The Vermont Sail Freight Project is a hand-built sail boat, an experiment in DIY logistics run by farmers from the Champlain Valley. We’re shipping 15 tons of cargo ( non perishable agricultural goods) by sail barge, over 300 miles down the Champlain-Hudson waterway to Manhattan, the Hudson Valley, and points between.
As next generation farmers looking forward to rebuilding resiliency in a food system made brittle by the forces of corporatization, specialization, and globalization. For many of us just getting started, farmers markets, community supported agriculture, direct sales online and to restaurants make our businesses profitable– cutting out the middleman to capture retail price-point. This local food movement has allowed for the entry of thousands of new farmers across the country. Although we are passionate, we are still a tiny minority in the larger landscape of food production, and to scale up we’ll have to get creative.
Scaling up, in this case doesn’t mean following in the pattern of industrial monocultures over vast acreages, neither does it mean growing everything hyper-locally or hyper-industrially on the sides of skyscrapers– no indeed.
The direction we’re looking is for a more regionalized, more diversified food economy. Where a greater variety of products are grown within the region that consumes them, saving on transportation, and allowing for many kinds of farm businesses to bloom together. Imagine an American crazy quilt food landscape with different patches representing orchards, grains, vegetable production, pastured meats and dairy, and small scale food companies producing jams, jellies, breads, wool, salsas, sausages– at an appropriate, community scale with family-owned businesses producing great products with high integrity and local character.
So how does our sail barge fit in? In order to make this vision a reality, in order to move from a highly consolidated, commodity driven food economy– we’re going to need not only many more new farmers rebuilding local farm infrastructure and productive capacity– but we’ll also need a distribution infrastructure that can move those products to market, beyond the farmer’s own truck-reach. The sail boat is all about moving products from within the region in a way that is compatible with consumers and retailers’ needs, replacing imports from far away with regional alternatives, and preserving the sustainable values of our organic farming practices all along the value chain.
Basically, for us to continue to grow and expand the local food movement, to increase the acreage under sustainable management, with healthy soil and habitat, with local jobs and passionate entrepreneurism, the ” path to market” will have to evolve as well.
Being a farmer-driven, cooperative company– along with using sail power, and the convenient waterway as an organizing framework– lets us tackle these logistics in a pretty compelling and captivating way. There have been some digital startup companies building platforms to distribute foods and we are glad that the tech community is getting interested in moving these delightful products to market, but really, the information flows are not complex. We don’t need super fancy software, it is simple math, simple spreadsheets, simple margins. These are all made visible and transparent to our 30+ participating farmers. We aren’t here to set up a phantom-toll booth, or to replicate the injustices of the railroads and corporate middlemen.
Indeed! Our success would mean that we could build more barges! or trucks for that matter– to move these cargoes down river, as well as up—connecting logical communities with logical logistics in a low-fi, crafty kind of way.
So please, track our journey with the sail boat. It’s a hand-made vessel with designs online, from 70 pieces of plywood, and all volunteer labor. But it’s also an effort by farmers in the northern part of New England to figure out the technology of collaboration and market coordination. That will serve us well in the coming decades. When, who knows, we may well need the power of the wind, for reals!