The hulking, unpainted plywood box that protrudes from an open-sided barn on Burroughs Farm Road in Ferrisburgh is just starting to look like a boat, if not an attractive one. But for farmer Erik Andrus, who conceived of the idea of building a 19th-century-style, wind-powered cargo barge to transport locally grown food from the Champlain Valley to New York City, pretty isn’t the point. It’s all about function.
“This is the kind of sailboat that will get you catcalls and jeers in certain types of marinas, but we decided we really don’t care about that,” Andrus says of his snub-nosed, flat-bottomed tub. “We’re not going out of our way to make it look ugly. We just want it to be as carbon neutral as we can.”
Andrus’ sailing vessel is being built in the spirit of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s replica schooner Lois McClure — albeit at “half the size and one 20th the budget,” he says. While this ship was never intended to be historically accurate like that one, it has its own educational purpose. What it lacks in sophistication and style, Andrus says, it will more than make up for in robustness, function and heart.
For the past year, Andrus has been working with his not-for-profit sponsor, the Willowell Foundation of Monkton, on a demonstration project called the Vermont Sail Freight Project. One goal is to teach local schoolkids and the public about how their food is produced and the vast amounts of fossil fuels expended in transporting it to market — and then show there’s another way.
As Andrus explains, water as a commercially viable means of transporting heavy cargo has been largely overlooked in discussions of sustainability. This demonstration project aims to show that what was viable once can be viable again.
The 39-and-a-half-foot sail barge, which environmental author and activist Bill McKibben has dubbed “retro future” in its design, is being constructed on a shoestring budget of $15,000, most of which Andrus hopes to recoup through a Kickstarter campaign that ends this week. (As of last week, the campaign was within $500 of achieving its goal.)
For now, Andrus’ short-term goal is to get the boat seaworthy and into the water by July 4, with a plan to bring 12 tons of Champlain Valley agricultural goods from Ferrisburgh to the Port of New York in 10 days this September. Both McKibben and Roger Allbee, Vermont’s former secretary of agriculture, have expressed interest in riding that maiden voyage to NYC.
In the longer term, Andrus would like to see the Vermont Sail Freight Project develop into a viable commercial venture on Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. By 2014, he envisions this and similar vessels routinely moving foodstuffs up and down Lake Champlain and the Hudson, possibly making additional pickups and deliveries along the way. This summer, the vessel and its crew — when finished, it will sleep five — will practice hauling small cargo loads around Lake Champlain.
Why build a wind-powered barge to educate the public about creating a sustainable food system?
“I’ve always loved watercraft. Some of the happiest memories I have were being in canoes and sailboats,” Andrus says. He sees the Vermont Sail Freight Project as a way of pairing his love of farming with his love of being on the water. “But as much as anything else, it’s about sustainability and resilience.”
Andrus envisions this barge, which is tentatively named Ceres — in Roman mythology, the goddess of fertility, agriculture and grain crops — as a floating farmers market of sorts, where vendors and customers would go down to the river to buy and sell wares.
“For small farmers, if you’re invisible, you’re dead,” Andrus says. “If you can’t get the story out there about what you’re doing and why it matters to the wider world, then the supermarket wins every time.”
For 21st-century Vermonters, it’s easy to forget that Burlington was once one of the largest timber ports in North America. Cargo barges like this one plied the waters between the Hudson River and the St. Lawrence Seaway for centuries before they were replaced by rail transport, then by trucking.
Andrus’ is far from the first effort of its kind. The Vermont Sail Freight Project is a member of the Sail Transport Network, a global alliance of shippers, many of whom use centuries-old trade routes to transport cargo via wind-powered vessels. Andrus hopes his ship will meet up with similar sailing ships in New York City so it can obtain food items from South America and Europe, such as sugar, coffee, olives and chocolate, and transport them back to Vermont.
Already, Andrus has a tentative arrangement to connect in New York with a French tall ship whose owners seek to bring a large shipment of Vermont maple syrup back to France. In exchange, the Ceres would take on a load of French wines and bring them to Vermont for sale. Adapting the model of fair-trade-certified goods, all these items might bear a label reading “Transported by Sail.”
While the idea may sound preposterously retro to some, Andrus insists sail transport is both logistically and economically feasible.
“The English Thames barges, to which this is very similar to design, were cost-competitive with road and rail transport up until the 1970s, when they were driven out of business,” he says. “So it’s not as far-fetched an idea as you might think.”
Lending a hand on the Vermont Sail Freight Project are Vergennes High School students working through the Willowell Foundation, which sponsors their alternative senior year.
“We see this as a really inspirational, community-driven project that has elements of the arts, education and the environment,” explains Hannah Mueller, the Willowell Foundation’s program manager. “This one cuts across class and political divides ... It’s not controversial at all. Everyone who hears about it gets it instantly.”
Last week, some of Mueller’s students visited Andrus’ farm for one of two knot-tying workshops led by New York City mariner Christin Ripley, who taught them about knots useful in sailing. Also lending a hand last week were fourth graders from Vergennes Union Elementary School; they helped construct a batch of 12-inch replicas of the barge, which will be given out to Kickstarter donors.
Andrus is no stranger to heavy labor using old-fashioned methods. Since 2006, he and his wife, Erica, have been farming 110 acres just outside Vergennes on land that’s been in continuous use since colonial days. Their diversified family farm employs many centuries-old technologies, including log skidders and plows that are powered by draft horses.
About four years ago, the couple began experimenting with growing rice in paddies, and they now operate the largest wet-rice farm in the Northeast. Last year, they grew 2500 pounds, which Andrus notes is “not even close to capacity.” He estimates that once the project is fully established, it should yield as much as 24,000 pounds annually.
Good Companion Bakery, which the Andruses own and operate on their premises, utilizes a retained-heat brick oven that’s fired each day by a wheelbarrow full of slabwood. The couple bakes European-style loaves such as pain au levain, baguettes, bâtards and ciabatta, all of which come out with a distinctive brick-oven-baked crust.
Bread and other rapidly perishable foods will seldom be aboard the Ceres. Loosely modeled on a 19th-century cargo vessel, it has three cargo holds but no refrigerators or compressors, which means nearly all the cargo must be shelf-stable for at least 10 days. One hold may contain blocks of ice for preserving a limited amount of produce, such as apples and cabbages, Andrus says. However, his priority is to make the vessel as eco-friendly and carbon neutral as possible. Even the sprit, or rear mast, will double as a hand-powered crane for lifting cargo on and off the ship.
Because the Vermont Sail Freight Project isn’t bound by a slavish adherence to historical authenticity, the Ceres will be outfitted with modern nautical instrumentation, including a depth finder, GPS locator and an outboard engine, “just in case.”
The project also relies on another 21st-century technology: the internet. Food vendors and buyers will be able to go online, identify the types and quantities of goods they’re interested in, then go down to the river and meet the barge when it arrives.
“It’s kind of like Amazon.com, only much slower, less convenient and a much smaller range of stuff,” Andrus jokes. “But we still think people will go for it.”
Needless to say, the Sail Freight Project isn’t as much about convenience as it is about long-term energy resilience and food sustainability. But Andrus thinks its old-time novelty could encourage consumers to think beyond the supermarket, appealing to their imaginations in a way dire warnings do not.
“It’s kind of a soft touch,” he says of the project. “We don’t have to bang people over the head and say, ‘You’ve got to stop using your SUV or we’re all going to die.’”
The original print version of this story was titled: “Sail to Sale: A Ferrisburgh farmer aims to bring Vermont food to urban markets by wind-powered barge”