Marco’s hair impressed me. Attempting to be a number of distinct styles at once: mohican, mullet and
dreadlocked, the thick slugs of matted hair swayed and bobbed on his head like a dilapidated fascinator as he
negotiated the pocked back roads of northern Slovenia. Occasionally, the rhythm of the car would direct a waft
of his hair in my direction always catching me on the in-breath and I’d get a mouthful of must and sweat. I sat in
the front seat while my two travelling companions sat in the back. Marco explained to us that he recently returned
from a music festival in a nearby, ex-Yugoslav airbase and was feeling ropey. Couple this with the embitterment
he felt at having lost the toss to come and collect us from the train station and this was not quite the warm
reception I was hoping for.
We were WWOOFing. No, not a subsidiary of dogging let’s get that clear from the off. ‘World Opportunities for
Organic Farming’ allows a traveller to stay and work in farms around the globe for free in exchange for four to six
hours of labour a day. You will be fed and housed usually in some barn or creaky bunk bed.
In 1971 Sue Coppard, a secretary living in London, recognised the need for city-types such as herself, who
did not have the means or the opportunity to access the countryside and support the organic food movement,
to get out to the sticks, drive some dirt under their nails and suck some clean, fresh air into their smoggy lungs.
Since then, WWOOF has expanded to run programs in over fifty countries. The only conditions imposed on
a ‘WWOOFer’ are that they make their own arrangements with the farm and they stay at least three days. The
concept sounded good. As a young person poor in money and (with a little coercion) rich in labour the exchange
was expedient for both parties.
The image in my mind’s eye comprised of some wholesome outside work in a temperate climate, tending crops,
pressing oil and scrumping apples balanced with sipping on farm wine, reclining in hammocks obtaining insider
knowledge of the country from some locals, and seeing what the farmer’s daughter/s were like. Best of all: the
price was right. So last Summer we signed up.
A couple of friends and I had planned to go to Dimensions festival so I decided that Croatia would be where my
first taste of WWOOFing would take place. I paid my £20 membership fee which allowed me to browse the host
farms. This brought to light the first flaw with the system. There were only six host farms in Croatia and they were
booked up for the entire summer. WWOOF promises to have farms in countries around the world but it does not
Damn. £20 wasted? Not yet. Let’s turn this trip trans-Europe. We looked to the Croat neighbour Slovenia and
found a place in the remote north east, the nearest town being Maribor.
Eventually arriving at the correct train station we were collected by Marco. A native of Slovenia, Marco and his
wife Miranda had bought a farmhouse with some land around three years ago. Marco was a friendly enough
guy in his late twenties. He spent his time doing odd jobs around the farm and he enjoyed making guitars which
like his hair tried to be many things at once, each instrument boasting two or more stringed necks. The hybrids
resembled a lute, a bass and a Spanish guitar colliding at great speed. At the purpose of being versatile these
instruments were effectively rendered unplayable.
We arrived late on Friday and stayed up late enough to meet Miranda. We were surprised to learn that she was
Canadian and that her first language was English such was the incomprehensibility of her email exchange before
the trip. In one email she told us that she would take us to a squat party which we would love because it was full
of ‘metal people’. I guess she was talking about the music rather than a commune of androids like I had hoped.
But her bizarre speech pattern revealed the source of her strange correspondence. Having a conversation with
Miranda was tricky. In the habit of talking at you rapidly and loudly, Miranda would often get herself hysterically
lost in an anecdote, fizzle out in an anti-climax, before starting up again with fresh zeal a moment later. She
claimed to be, at one point, the best charity street fundraiser in the world and carefully outlined her plans to turn
the small, pond outside into a trout farm and convert the barn into a hostel. Other permanent residents included
their young son Loki (named after the Norse god of mischief) and Hank. Hank was a 6 ft. 7 Dutch friend who
would curl himself and his dog Donder (Dutch for thunder) onto a small bed in the living room every night. Donder
was a rescued dog who had once been poisoned by a cruel owner leaving him with limited and uncoordinated
motor skills. He was very affectionate and if he got very excited he would trip himself up.
The location of the farm was beautiful, thick green woods gave way to rocky outcrops which rose quickly out
of the ground and would often obstruct your path meaning you would head off in another direction and get lost.
There was a 30 metre waterfall a little way up the valley which attracted climbers and had previously provided
hideouts for soviet led partisans who would hide in the caves behind the falls. Many of the surrounding houses
had their own vine groves and Bee hives would hum as you walked down to the small village.
Our hosts were pretty relaxed about our labour. On the first day, we helped clear out the barn but after that we
did not have much to do at all and often were left to babysitting duty which became, pretty soon, very boring.
So in the end, we stayed six days instead of the planned ten. By then, we could feel the pull of the capital
Ljubljana and it seemed like we had got all we could from the little farm. The problem was that it was not actually
a farm. Marco, Miranda and Hank were all welcoming and friendly but farm management was a faculty that
eluded them all. This was partially due to the copious amount of weed they all smoked. Every day, breakfast
would be accompanied by a joint stuffed with the choicest and evidently singular produce the farm would yield.
Hank especially would be difficult to spy without the familiar white carrot flopping from his moustachioed top
lip. Climbing amongst the rafters of the barn and firing a chainsaw to make adjustments was a job not to be
attempted without a joint.
I couldn’t quite work out what was in it for them. They had not really gained any labour from us. Perhaps it
was simply company; the chance to have a constant stream of new people coming through their house. So
WWOOfing wasn’t quite as I imagined it but I would give it another try. It is a good way to extend travelling in a
cheap way and the excitement of WWOOFing is that each host farm is a surprise. We may have left too soon.
It would have been interesting to have taken our hosts up on their offer to travel with them to the tiny stretch of
Slovenian coast in the south. Maybe we’ll go back for some hair of the dog next year…