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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

Farmer Pioneers Vermont Sail Freight Project

FERRISBURGH— Soaring fuel prices, increased development of local and sustainable food systems and growing environmental concerns have caused farmers across the country to reevaluate the manner in which food is grown and distributed. One Vermonter is looking to the water, the wind and the past for guidance.

Erik Andrus, the owner and operator of the Bound Brook Farm and the Good Companion Bakery in Ferrisburgh, Vt. is hoping that Lake Champlain can provide an answer.  Andrus has undertaken an initiative called Vermont Sail Freight Project that seeks to build a 39-foot barge with the capacity to transport 12 tons of shelf-stable farm products to retailers in New York and the Lower Hudson.

Andrus launched the ambitious project in 2012 with the backing of the Monkton-based Willowell Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to environmental and educational progress.

The project is a sustainable way to provide a larger number of people with fresh farm produce and to reduce the emissions associated with more energy-intensive distribution methods.

“A new generation of farmers is hard at work reinventing farming for the 21st century,” said Andrus. “But what happens on the farms is only half of the story. We need a distribution model that matches the values that these farmers inject into their farms.”

“There’s no rational reason why non-perishable foods need to travel at 75 miles an hour on rubber down the interstate,” said Andrus. “We can transport 12 to 13 tons of goods — without consuming a drop of gasoline — 300 miles, from farm to plate, if you will.

Andrus came up with the idea by looking at the rich history of barge trade in Vermont before the automobile came to the state.  Considering the gentleness of Lake Champlain most of the year and the ease of transport down the Hudson he believes the simplicity of his idea is its real selling point.

“Barges like this used to be as common as dirt,” said Andrus. “Now we’re kind of resurrecting this concept and reintroducing it — purposed for our times.”

Andrus has decided to name the vessel Ceres after the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture.

The sailing barge will be 19 feet in length, 10 feet in beam (width) and will have 12 tons of cargo capacity. The vessel will spend its summers on Lake Champlain and travel south in the fall. The vessel will sail first with its cargo of non-perishable produce to the southern end of Lake Champlain where it will enter the 22-mile long Champlain Canal. Upon passing through the canal, the barge will enter the Hudson River at Fort Edward. The remainder of the trip is a roughly 200-mile downriver journey to Manhattan, Ceres’s ultimate destination.

According to Andrus, the primary foodstuffs that he plans on transporting are rice, wheat, winter squash, dry beans, corn meal, cabbages, apples, applesauce, jams, salsa, pickles and sauces.

With 12 tons of cargo equating up to $100,000, Andrus says that he will not put one pound on board until he is confident that it is safe.

Andrus has expressed interest in making a number of stops along the way. He currently expects the trip to take a total of 10 days with stops in Mechanicsville, Troy, Albany, Hudson, Kingston, Poughkeepsie and Manhattan.

Ideally he would like to sell directly to the consumer, but he is also in talks with co-ops and local food purveyors to purchase his goods. Andrus will implement an web-based sales model in the fall of 2013 that will enable customers to order and pay for goods via Paypal. Customers will then pick up their purchases dockside.

Upon completing her 10-day voyage, Ceres will turn around and make her way back to the Green Mountain State — but not without loading up on some cargo for the return trip. Preliminary plans are being drawn to provide New Yorkers and Vermonters with fair-trade coffee, sugar and chocolate, and Andrus hopes to eventually provide more exotic foods like tropical fruits.

An all-volunteer crew began building Ceres on Andrus’s farm in Ferrisburgh in the first week of March, and the vessel will eventually be launched right down the road on Lake Champlain.

Andrus tentatively hopes to launch the barge this July, and he believes that Ceres will be ready for her first trip this fall. Andrus hopes to take Ceres for one excursion this coming fall, and then in future years he expects Ceres to undertake multiple trips in a season.

“2013 is a demonstration” said Andrus. “If this year goes well then it will set the groundwork for a sustainable business project.”

Without background in shipbuilding and sailing, Andrus is confident that after a brief learning period he will be able to pilot the vessel, which only requires two crewmembers to sail.

“After all,” said Andrus, “we are not rounding Cape Horn.”

Andrus said that initially the state was very interested in the project as a way to spread the ingenuity of Vermont’s farming community but since has not returned his calls. He remains hopeful that the Secretary of Agriculture will promote the project if his test run this fall is successful.

The project has already surpassed his minimum budgetary goal by raising more than $20,000 via Kickstarter.com and fundraising continues. Andrus does believe, however, that the project will eventually be financially sustainable and even turn a small profit given the low overhead and the minimal costs of operation.

The project is currently being evaluated for an insurance policy, but Andrus emphasizes the fact that the project is not some kind of renegade organization but rather a new kind of business model with which many groups are unfamiliar.  Andrus hopes to develop relationships with other local organizations, many of which are unaware of his project. He expects the barge to be registered as a commercial vessel fit to sail Lake Champlain.

In addition to making sure that Ceres is seaworthy and that all of the other facets of the business plan are firing on all cylinders, the Vermont Sail Freight Project is focused on developing sales and marketing plans for the voyage in coming months. Andrus has expressed interest in scaling up the project in the future.

The Vermont Sail Project and the Willowell Foundation see the project as a valuable opportunity to make educational connections with the local community. Students from Vergennes Union High School have already contributed to the project by assisting in the early phases of constructing Ceres. The Vermont Sail Freight Project welcomes all volunteers and encourages interested parties to seek further information on the project at the website: http://vermontsailfreightproject.wordpress.com.

(With Conor Grant contributing)


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