Fake news. Our Embarrassment-in-Chief would have you believe that this is something new, crafted by the media expressly to make him look bad. First of all, he’s doing a fine job of that all by himself, and secondly, fake news has been around as long as news itself. Certainly truth leaks into the equation from time to time, but the media in all of its various forms has long been used as an instrument to tweak the truth in ways that suits a certain agenda. The internet definitely hasn’t slowed that instrument down. In fact, it serves as a massive invitation to everyone on the planet to join the fun and twist the facts whenever it serves their purpose. Of course I’d like to believe that most of us humans are pure of heart and generally doing our best to represent the truth, but still, discernment is a most critical tool in this day and age.
We’re very much finding this to be the case in the realm of Workaway, a web-fueled mechanism for connecting travelers with hosts for work/trade arrangements all over the world. The arrangements vary, but a worker is asked to exchange his/her labor (typically 5 hours per day, 5 days per week) for room and board. As Haruka and I get deeper and deeper into our travels, Workaway is proving to be a crucial tool for extending our travels while simultaneously giving us the opportunity to visit farms and permaculture projects all over the world. Free accommodation and food is obviously helpful, but our main motivation for doing Workaway is to expand our knowledge and skills, while physically engaging our bodies and minds in something productive. Workaway is still a relatively new adventure for us, as we’ve only been to four different spots, and while I’m certain that there are countless amazing hosts out there, false advertising is as much a thing in Workaway as it is in the rest of the world.
In early June, after freewheeling around Italy and Slovenia for a few weeks, it was feeling like time to slow our travels down and get our hands into the dirt a bit. We made arrangements with a host in the Lake Bled area of Slovenia, which is spectacularly beautiful. We were lured in by the description on his profile which described the place as a permaculture-based homestead on a small farm near the mountains. The host listed a number of intriguing projects including working in the veggie garden, building a solar shower and constructing a hempcrete guesthouse, which is what really hooked us. Upon arrival in Lake Bled, the host was very friendly and spoke great English, and our hopes were high for a sweet 2 week experience. Unfortunately, as soon as we got to his place, all of the air rapidly farted out of our balloon as we saw the reality of where we were to spend the next couple of weeks.
Essentially, this was an old farmhouse on a relatively small plot of land within what used to be a small family farm that the family has since subdivided into smaller plots to make some cash, and one of the buyers was our host. The photos on his profile included shots of his neighbor’s plots making his space appear much larger than it is in reality. There were remnants of last year’s vegetable garden, but no real vegetable garden to speak of, and certainly no good, fresh veggies available to eat at the time, which seemed strange for a permaculture homestead in June. But as it turned out, there were no actual, functioning permaculture features on the farm except for a couple of sick-looking chickens in a dilapidated shed, if you want to count that. Then we learned that the shower and the hempcrete guesthouse projects were being put on hold until next year, and that the project he wanted us to do was to build a shed out of reclaimed wood for all of his stuff that was filling up his current storage space. hmmmmm.
Five minutes in, and Haruka was already saying, “I’m not sure about this place…”, but I was determined to stick it out. When we arrived on a Friday there was very little food to eat in the kitchen, other than some bread, a lot of jam and a bunch of canned food. By Sunday morning, he still hadn’t gone shopping to stock the kitchen and our frustrations were starting to build, as we found ourselves going out to eat each day to satisfy our hunger. Our accommodation in a camper out back was ok, other than the massive infestation of ants crawling all over us and our stuff, but even that I could tolerate. The breaking point for me was when we asked if we could use the bicycles advertised on his profile to explore the area while he and his daughters were out for the day. Unfortunately the bikes needed quite a bit of repair, which would’ve been fine except that I couldn’t find the adequate tools within his heap of stuff, and he wasn’t willing to help me out in that regard, so it was about then when we started shifting toward plan B.
There was another permaculture homestead that we were planning to stay at 3 weeks later, so we contacted them, and they enthusiastically invited us to come the next day. There was a part of me that felt bad to be leaving two weeks earlier than our commitment, but in the end, our desire to be part of a worthwhile, sustainable project that doesn’t rely on false advertising to rope people in was the deciding factor. Our host, who was actually a nice guy all the way through took the news well, and by the next day we were on our way to Northeast Slovenia.
Our arrival at the 10 hectare Fantazija Farm near Maribor was literally a breath of fresh air! This place is a gorgeous, sprawling farm on rolling hills surrounded by forests and other farms… a beautifully bucolic setting indeed. Our hosts were a young family with a lively one-year-old. This place was an old family farm, and these guys have been working tirelessly since they bought the place three years ago to renovate all of the old farm buildings into their beautiful home as well as Airbnb accommodations for their burgeoning agro-tourism business. While they have no formal permaculture training or previous experience, they are going for it, learning as they go, and living the permaculture dream. A diverse food forest that is just starting to produce food encapsulates a network of functional animal systems and veggie gardens. An excellent compost toilet handles most of the human waste on the farm and there is a strong emphasis on repurposing old furniture and building materials to build up the infrastructure of this farm. Much of the food is coming off of the land, and the vegetarian meals are simple, but delicious.
So many things about their farm reminds me of where Haruka and I were with our farm in our early years. The key difference is that we were a production farm growing veggies for a living, and their production is mostly for themselves, with much of their income coming from Airbnb guests. They also have off-farm, part-time jobs to supplement their income. Most of the farmwork wasn’t new to us, and indeed the work itself really scratched an itch that we’ve been missing since leaving North Carolina. A lot of the restoration work we did with them was new to us, so it was rewarding to pick up some skills there, and we really appreciate their dedication to bringing new life to old objects. Being that they’re still in the early stages of developing their farm, there’s still a lot to learn, and they were very eager to soak up a lot of information that we had, based on our previous experiences.
The fresh air, the hard work and living off the land was all wonderful to get back to, but probably the most enriching and humbling part of the experience for both Haruka and I was being on the worker side of things. Neither of us have spent much time working for someone else on their farm, and there were days when that was truly a challenge for us. The end result for me (and I thought about this many times during our total of 4 weeks on this farm) was a deeper sense of respect and gratitude toward all of the apprentices that passed through our farm over the years and gave a bit of their heart and soul to our farm. I know we weren’t always easy on those guys and sometimes the stress of running a farm caused us to say things that we’d like to take back, but for the most part, we had phenomenal apprentices that stuck with us through thick and thin.
Over nine years of running Edible Earthscapes in Moncure, we had nine amazing apprentices that stayed with us through complete seasons, or at least through the most significant parts of those seasons. We also had many incredible volunteers on our farm over the years. I’d like to think that we handled ourselves well as farm owners, and that we did our part in patching things up when we overreacted, or just messed things up, and we hope that all of those guys came away from our farm with something positive that they could use later on down the line. I’d like to take this moment to send a shout out to all of those volunteers who spent so much of their own time and energy making our farm what it was. And we’d especially like to thank our apprentices, Brandon, Josh, Devon, Garth, Bhargav, Grant, Graham, Claire and Doug for devoting huge chunks of your life to the cause. Much love and respect to all of you!
Getting back to our workaway near Maribor, Slovenia… Location-wise, it was ideal, as it gave us a chance to explore some epic European cities on our off-days and refresh ourselves after doing some intense farm work. We spent a weekend each in Graz, Austria and Zagreb, Croatia, and even met up with my father for a week in Budapest, Hungary. So even though we were feeling productive on the farm, we were still getting our travel groove on.
While overall, our experience on the farm was amazing, we did encounter another run-in with false advertising. Our host’s Workaway profile states that workers are expected to work a maximum of 6 hours a day, but after the first week, we came to the realization that we were putting in 7+ hours per day. This didn’t bother me too much, as I enjoyed the work, but Haruka took exception, and in all fairness, I think she had a right to. We weren’t being paid a dime for our efforts, just simple meals, basic accommodation in a camper and the occasional beer, so the rewards for our efforts were finite. We made the point that to be perfectly fair, our hourly input should also be finite, and in line with what they advertise on their profile. This initially didn’t go over well with the hosts as they were very upset that we would be counting hours. I’d love to let go of the concept of time altogether, but as long as we’re living in the 3rd dimension, time is still the globally accepted mode of accounting for labor. We sat down and talked it out like adults, which was great, and the next day they instituted a schedule which never took us over 6 hours a day. I applaud them for making that adjustment, as I think it’s important for their future Workawayers that their profile is accurate, and I think that will make them a better Workaway host going forward. Thank you Dominik, Claudia and Dayalu for a wonderful experience on your farm!