August 27, 2014
Maritime museums are nostalgic places full of black and white photographs of old sails and rugged seafarers. Ornate boats hint at centuries of technological progress and suggest that craftsmanship has suffered as a result. But the old became new again recently at the Hudson Maritime Museum in New York, when a sailboat arrived to sell agricultural goods from upriver. Visitors caught a glimpse of a river-based local food economy—a vestige of the past and a harbinger of an alternative future.
For the last two summers, the Vermont Sail Freight Project (VSFP) has sailed a boat named Ceres down the Hudson River, carrying all manner of small-scale, artisanal farm products to eager consumers in New York City and at river towns along the way. It has carried everything from grains to maple syrup, honey, carrots, pickles, preserves, herbal teas, goat milk caramels, flour, and beans, selling roughly $50,000 worth of goods in one trip.
Ceres has visited almost 20 locations, offloading and setting up sales tents from the small town port of Nyack’s Memorial Park to the Brooklyn Naval Yard. At most stops, customers buy directly from the crew. At times the boat docks during a local farmers’ market and the tent is one of many. Other times, it stands alone, attracting customers through word of mouth, live music, and free tours of Ceres. VSFP has also held dinners in Manhattan, joined the Clearwater Music Festival in Croton-on-Hudson, and educated school groups on its mission.
According to Erik Andrus, Vermont-based rice farmer and the driving personality behind the project, “the goal (besides economic survival) is to create parallel [distribution] systems that can operate on a more local basis and rely on reciprocal ties between communities within a region, reinforced with some cultural and historical glue.”
Reinforcing those ties has also been a goal of Severine von Tscharner Fleming, director of The Greenhorns, a nonprofit run by and for beginning farmers. When Fleming met Andrus and heard of his plans, she extended her organization’s support with logistics, communications, and helping hands.
So far, the project has received support from individuals, community groups, and businesses along the way. On each trip, the cargo sells out by the end of the trip, or comes close. The mayor of Ossining wants the town to become a stop for Ceres, to help make the small town’s waterfront its new “front door.” Manhattan’s New Amsterdam Market wants to revive its historic home at the East River Market District, linking the redesign of its waterfront to VSFP’s regional trade goals—and helping sell its goods. The farms providing goods include friends and neighbors of Andrus, but also strangers who make contact through the project’s website and the Greenhorns’ wider network.
Although this VSFP is currently a fiscally sponsored project of the non-profit Willowell Foundation, its organizers envision it as more than a cool-sounding experiment, but an actual profit-generating business. The VSFP has relied heavily on volunteer labor to custom build the boat, sail and dock it, unload and sell its cargo, and improve its operations with every trip. It has yet to make a profit, but then again, rare is the business that does within its first two years.
In addition to the steep learning curve involved with setting up such a little-tested business model, VSFP faces a number of challenges. For one there is still inadequate “land-based infrastructure” and a lack of public docks in place along the Hudson.
On a systematic level, it’s also much cheaper to distribute food by truck, thanks to direct and indirect oil subsidies. Meanwhile, the VSFP crew was frustrated to find that liability insurance was extremely expensive, because no insurance company had experience with such a kind of commercial sailing activity.
Yet, by “practicing the economics of possibility,” Fleming thinks the VSFP “exhibits the kinds of activities, relationships, and methods that could be[come] more commonplace.” The goal is to return to craft skills, place-based relationships, and open source methods of business, as Andrus insists on sharing what he’s learned. While he says he’s not “a crisis-monger,” Andrus expects society “to trend back towards less-energy-intensive ways of living.” And it is in the service of this transition—away from dependence on fossil power and towards the interdependence of local communities—that the project offers promise.
While others might argue that the use of sailboats as commercial freighters is quaint and unlikely to spark any major shift in the food system, Andrus, Willner, and Fleming all believe that the long-term energy challenges facing the country will require innovative, unconventional solutions, and that these can be sparked by thoughtful and diligent experiments like VSFP.
It is too early to judge whether like-minded post-carbon sail freight projects might pop up where VSFP’s spores touch down. But in a recent guest blog post on the project’s website, sailor Andrew Willner reported that there are already a handful of similar projects across North America, and an equal number that are developing ocean-focused sail freight operations.
Fleming believes that those involved with the project will learn, through direct action, the perils and promises of fossil-free, river-based food distribution, and that this accrued wisdom will aid future efforts.
Willner agrees. He argues that the “ultimate success of the project is not necessarily measured by whether it is profitable or not (although I believe it will be).” Instead, he and other supporters agree that the greater success would be in laying the groundwork for “the next generation” of sailor entrepreneurs, by building the skills, logistics, and connections needed up and down the product chain, up and down river.
This short video about the Vermont Sail Freight Project is courtesy of The New Yorker.
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