A rising tide lifts this boat

Building a boat fine cut by Irina Ivanova from bob.sacha@journalism.cuny.edu on Vimeo.

A version of this piece was published Nov. 8, 2013 on CrainsNewYork.com.

The Hudson river hadn’t seen sail-freight food delivery for nearly half a century until Oct. 24, when Vermont farmer Erik Andrus sailed a homemade barge into the Brooklyn Navy Yard with a crew of volunteers.

Mr. Andrus’ creation—a 40-foot sail barge carrying nine tons of grains, cider and root vegetables—is the latest installment in a burgeoning local food movement . Along with a crew of volunteers, he built the barge, named Ceres for the Roman goddess of grain, as a business model for carbon-neutral food transportation.

“A lot of people know on a gut level that a new boat from a different area coming into your town is a big deal and a cause for celebration. We’re trying to take that and actually make it an economic event,” said Mr. Andrus, who grows rice in Ferrisburgh, Vt.

He hit upon the idea of sailing food from Vermont to New York City via the Hudson River partly as a way to ship his own crops in a carbon-neutral manner. But he also wanted to prove that, in a future he believes will see energy shortages, rising fuel prices and deteriorating road infrastructure, the riverways should once again be used as a link in a sustainable food chain. He also wanted to give consumers yearning for food that is healthy both to humans and the planet a model of what could be possible: the farmer selling his goods at the market, his boat docked in the river behind him.

“Sail freight is poised for a comeback,” said Mr. Andrus, “and we want to be at the forefront.”

Mr. Andrus is not only at the forefront of what he hopes is a movement but its bow, if not its prow. Building the boat wasn’t easy. Mr. Andrus enlisted funding and marketing help from two local nonprofits that support young farmers: the Willowell Foundation and the Greenhorns. A Kickstarter campaign this spring raised nearly $17,000 and attracted several skilled volunteers to help Mr. Andrus, a former carpenter, build the boat and a veteran sailor, Steve Schwartz, to act as captain.

For many other farmers whose cargo he carried, delivery by sail was a chance to make a splash in the New York City market. Vermont’s Champlain Orchards, an early cheerleader of the boat, sold Ceres six tons of cargo, including four varieties of apples, apple cider syrup and apple butter. The orchard sells primarily in Vermont and eastern New York state, and joining the sail freight project was a chance to expand their market while staying true to the company’s ecological values, said Ted Fisher, Champlain Orchards’ sales and marketing manager.
Apple products were well-suited for the barge for another reason: they are shelf-stable, meaning they could last the approximately two-week-long trip without refrigeration. They shared the barge with root vegetables, grains and honey as well as higher-margin specialty items like maple sugar, nougat and birch syrup.

Though some shipping continues on the Hudson today, most of the cargo is coal and very large machinery, said Allynne Lange, curator at the Hudson River Maritime Museum. The volume of cargo has declined precipitously since the 1960s.

While shipping by water is both cheaper and less polluting than trucking, relying solely on wind power makes scheduling unreliable, said Yossi Sheffi, director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics. “If time is not an issue, the method is efficient,” he said. “But it’s not realistic because you need to bring stuff to market fast and reliably.”

Mr. Andrus installed an outboard motor on the barge to allow movement when there is no wind, and to make it easier to maneuver in New York harbor. But the project’s homemade nature sparked issues elsewhere.

Mr. Andrus needed maritime insurance to use New York City docks, and “only one insurer would deign to insure a project as weird as this, and then only at the highest possible rates,” he said. It cost as much to insure the boat as it had to build it—about $20,000, Mr. Andrus said.

The ship’s size raised other concerns. Ceres was designed to be just small enough to operate as an uninspected vessel and have a small crew—but it was also too small to dock in Manhattan, where docks are built to accommodate much larger boats. The crew ultimately found space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where they held a market on Saturday, Oct. 26.

The next day, they trucked the remaining cargo to the South Street Seaport via a rented U-Haul, for the monthly New Amsterdam Market. (They could not dock in Manhattan, as they initially hoped).

Not counting the costs to build the boat—many of which were borne by volunteers—the project was able to make a small profit from selling produce, said Patrick Kiley, who managed logistics for the boat.

“If we can pay the farmers, and liquidate the cargo and the boat gets back safe, it’s a success,” he said.

On the return journey, Ceres brought 200 pounds of coffee purchased from Brooklyn Coffee Roasters to be sold in Vermont over the winter. The ship’s captain hurried back to Vermont, driven by a cold weather and a deadline: the Champlain canal, part of their route, closes Nov. 15.

For Mr. Andrus, the real work is just beginning. Before repeating the trip in the spring, he hopes to establish warehouses along the route and, eventually, build more ships, turning the sail freight project into a farmer-owned cooperative. But he’s satisfied with the progress so far.

“I can hardly believe that we’ve done it,” he told a visitor to the New Amsterdam Market last month. “It’s like somebody else’s life.”