A sail-powered food-trading adventure connecting the farms and forests of Lake Champlain with the Lower Hudson Valley
The Vermont Sail Freight Project is a contemporary re-invention of a historic regional foodway, and is sponsored by the Willowell Foundation of Monkton, Vermont. In 2013, the Sail Freight team, led by farmer Erik Andrus and Willowell staff, will build a simple low-cost sailing barge 39 feet in length, 10' in beam (width) and with 12 tons of cargo capacity with which to trade Vermont-produced foods in New York City and the Lower Hudson.
Our sailing barge is being built to an economical and amateur-friendly design that is loaded with features to facilitate its main job: hauling large amounts of food. There is a saying in New England, "handsome is as handsome does," and though our sailing barge will have simple lines and no-frills equipment, we believe she will do very handsomely! We are building her with an all-volunteer crew of students and community members, to launch in Lake Champlain by July. She will be named "Ceres," in honor of the Roman goddess of grain and agriculture and the figure atop the state house building in Montpelier.
The Willowell Foundation provides a structure for high school students to take an active hand in the construction, and to work alongside members of the wider community in a multi-generational grassroots endeavor.
After testing and fitting down our barge, we will make our first voyage with cargo for sale in September 2013. We will sail from Ferrisburgh, Vermont to New York City and points between with 12 tons of shelf-stable foods from the Champlain Valley, including apples and cider syrup from Champlain Orchards, wheat berries and stone-ground flour from Prindle Farm, excellent pickles, salsas and jellies from Westview Farm and Orchard, organic potatoes and root vegetables from Golden Russet farm and Last Resort farm, organic black beans from Elmer Farm, and short-grain japonica rice from Boundbrook Farm. Our producer list includes some really outstanding farms, and is still growing. We will make these farmers' goods available in markets some 300 miles distant by means of our barge and an internet-based retail sales platform.
We have a lot of interest and support from downriver even at this early stage of the project. Friends on the Hudson and in New York Harbor see our vision as complementing many food and sustainability initiatives now taking place, such as the campaign to protect New Amsterdam Market from private development: http://www.lonestartaconyc.com/2013/03/building-a-new-amsterdam-market.php#comment-827157057
Our internet component will allow our customers and fans to track the barge's progress and receive automatic updates via email, twitter, or text message. Customers can come and meet the boat at announced public waterside locations, talk to the crew, and pick up their purchases.
This project invites you to look at the water in a new way, and to reflect on how we have moved heavy cargoes around the region in the past and may do so again, and to consider that we can create our own "retro-future," as climate activist Bill McKibben (one of our project's fans) put it. Our sincere hope is that this initiative will lay the groundwork for a way of tying exceptional staple-crop-producing farms in rural New England to the vibrant communities of the Lower Hudson. This is "fair trade" realized on a regional scale, as well as sustainable, carbon-neutral transport for staff-of-life goods.
Our planned 2013 trading voyage is a pilot project, a first step towards a trading system that has potential to be economically viable as well as being ecologically sustainable and socially just. Over time we hope to transition this model from a volunteer-driven project of a non-profit to a for-profit farmer-owned shipping and marketing co-op.
To launch our sailing barge and operate her through 2013, our total project budget is $30,000, which does not include the value of copious amounts of skilled volunteer labor. To help us reach this goal we are aiming to raise $15,000 through Kickstarter to pay for sails, spars, cordage, blocks, paint, varnish, winches, simple interior furnishings, a basic electrical system with a solar charger, an outboard motor for emergency backup, marine electronics for navigation and communication, and the services of a videographer (Finn Yarborough of Earth House Productions -- see http://vimeo.com/earthhouseproductions) for documentation of the process.
Successful completion of this campaign will ensure that the above materials will be available when we need them, and will do a great deal to ensure the return of working sail to the Champlain-Hudson waterway in 2013. If we surpass our goal, the additional will be allocated towards development of our web-based trading component, and conducting outreach in advance of our first trading run.
Please check out the project's blog and follow our progress with construction, updated weekly.
and our website, which also contains lots of extra material about our vision, our plan, personnel, calendar, and lots more.
Long live commercial sail!
Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
We realize that we have a very ambitious agenda. Our work for 2013 includes building a network, building a boat, launching and testing our barge, making arrangements to buy and sell our cargo, plus designing a web platform to support the project.
Significantly, September 30th is the absolute latest we could depart from Vermont for our first voyage with cargo in order to return before the canals close for the winter. Some of the rewards involve coming aboard during this planned fall voyage south. In the event that insurmountable delays in construction, testing, cargo procurement, or launching of our web component prevent us from setting sail by mid-September, we may be forced to delay our first voyage with cargo (and delivery of the on-board rewards) until winter has passed. USPS delivery of farm goods is a fallback option if recipients would rather not wait until spring 2014 for delivery. The remainder of the rewards (the song, the prints, the launch party) will certainly be available in any event.
But in more general terms, a little more detail about our team and partnership might address the issue of how we might deal with the unexpected.
Erik Andrus is excited and honored to serve as Vermont Sail Freight's project director. As a renovation contractor (12 years) and as a farmer (7 years), Erik has extensive experience with large and complex projects, and is adept at finding constructive solutions to vexing problems. For example, after several seasons of frustration trying to grow wheat and barley in a Vermont climate subject to increasingly torrential summer rains, Erik shifted the farm's focus from these European crops to Japanese rice, making the increasingly waterlogged nature of our summers from a detriment to an advantage. Now Erik's rice farm is the largest producer of quality Japanese rice in the Northeast.
The project commands community support and enthusiasm. To date approximately 1200 volunteer hours have been logged bringing this effort about, with extensive research into regulations and feasibility issues. Many more unpaid hours are yet to be logged but it will be worth it. This gives you some idea of the level of commitment that drives this project.
The project also has the full support of the Willowell Foundation and its board. Willowell will do what it takes to see this initiative through, and stands on its 10-year history in the local community in making bold ideas based on creative systems-based thinking to reality. All in all we have in place a pretty seasoned and adaptable team with many resourceful allies throughout the community. We will do all we can to make sure VSFP lives up to its promise and its promises.
The design is an amateur design, a proven low-budget hull concept that I have adapted to our project's needs. Professionals have reviewed my work as far as lines, materials, fasteners, framing and so on are concerned. It is amateur built by a team of volunteers with some seasoned boatbuilders among them. Our barge is not required to have coast guard inspection because it does not carry paying passengers and is below the size and tonnage thresholds where inspections are needed for cargo vessels. The amateur-build nature of the project is why a boat of this size can be built to a budget of $15000.
One answer is to wait for conditions to change. Another is to pole -- we intend to set the boat up with outboard planks for maximum poling efficiency. Our research suggests that a flatboat of our tonnage can be poled at a slow speed (2 mph) in a relatively calm adverse current so long as bottom depth is fairly consistent. Ceres will be equipped with an outboard but we intend to keep usage of it to a minimum.
We estimate that including time under sail, time poling, and time waiting out adverse conditions we can make the trip in about 10 days. Our overall model is viable with a voyage of about this duration.