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This Community-Built Sailing Barge Aims to Bring Produce From Champlain to NYC This Community-Built Sailing Barge Aims to Bring Produce From Champlain to NYC

This Community-Built Sailing Barge Aims to Bring Produce From Champlain to NYC

by Erik Andrus
April 8, 2013

Imagine boarding a flat-bottomed sailing barge for a 300-mile voyage from the shores of Lake Champlain to New York harbor. The hold is laden with twelve tons of locally-produced wheat, flour, dry beans, maple syrup, apples, cabbages, and hard cider. This is not a historic re-enactment. It’s what I’m hoping for the future.

The Vermont Sail Freight Project is a community initiative to raise the profile of small-scale farmers and demonstrate the effectiveness of carbon neutral regional freight transport. Our journey is slated to take place in the fall of this year. It's the product of a joint volunteer effort of a community of farmers, educators, high school students, artists, artisans, and woodworkers.

In my town, cooperation among farmers, and the involvement of the whole community in the life of farms used to be part of the culture. It was also an underpinning of economic security and community prosperity during good times, and survival in bad. Some people still picture Vermont in this light, as an agrarian idyll. Now, I can tell you first-hand that this communitarian approach to farming and life is not dead, but it's not quite as alive and well. An extractive, industrial, expansionist approach to farming, the one that says “get big or get out” dominates the landscape, and our farming and cultural future hangs in the balance.

Our work is grounded by the relationships between neighbors and the fact that our natural environment is not replaceable. There is no greater calling for a farmer than to safeguard and steward the working landscape for the next generation.

Sometimes we farmers who think this way are hard to notice, especially at a regional level, because most of us are preoccupied with the minutia of our work, work which of course usually succeeds or fails depending on its worth to the immediate community. Being visible as a group, beyond the confines of the county line is usually a low priority.

The work being done by a new generation of small-scale farmers is important and we need to make the value of our work known by bringing our goods and our stories by sail power to the greatest city on earth, down 300 miles of lake, canal, and river to New York City. The Vermont Sail Freight Project is a way to amplify our message and at the same time restore a historic trade route that at one time formed a bond between our populous seacoast and food-producing inland New England.

Why a sailboat?

Long before I settled down to farm in Vermont, I wanted to learn to build wooden boats, and worked one summer at a boat building school in Maine at the age of 19. The boats produced there were masterful works of craftsmanship, but I became quickly disillusioned by the fact that although the vessels were derived from traditional forms, the only utility they had in the present-day world was for recreation. I wanted to see them work.

Since that seemed impossible, I went on to house carpentry, furniture, and finally to rice farming, but I have always wanted to build a boat to do real work. The desire to do that somehow would never quite leave me alone. After settling down to farm in Vermont, I came up with the Vermont Sail Freight Project as a way to link the causes of the agrarian rebirth I was witnessing around me with carbon-neutral transportation based on a historic regional trade route.

Starting about two years ago I began to research the approach to the project. It was important to me that the project be community-driven and amateur-friendly. This is not to say that our design will not benefit from the expertise of naval architects and plywood boat builders, but with launching this project, I want to send the message: “We, the people of the Champlain Valley, have done this thing ourselves.”

From the very early days of the project, people with whom I shared the idea were almost universally taken with it. This slower, more local way of living could improve our quality of life. This has the potential to become more than my personal pipe dream, but something that would rally the whole community, and could potentially transform our way of thinking about food systems on a regional scale.

By crowd-sourcing much of our funding through Kickstarter and relying entirely on unpaid volunteer labor, we are bringing this about from the grassroots. It's possible that the project is so far beyond the pale of normal business and economic development thinking that there might be no other way to do it.

A complex, compelling idea like this also needs a forward-thinking core group to carry it out. Without considering the character of the participating farmers, their goods, their communities, the waterway, the design, the builders, and the markets with a systems-thinking approach, we’d have a very incomplete model.

In Monkton, Vermont (the next town over from where I farm) is the Willowell Foundation, a non-profit that offers an alternative senior year of high school to the local high school district.  The kids in that program learn in an outdoor classroom, quite literally around a campfire even in winter snow, with an emphasis on agriculture and environmental education. The foundation partnered with me in October 2012 to pull off the Vermont Sail Freight Project, and participating high school seniors will help construct our sailing barge, making the vision a reality.

While economists and experts say that this or that is uneconomical, non-viable, impractical, whatever, we shake our heads and go and do it anyway. Not just to be obstinate (though I do confess I take a little pleasure in obstinacy) but also because we simply need to, and we know the inherent value of the work we do, for ourselves and for our future, even though the way forward might not be easy.

This project was featured in GOOD's Saturday series Push for Good—our guide to crowdfunding creative progress.

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