Uroš Veber interviewing Helena Krapež, the owner of the excursion farm Pr`Žipani on the Gora plateau

In preparation for the Unmanned Resilience workshop and residency that took place in the western district of Slovenia during the summer of 2012, we compiled a list of organic farms on the Gora plateau, hoping to see where we might be able to stay during our trek and at the same time source some produce from local growers. But after just a few minutes on the phone to these farmers, we quickly came to realise how little our preliminary researches told us about the actual state of agriculture in Gora. In a time when “self-sufficiency” has become a buzzword and there is raised awareness and concern about health, food quality, and the environmental impacts of intensive farming, we were surprised to learn how many farmers in the region had stopped producing for the market – many of them while in the very process of becoming officially recognised as organic farms.

But in those few phone calls we were lucky enough to stumble on Helena Krapež, the owner of an excursion farm that welcomes visitors with homemade spirits, locally grown food, herbs and regional wine. She proved to be very insightful about the state of farming in Gora, and we hoped to be able to pay her a visit during our Be Strong, Be Wrong foraging expedition, to hear more about life and farming in Gora nowadays. But unfortunately the sun and three days of constant hiking had taken its toll, and our group was unable to make the long detour necessary to reach her farm on our last day of hiking. In the end, we decided to pay her a visit almost half a year later.

At the time of our August hike, a catastrophic drought had struck the whole Gora plateau region, turning it almost into a desert. On the day when we were supposed to meet with Helena, we had serious difficulty with the unexpected heat and lack of drinking water. Six months later, when Mare and I drove back to Gora to finally meet Helena in person, the contrast was amazing. We drove through a snow blizzard, wondering if we would actually make it there (and back again) without a four-wheel drive and a good shovel. We found Gora completely transformed once again – this time tucked under some fifty centimetres of snow, the soft blanket becoming thicker with every passing hour.

When we at last sat down with Helena, we learnt that her husband had died about one and a half years before, and she had to start working in the Valley again to be able to support herself and her three kids, the youngest still in preschool and the oldest in high school. That made it impossible for her to go on breeding cattle, making her own cheese, and opening her door to hikers and tourists every day. Now she once more holds a job as a confectioner in the Valley, and only welcomes guests on her farm during weekends.

Nevertheless, she is upbeat, even when she talked about recent frustrations and hardships. She never made a victim of herself or complained that fate had been tough on her – she related events in a friendly and matter-of-fact way, and was more than happy to explain to us city dwellers what life on Gora was like nowadays compared to the recent past. She elucidated how public incentives for organic farming work, and described new trends showing that people are slowly returning to Gora.

Could you tell us something about life on Gora? How did people live here in the past and what has changed, what is different now?

Traditionally people on Gora were foresters and they bred livestock. These two were the basic means of making a living. Even in the past people did not farm full-time for the market here. Usually one of the spouses – most often the man – would work in the Valley and the woman would stay home as a housekeeper and run the small farm. They would grow some potatoes, have some livestock, make cheese and so on. They would have pastures and meadows, but no big crop fields, since it is not the most fertile environment here. They also picked herbs, blueberries and raspberries which they used to sell to big companies like Droga and Fructal. People of Gora always had diverse ways of making a living. Women also made lace and to this day the kids in primary school have a chance to learn lace-making. It is something I like, since one never knows when this kind of knowledge might help them in the future.

The families were large, with a lot of children, and they would send these children to schools that they did not need to pay for. This made a lot Gorjani (the people of Gora) join the police or the army, for which there was not much schooling needed, as these would take them in and take care that these boys learn what was needed. And to this day there are still a lot of them who either work as policemen or are in the military. Some work in Ajdovščina, some in Vrhnika, one of the neighbours serves on peacekeeping missions, such as the one in Kosovo.

Today there are only about three farms in the vicinity. One of the owners is a policeman and the other works for a security company Varnost. With us it was different, my husband was a full time farmer, while I worked and in addition opened up our place for visitors. With three kids there was not much choice really. There are no families in the village who would make a living of farming only. People use the land and the woods more to help themselves, to survive easier. Until recently our family was selling meat, we made and sold cheese, we had a bar and that was still not bringing enough money. So, after people come home from work they would need to take care of the fields, the meadows and the livestock. It is hard work, it's not like some of my job colleagues imagine – that we come back up to Gora with all this great food that awaits us. One has to make an effort, feed the animals, milk the cows, mow the hay… Nothing just appears, you always have to work hard for it and complaining about it does not help you. I never understand people who say they do not earn enough and I know they get decent salaries. If you can’t pay for a loaf,go and bake your own.

How about organic farming on Gora? It seems like only a few years ago there were a lot of farms that were officially going organic but are now not farming for the market anymore.

Indeed, I think there are only about five farms on Gora that are officially certified organic farms. We have not joined, but as all of the farming on Gora, we are all totally organic. There is really no other choice; one cannot farm here using chemicals. For instance, we made cheese and you cannot make cheese if you don’t feed your cows properly. If they are fed with industrial food, that immediately shows in taste and quality of cheese. We had to take care that the hay was of top quality; otherwise the cheese would have gone bad. And you do not want to sell bad cheese, or they will never take it from this farm again. So, it is really important to take care from the start – and you begin with what you feed your livestock with.

Also, here on Gora we drink groundwater, so no one would be so stupid to use artificial fertilizers and pollute his own water. Everybody is very conscious about that even if they are not officially an organic farm. Also nobody sprays with anything artificial, everybody uses natural sprays only, like nettle-based pesticides that can be made on one’s own and do not need to be bought. This traditional knowledge is very much alive; it has been transferred from generation to generation, as families did not have the money to buy chemicals. I imagine there could have been some experiments with that as well, but I’ve lived in this village for 18 years now and have never seen anyone use an artificial fertilizer or pesticide.

OK, but are there no incentives for being officially an organic farmer? What is the system of subventions?

You would get a subvention in any case, as long as you work the land, but it is higher if you are a certified organic farmer. I think it is some 50 percent more. But if you register as an organic farmer the inspection is twice or three times a year, and a farmer has to pay for it from his own pocket. The inspected farm has to pay for all the samples of meat and cheese that the inspectors take. And at the end of the year that is not a small amount of money, so all the extra money an organic farmer gets goes back for these extra tests. That was the reason we have not decided to join, it just would not pay off in our case.

There are always problems with the State Agency for Agricultural Markets; all the incentives they provide are problematic. For instance, we had an inspector come over and there was absolutely nothing wrong, we broke no rules, but the bureaucratic procedure kept us out of the subventions system for four years. All of the papers on our side were also in order; it is just the system of subventions which automatically stops every time the inspector visits you. At the end I had to go directly to Ljubljana and avoid the local Farming-Consultancy Service, to finally be able to tell them that we have done nothing wrong, that everything was OK.

In 2000 we started building a new cattle barn and at that time we were both unemployed. We put the mortgage on the house and took a municipality-backed loan. We figured that the subvention would pay for the instalments and we will be able to get by. But the bank never asked us whether we got the subvention or not, they just wanted the instalments. Those were hard times, we had children and two old women living in the house and we were afraid that the bank would claim it. I even said to the bank to call the Ministry themselves and ask them why they do not give us the money, why they always have all these excuses about the procedures and why it always takes so long. And to think how many people are employed there!

Also the help from (the EU-backed) SAPARD programme does not work if you are not already well off. Otherwise you don’t stand a chance, you do not qualify. We have applied many times and each time we paid to have someone advise us and help us write the application. I remember thinking that with all that money we could have built a quarter of the barn already. But what I really disliked is that that they gave us false hope. They would not only encourage us, they told us that this time we' would get it for sure, but each time we would got rejected. You see, one needs to have a big family with a lot of income. It did not help us that we included my husband’s mum's pension; our combined incomes were just too low to be eligible for their help. So, if a farm does not have a nice income from somewhere else in the first place, it does not stand a chance to get this subvention. There would also be people who got European money to help them build apartments, but immediately after those five years they were required to keep the project going,or they’d have to pay the money back, they would ditch the business with the apartments and change them into their own flats. I do not understand, how is that fair?

What about tourism? We have not talked about tourism on Gora. How much of it is there? How do you see that as an option for Gorjani?

Well, on Sinji Vrh, they’ve had a tourist farm for about 25 years now, but really there is not much more. We were only the second ones and before us there was nothing else, so it is not that big of an industry. Though, Hieronim on Sinji Vrh now has a really big capacity; he can host whole colonies of artists. We used to cooperate a lot when I still had my place open every day, but now that I am alone we are only open on weekends, since is not an easy matter to run a place for visitors every day.

Our farm does not have any beds, but I am hoping to be able to build apartments in the attic soon. We do have some groups that come back every year. There is a group of herbalists, and a group of ex-alcoholics that have been visiting us for six or seven years now. When I used to have the farm open for visitors every day, I used to cook and serve them in the ex-hotel (a building next-door). And there is also a big Partisan holiday on 24-25 June, about 1,000 people show up and for eight or nine years I've been taking care of the food and drinks. But all of that – of course – is also very seasonal. We get most work between mid-April and mid-August, after that it just gets too cold with the bora wind and the rain showers. We are 900 metres above the sea and by the end of August the season is more or less over for us. In the winter there would be people from the Valley that would come for the snow and some that would come ride the motor sledges, but that does not occupy us much. We also used to have a small ski lift which we took care of, but now that I am alone I cannot do it on my own.

Other than that there are also the locals who come for a drink and for me it is important to win them over, since they are our most regular customers. Others might come once, spend more, but never come back again. It also helps that I have been working in this kind of business for some 25 years now.

What about the recent trends? Ajdovščina, where most people on Gora work, is one of the towns that suffers the most since the economic crisis has started. Does that affect Gora and its population?

Indeed, we are affected as well. I would say that in the last five years there are more and more families that are coming back. And it is not just about being farmers. Even though there is not much industry left in Ajdovščina, the Valley is still relatively polluted because we get affected by the industry from the river Po basin in Italy. It much better up here, but we nevertheless get a lot of ozone. People move here because they want to make sure their families eat quality food. They would perhaps have one or two cows and a pig and would know that what they eat is good food and that they can grow a lot for themselves.

And of course it is all also connected to the general state of the economy. Here on Predmeja, just in our village alone, there were about 60 people over thirty who worked at Primorje construction company that recently went bankrupt. They lost their jobs and are now mostly home with no other chance but to try doing something here on the land. So people are indeed coming back, there are more children in primary school than there were 6 or 7 years ago, there are more young families – they are coming back because of nature and peace, but also because they do not really have other choices. They need to survive somehow.