoma State Library through April 2010
Several months ago, I was given a feast–Jonah Raskin’s memoir Field Days, A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking in California. His writing is elegant, the content substantial and the story is moving–one of personal growth through re-connection with farming the land—our land, here in Sonoma County. While busily harvesting my own garden, I found myself reading a chapter or more a day of Field Days and underlining like crazy, which I did not do with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollen gave me so much to think about factually that it was overwhelming and his writing, while excellent, didn’t really stir me. With Field Days, not only did I learn about the local organic farming movement around our community of Sonoma through the well-told stories of involved individuals and passionate local farmers, I witnessed Raskin’s transformation as well. In the course of a year, as Raskin digs into this project and embraces the locavore lifestyle (a locavore is a person who shops locally), we witness his reconnection to the earth and ultimately to himself. It almost seems that he is channeling Thoreau.
Jonah Raskin is a well-published author, poet and journalist who is chairman of the Communications Studies Department at Sonoma State University. He is proud of his activism and status as a 1970’s counterculture radical and his previous books reflect that. He has written about marijuana, Abbie Hoffman, Alan Ginsberg and imperialism. In recent years, he has published poetry and begun to explore Northern CA writers—The Radical Jack London, Writings on War and Revolution (2008).
Field Days is immersive reporting or participatory journalism at its best—it springs from Raskin’s curiosity about the renaissance in local organic farming in Northern California– from a sociological and personal health and happiness perspective. Raskin grew up in Long Island in the 1940’s and 50’s with free thinking parents who grew all their own food. As suburbia encroached, the family relocated to the bohemian haven of Occidental and again found their rhythm. Raskin lived in the family home until a few years ago and fondly recalls his fruit trees. At age 65– after surviving a life-threatening health situation—he realized it was time to refocus and to get around to some things he’s been meaning to do—learn how to live in real harmony in this magical and historic place Sonoma that the rest of the world calls paradise.
What I lost was not a mystery to me. I had lost the world of my childhood… Before it was too late, before life passed me by, I wanted to be in touch with the earth again. I wanted to regain something I felt I had lost, and to work alongside men and women who were cultivating the earth. I wanted to eat as though for the first time, with a sense of newness.(page 13)
Organizationally, Field Day’s 12 chapters can each be treated like a short story, entertaining and fulfilling, with digressions here and there. Raskin starts his quest by talking with his friends like Mimi Luebbermann (Windrush Farms, Chileno Valley). Mimi is a farmer, herder, foodie and a transplanted Berkeley writer who has authored several best-selling cookbooks. With the assistance of local photographer Paige Green, who documents his journey, Raskin explores the old rural life in his neighborhood. He has been living in an old barn close to Sonoma State University. His chats with his neighbor “The Bean Queen”– Sharon Grossi of Valley End Farm, Penngrove, the largest organic vegetable grower in Sonoma County about her struggles. He explores the concept of “local” with Lure of the Local author Lucy Lippard. Lippard, originally from New York, found her special place elsewhere and put down roots, a process Raskin seems fascinated with. Momentum builds as Raskin listens to Alice Waters advocate for small organic farms at Copperfield’s bookstore in Petaluma and understands that she and other restauranteurs depend on California’s small organic growers for their produce.
Raskin starts interviewing “founding farmers,” along with field workers, restauranteurs, farmer’s market vendors, people at the Whole Foods corporation, and smaller grocers. Particularly interesting are his profiles of the visionaries who spearheaded California’s local organic movement and infused those around them with an environmental consciousness– Warren Weber (Star Route Farms, Marin), Anne Teller and her family and colleagues (Oak Hill Farm), and farmer and teacher Bob Cannard (Sonoma, founder Green String Farm). Later in the book, members of the work crews at Oak Hill farms, laborers who toil in the fields and are the backbone of the California farm, are brought to life. Through these unfortgettable farmers and workers, Raskin builds a emotional landscape whose foundation—of hopes, dreams, visions, struggles, rivalries, extreme risk and hard work—is every bit as important as the physical environment he is exploring.
After six months of talk and research, he zeros in on his farm of choice, Oak Hills Farms of Glen Ellen, in the heart of Sonoma Valley, owned by Anne Teller widow of Otto teller, one of the founders of the environmentalist movement in Sonoma County. Glen Ellen is comfortable territory for Raskin whose 2008 book explored Jack London’s life there. Jack and Charmain London were among the ancestors of today’s organic farmers and ranchers and created a life for themselves in Glen Ellen that gave them a great deal of satisfaction, a satisfaction Raskin yearns for also.
But even at first sight I felt enclosed and protected within the Oak Hill world that surrounded me, and I wanted to embrace it in return. Of course, I didn’t blurt out my feelings on that first day. I wanted to see if the place was really as spectacular as it seemed to be. Was the beauty skin deep or was there also underlying beauty not immediately apparent. (page 64)
He describes his first meeting at Oak Hill’s Red barn store with a “locavore” –a person who shops locally. The concept takes hold of him and he realizes that he has entered “the world of the locavores” and he digs it.
Why not shop, cook, and eat what was available…expressing much the same attitude as Henry David Thoreau, who urged his contemporaries to “live in the season as it passes” and “open all your pores and bathe in all the tides of Nature in all her streams and oceans, at all seasons.” (page 71)
Oak Hill’s owner Anne Teller, a passionate advocate for the responsible stewardship of the land, invites Raskin to wander around Oak Hill and take it all in. By chapter 3, Raskin is in London, England, discussing farming there, but his heart is back in Glen Ellen. When he returns, he sets up interviews at Oak Hill and soon he is working “like hell” in the fields, tilling, planting and harvesting right along with Mexican farm-workers whom he befriends and learns how to plant and harvest from.
Writing of the day the workers regarded him as one of them—
I had never worked so fast or so accurately. No one had told us to work quickly, but we all did. All I could see was the ground in front of me. No one spoke; there was nothing to say. No one had assigned individual tasks, but each of us assumed a responsibility and took turns doing what had to be done. By now I had also lost a good deal of my self-consciousness and awkwardness. The field was my home now, and I knew instinctively what to do. I loved the earth, and it belonged to me. (page 161)
Raskin also works at the local farmers’ market in the Sonoma Plaza and connects with people who embrace the farm to table lifestyle. He begins to cook, eat and live more consciously, sumptuously and passionately. Inspired by Michael Pollan’s writing, Raskin flushes out the difference between local organic and Big Corporate Organic as he penetrates the Whole Foods chain via the Sonoma store and shows why the store and what it stands for is a bad fit for the town of Sonoma but a better fit for the towns of Napa and Sebastopol. Now that the organic agriculture business has attained cultural legitimacy, it ironically has become a paradox—it has come so far from its anti-industrial food roots in the early 1900’s that it now fully embraces the logic of capitalism, specifically of California agribusiness. Raskin, an old skeptic, does a good job of pointing out that eating ethically has become very complex. Food choices are moral choices and we need to think about how we want our food produced and delivered.
For Raskin, buying and eating foods grown locally and organically, with the chain from farmer to customer as small as possible, is a no-brainer from the perspective of taste and values. His wish is that if we all could embrace this locovore lifestyle, we could be happier and healthier. I thank my lucky stars that I reside in Sonoma County where farmers markets are plentiful and where for most of us, our political consciousness is backed by the economic means to eat largely what we want to eat. The stark reality of the global situation is that not everyone can eat what they want or even regularly. And for most consumers right now, even in California, the difference between big organic versus sustainably grown and locally produced organic is nuance. For Raskin though, having thought these issues through, connected with the land and discovered the joy of eating locally and of a local network, it has made all the difference–
A change had come over me at Oak Hill. The more I went down to the ground, the further up my imagination and my spirit had soared. The earth elevated me even as it held me in its embrace. … With my hands and face in the dirt I had been inspired. (p 285)
What would a book about food be without a mouthwatering feast? Raskin delivers–to celebrate his year in the fields, he lovingly prepares a vegetarian dinner for 8 friends and serves it outdoors under the oak trees. This rustic feast is comprised of the freshest local organic ingredients—tomato soup from slow roasted tomatoes topped with shaved Gruyère, a creamy risotto with his own reduced vegetable stock topped with grated Parmesan, a green salad dressed with a De Vero olive oil and rice wine vinegar, corn on the cob with Strauss Family Creamery butter, heirloom tomatoes, sautéed brightly colored peppers, fresh picked pears and peaches with dark Scharffen Berger chocolate. The meal, which goes on for hours, is savored by all and documented by photographer Paige Green–the empty table becomes the cover shot for the book. Of course, those friends gathered at the table must have also been celebrating the remarkable transformation they observed in their friend.
I felt local now, too, a part of the earth, attached to the barn, the contours of the land, the valley and mountains an these people…When I went home to my barn, I felt as happy as I had at any time in my life. Feelings of happiness I had learned to distrust over the course of my life. If something was good, it was sure to change for the worse. I had learned that lesson early and well. But this time I trusted the happiness; it felt a part of me—something inside and organic and I allowed it to surge. (p. 286)
Field Days makes an enormous contribution to the way people should think about where their food comes from and celebrates the local people who toil with passion to grow it. I really love the way Raskin brings his poetic insight to our local history and shares his own journey of self-discovery. Anyone who is interested in growing and eating really fresh food will enjoy this book.
The show “Field Days Search for a Sustainable Feast” at Sonoma State Library Art Gallery (on the second floor), through April 2010, pairs Raskin’s elegant passages from Field Days with photos taken by Paige Green and Candi Edmmondson. Field Days, A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking in California, is a UC Press, Simpson Book in the Humanities, hardback, May 2009, ISBN 9780520259027, paperback September 2010, ISBN 9780520268036.
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