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.