The Vermont Sail Freight Project was an initiative created by farmer Erik Andrus of Ferrisburgh, Vermont with the financial and organizational support of the Willowell Foundation of Monkton, Vermont. The goal of the effort was to highlight the potential of working waterways to enhance prospects of regional sustainability, as well as to open markets for farmers in Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s North Country.
Beginning in 2012, the Vermont Sail Freight volunteers, led by Erik, designed and built a 15-ton capacity sailing barge and raised funds for her construction from grants, donations, and pre-sale of cargo items. The Ceres was launched on July 27th, 2013, and was ready to journey downriver with cargo in October 2013. This was made possible in part by the participation of Greenhorns, USA and by the support of the Eastman and Waterwheel Foundations. In October, 2013, $56,000 worth of products from small farms in the north were delivered and distributed along the Champlain-Hudson waterway at farmers’ markets and through our own events and wholesale accounts.
The following year, 2014, involved a smaller team and a less-ambitious program of activities. However sales volumes were lower, as we could not keep up the pace of publicity. The team’s prowess at moving the craft under sail alone advanced, however, as did facility organizing and loading and unloading cargo with a smaller workforce. Following a brief and fairly unprofitable season that left us holding a lot of unsold inventory, Erik made the decision to steer the model towards more of a wholesale emphasis.
From late 2014 into early 2015 Erik and partners made moves towards launching a wholesale model that would pay a limited staff rather than relying on volunteers, but the team to manage this venture never came together. Critical deadlines to relaunch in 2015 were missed, leading Erik to cancel the season’s program. Ultimately Erik judged the effort to be lacking the magnetism and momentum necessary to create a company and made the decision to disband in July 2015.
Is working sail viable? Vermont Sail Freight Project has proved it can be done and can inspire while meeting real needs. However, positioning it for the long haul in the world as we know it proved to be too taxing for a small and underfunded team.