Canal barge will carry Vermont commodities to New York City

FERRISBURGH — This past Saturday afternoon, shouting and applause rang out from dozens of people gathered at the Ferrisburgh Town Beach as Ceres, a 39-foot canal barge constructed by visionary farmer, baker and builder Erik Andrus approached the shore after completing its 1.25-mile maiden voyage.

Andrus put in the vessel at a boat ramp on South Slang, an inlet of Lake Champlain off of Hawkins Road. Its first time in water marked a watershed for the Vermont Sail Freight Project, a collaboration between Andrus and the Willowell Foundation that aims to revitalize the historic water trade routes along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.

“It was really great to make it to that milestone,” Andrus said, admitting he had some doubts whether the boat would be ready in time for the scheduled launch celebration. “Just to see it float … was gratifying beyond words.”

Beginning Sept. 15, the sail-powered barge will make a 10-day, 300-mile trip from Ferrisburgh down Lake Champlain through the 22-mile Champlain Canal into the Hudson and then on to markets in the Lower Hudson Valley and Manhattan. Ceres will be carrying 15 tons of shelf-stable Vermont food products and value-added goods. While the trip will take much longer than it would with a tractor-trailer truck, it will carry almost the same quantity of goods without spewing any carbon into the atmosphere.

“I think it’s very hopeful … it suggests that we can respond to some of the crises that we are facing around global climate change in a way that is kind of fun,” said Willowell founder and Executive Director Matt Schlein. “Not everything needs to move 75 miles per hour down the interstate.”

According to the project’s Kickstarter page, which raised nearly $17,000 of the project’s $30,000 budget, the goods on board will include apples and cider syrup from Champlain Orchards; wheat berries and stone-ground flour from Prindle Farm; pickles, salsas and jellies from Westview Farm and Orchard; organic potatoes and root vegetables from Golden Russet and Last Resort farms; organic black beans from Elmer Farm; and short-grain japonica rice from Andrus’ own Boundbrook Farm. Altogether, around 30 local producers are involved in the project.

SPIRIT OF TEAMWORK

The sails were not ready for this first test in the water, so Andrus and his crew poled into Kingsland Bay, where the Ferrisburgh Town Beach sits and the celebration waited. Entering the bay, however, the barge moved slower then expected and started drifting toward a bank of land. Schlein, who was on board, waved down a motorboat manned by Panton residents Greg and Debbie Baringer and their son Ryan to tow the barge in the rest of the way to the beach.

According the Schlein, this sort of spontaneous teamwork is right in line with the spirit of the project.

“It has been a community endeavor in the truest sense of the word,” he said back on shore as he prepared a garlic spread to put on bread baked by Andrus’ Good Companion Bakery for the attendees of the gathering. “Erik is the visionary man behind it, but dozens upon dozens of people have volunteered to help make this happen.”

The project’s all-volunteer crew has included everyone from students at Monkton and Vergennes elementary school who helped with some of the sanding and knot tying under the guidance of the “greenhorns” who have also been involved, to high school students in Willowell’s Walden Project Outdoor High School program, who got credit for constructing part of the hull. Participants also included Lincoln timber framer Will Gusakov, who helped with the carpentry, and Brattleboro boat building expert Matthew Wright, who designed the rigging and is helping make the sails.

Ari Lattanzi, 22, who recently graduated from Middlebury College, became involved in the spring while she was co-director of the Middlebury College Organic Farm. She received an email about a work party to flip the hull, which Andrus had begun building right side up.

“I am always in awe of the things Erik comes up with … he is very capable of building things and coming up with big ideas,” she said.

Andrus, known for his experimentation with unconventional crops and traditional technologies on his 110-acre diversified Ferrisburgh farm, had no experience building boats before this besides a summer wooden boat workshop he completed. While he says the four and a half months and 1,500 to 1,600 man-hours the crew took to build the ship went by without any major problems, flipping the hull did present a challenge. Normally, boat builders start constructing the hull upside down, finishing the bottom first so they only have to flip it once. While Andrus’s method presented some extra steps and minor mishaps, he didn’t seem to mind.

“(Flipping the hull) was an occasion to bring people to the farm to participate in a group activity,” he said.

After the sails go on and some cosmetic work is finished in the cabin where Andrus and crew member Jordan Finkelstein, 23, will sleep on the voyage, they will take it out for some maneuvering on Lake Champlain.

Then they will be off to Manhattan, where they have already contacted the Hudson River Park Trust, which will give Andrus access to piers where Ceres can dock and the New Amsterdam Farmer’s Market. Andrus hopes to sell some of the goods there when they first arrive. He and Finkelstein will also be in contact with other wholesalers and markets in Manhattan and Brooklyn to begin making connections for what Andrus hopes can be an economically viable, farmer-owned trade cooperative that will operate from the first maple harvest in the early spring to Christmas tree season in the winter starting in 2014.

“We are definitely thinking ahead to expanding to multiple vessels, but the step ahead of us is (getting) down the Hudson,” Andrus said. “We still have a lot of work to do but we have time to do it.”

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