A Question of Scale

by Vermont Rice

Most people I talk to about this concept here in Vermont are pretty easily convinced that the Sail Freight Project should happen.  So it came as a bit of a surprise when I invited an old friend of my dad’s to participate, a serious thinker about energy issues and a lover of Lake Champlain and of travel on the water, and he dismissed it out of hand.  “In most things,” he told me, “I’m apprehensive.  But this makes me extremely apprehensive.”

Why, I of course wanted to know.  Well, the fellow, let’s call him Frank, had already been involved in a failed water freight venture in the 70’s in the Maine islands.  The operation had trouble keeping to a timetable leaving buyers frustrated.  Ultimately the boat in question was sold and the project abandoned.  But more to the point, Frank’s main objection was that water transport, such as on the Champlain-Hudson waterway, will never be able to meet the present needs of our society.  Therefore we shouldn’t waste our time with it, and focus on reviving the rail network instead.

Naturally I was disappointed that the sail freight idea didn’t appeal to Frank, who I had hoped would be a good adviser.  But there is something about this argument that “what you’re doing will never work on a large scale” that has been eating at me since the conversation.  Small-scale farmers in the Northeast hear this a lot.  Anybody who uses draft animals for their work hears it constantly.  But why must everything be able to work on a large scale in order to have any merit?

I lived for about 5 years in Southern Illinois.  I had the privilege of working a little with a chair maker there, who made very fine chairs from trees that he cut himself.  The source trees were usually shade trees, belonging to a homeowner, that needed to come down and would have required a call to a tree service company.  The chair maker would take the tree down for free, in return for the wood, saving the homeowner quite a lot of money and obtaining free raw materials for himself.  Apart from pieces of tree, which he painstakingly split, shaved, and joined to create beautiful chairs, there wasn’t much else needed in the way of materials.  This was part of his sales pitch, that the chairs are made out of a “peripheral resource,” i.e., a marginal source of forest products that no timber company would ever take an interest in.

Now I find myself working with another peripheral resource, farming a wet clay farm in the Champlain Valley.  This land has been chewed up, spit out, carved up for development to the extent the law allows, and then abandoned.  What was left was finally sold, and I am now trying to pick up the pieces and heal it into a place that can support my family and others in my community.  The conventional agricultural model simply doesn’t want this land–it has too many problems to be home to a CAFO dairy farm (which is the predominant conventional model hereabouts).  So if someone like me hadn’t come along, this farm would now be growing up to brush.  So I’m told that what I’m doing here in terms of farming can’t work on a large scale, and I simply don’t care.  It’s irrelevant.  What matters to me  is that even from a minor (peripheral, if you will) resource, with lots of labor and love, there is the opportunity to create worth and beauty that can improve life for my family and the lives of others who eat our food and are supported and uplifted by our work here.

I think the sail freight idea is much in the same vein.  I am not aiming to solve the marco-level transportation issues of the region.  Certainly I, as just your basic farmer, haven’t the capital or political clout to do anything whatsoever to build up our rail system or diminish our region’s dependence on the automobile and the semi.  But this simple idea–a group of farmers builds a basic boat and sails their produce to market–has worked here in the past, and can work again.  Maybe not on a huge scale, but so what?  We can at least improve the lives of a few farmers and inspire and uplift people who enjoy the food we will bring, along with the message that ordinary people can sometimes do a lot with a little.