This week a new sailing barge was launched on Lake Champlain that its backers hope will soon be in the vanguard of a new carbon-neutral shipping alternative. The 39-foot Ceres — built by volunteers from the Vermont Sail Freight Project and farmer Erik Andrus — is an update on the type of cargo vessels that once plied the inland waterways throughout the northeastern US. Like them, the Ceres will sail without any sort of motorized assistance.
With the Ceres, the Vermont Sail Freight Project, which is supported by the nonprofit Willowell Foundation, hopes to prove that carbon-neutral boats can be a viable shipping method for the 21st century, connecting small-scale farmers in Vermont and upstate New York with customers along the Hudson River south to New York City — all while reducing the substantial greenhouse gas emissions that come from conventional shipping of produce, which is dominated in the region by trucks.
For the next few weeks, the Ceres — which consists of a flat-bottomed plywood box hull covered in fiberglass and a rig borrowed from traditional English Thames barges — will undergo testing on Lake Champlain. If all goes as planned, this fall it will begin its 300-mile maiden voyage down the Hudson to New York, delivering pre-ordered shelf-stable produce to customers along the route.
With no refrigerator onboard, the Ceres will have to carry goods that will last the approximately 10-day trip without losing quality. Grains, dry beans, preserves, onions, squash, and potatoes will make the trip. Without a fixed sailing schedule, customers will learn their orders are approaching by phone, text, or email.
Though a blip on the transportation radar, the Vermont Sail Freight Project (VSFP) is one of a growing number of efforts to revive sail-powered transport in connection with sustainable agriculture, in both the United States and Europe.
There’s the Dragonfly Sail Transport Company, which delivers produce to shore communities along northern Lake Michigan; Washington State has the Salish Sea Trading Cooperative, delivering locally grown produce around Puget Sound; the Island Market Boat serves customers in Maine, bringing produce dockside and selling directly to customers as a sort-of floating farmer's market. In New York City, HARVEST envisions something similar to the VSFP, hoping one day to develop a fleet of the sort of small vessels that once delivered produce and fish in New York and New Jersey.
Taking sail-based trade to another level entirely is the 105-foot brigantine Tres Hombres, now sailing a regular route between northern Europe, islands in the Atlantic and Caribbean, and North America, carrying rum, chocolate, and other freight. And efforts are under way to establish a Fair Transport eco-label, which would assure that goods bearing the mark would have a carbon-emissions reduction of 90 percent, compared to fossil-fuel-shipped maritime cargo.
Operating on a shoestring budget, VSFP’s Ceres is clearly a demonstration project at this point, rather than a commercial venture. In the future, however, several voyages a year are possible — the goal being, eventually, to form a producer-owned shipping and marketing cooperative.
“I think people really get the project right away,” Hannah Mueller, Willowell's administrative director, says. “People from all different economic and political backgrounds understand why you'd want to have carbon-neutral trade and local food combined in this way.”
It’s an understatement to say that a huge transformation in infrastructure, habits, and expectations would be required for this sort of vision and distribution model to expand beyond the niche or boutique pilot project state. However, in VSFP and the proposed trading model of which it is part, it’s possible to start visualizing what an ecologically sustainable low-carbon economy might look like — a combination of traditional knowledge revived, mixed with a dose of high-tech communication, tailored to specific regional needs.
• Mat McDermott writes about environmental issues for a variety of print and online publications, including Motherboard, Earthtechling, Hinduism Today, and Dark Rye.