The pastoral existence of the family farmer is no longer the norm in the U.S., where only 2% of the population is engaged in agriculture. Yet the past few years have brought increased value to terms like "organic," "local," and "sustainable"—and these buzzwords have prompted more individuals to value farming as a full-time vocation. One such farming enthusiast is Jonah Raskin, whose new memoir Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California recounts his time spent getting to know the land of farmers on the West Coast.
The title of this memoir is misleading. When I first picked it up, I sighed—it seemed to be yet another yuppie account of living the good life in the edible wonderland that is Sonoma. But Raskin's tone is so endearing, humble, and respectful that his adventures come across as relatable and realistic. Rather than show off the various delicious treats he consumed during his year of working and eating, he speaks of gustatory pleasure only to underline the importance of growing food locally and responsibly.
Raskin, a professor of communications in Sonoma, was raised on a farm and has long valued local produce. Yet he, like so many others in the States, lost touch with his roots as he left home for schooling, a job, and the "real world" beyond agriculture. Reaching retirement age, he decided to explore the farming and eating community of Sonoma as a means of reconnecting with his youth and with the soil.
He states right out that he doesn't view California as the heavenly mecca it is often perceived to be. "California isn't the only place that has given birth to forward-looking [agricultural] ideas and values," he notes. "It is simply one of many." As a non-Californian I appreciated this perspective, which placed his travels within a more global context of agricultural revolution and optimism.
Raskin spends his summer days laboring in the fields of Oak Hill Farm, a small family operation that employs Mexican fieldworkers as well as longer-settled locals to run the farm's market. He negotiates racial and language barriers, discovers that he is still able to do the hard work of farming, and reaps the delicious rewards of fresh produce that he himself picked. He profiles many individuals throughout Sonoma County whose farming operations maintain a demanding and supportive food community. He paints Sonoma as the earthy, backyard-to-table cousin of Napa, the epicure's destination.
This memoir speaks less of Raskin's own personal development than of the growth of the community of Sonoma. He discusses individuals of all walks of life, and debates the merits of various agricultural practices. Even-handed and friendly, Raskin is also serious about conveying the good and the bad of the Sonoma lifestyle. Finishing the book, I know that California isn't the only home of agricultural advancement. And yet I feel compelled to follow Raskin's initiative and seek out the Sonoma farmer, so that I might also experience a summer of labor, fresh food, and hope for the coming seasons.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.
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