FERRISBURGH — “Where does our food come from?” is a question to which shoppers concerned about eating local have given careful consideration in recent years.
Ferrisburgh farmer and baker Erik Andrus has a slightly different take on it: “How does our food get to us?”
Long ago waterways, not roads, were the backbone of the Northeast’s regional food system. After decades of reliance on roads and automobiles to get foods to market, Andrus is taking a journey back in time.
Andrus, who runs Bound Brook Farm and Good Companion Bakery, says he is committed to building resilient food systems both on and off of his Burroughs Hill Road farm. As part of this he is building a 39-foot, $30,000 canal barge to prove that transporting Vermont food products to critical out-of-state markets in New York City and the Lower Hudson River Valley doesn’t have to rely on fossil fuels.
“What we really need in order to have sustainable food systems is a distribution model,” Andrus said. “Even if (farmers) produce sustainably, it’s really not enough. Without equitable exchange and a resilient food distribution system, we’re only halfway there.”
The Vermont Sail Freight Project consists of Andrus, an all-volunteer group of Willowell Foundation students and other community members, and other county farmers who want their products on board the barge. It has raised more than $20,000 so far. A fundraising campaign targeted to raise $15,000 on the fundraising website Kickstarter had raised almost $10,000 at press time; Andrus is also tapping grants.
Andrus plans to take the barge on its maiden voyage in July and begin shipping to customers in New York and the Lower Hudson (who have already surfaced and expressed interest in the products) in September. Former Vermont Agriculture Secretary Roger Albee and Ripton author and environmental celebrity Bill McKibben have expressed interest in being on board the maiden voyage.
“I originally conceived of this project as a demonstration, or if you wanted to put it unkindly, you could say it was a publicity stunt,” Andrus said. “I’m trying to raise the issue of the fact that our food system is cripplingly dependent on truck transport. Even though we have, built into the history of the region, these waterways that have the ability to help support human life, we totally ignore them as part of the solution to the pressing problems of our times.”
Construction on the barge itself, which will be christened “Ceres” after the Roman goddess of agriculture, began in recent weeks in Andrus’s barn.
The 39-foot barge is made with lumber from r.k. Miles in Middlebury. Andrus said it will hold up to 12 tons, and is designed to sink less than a foot and a half in the water even at full capacity, to easily navigate shallow channels. Its flat-bottomed, boxy shape looks very different from the sailboats that one normally sees on Lake Champlain.
“It’s highly effective and it gives us generous cargo space at a low cost,” Andrus said. “We really designed it for the Champlain-Hudson trade route. It’s designed to do one thing. You would never want to take it out onto the ocean, but you would never need to.”
While setting an example is still the initial goal, Andrus believes that expanding urban markets for local and sustainable food will quickly fuel the Vermont Sail Freight Project’s growing potential.
“If it succeeds, eventually we will grow into a farmer-owned shipping and marketing cooperative,” Andrus said. “Essentially the strategy is to piggyback onto the extremely strong local and regional food markets in the Lower Hudson and New York City.”
The Ceres will carry storage crops like grains and value-added products that would keep well for the 10-day water journey. Andrus said that his research indicated that storage crops that take a lot of space to grow, especially grains, are chronically in short supply. New York City, Andrus concluded, cannot easily satisfy customer demand for regionally produced storage crops because it’s not economical to grow bulky crops near the city given how expensive the land is. In Addison County, of course, farmers have the land but not necessarily the customer base.
With middle-class urban consumers increasingly seeking “green” lifestyle choices despite their surroundings, Andrus believes that carbon-neutral food transportation has a market, and he’s getting on board early.
“If we wait for government to come up with solutions we could be waiting a long time,” he said. “But this is an example of something that we can do just with ordinary community resources and skills, that can set an example. That’s the goal.”