Vermont farmer Erik Andrus has enough personality to fill a cargo ship, but you wouldn't know it at first. You might even think he's shy.
On a recent drive from his farm to Otter Creek, he makes little eye contact, answers questions sparingly. Andrus seems detached from the project he’s been working on for months, like it’s an academic exercise. It’s not until he climbs aboard his sail-powered barge, Ceres — named for the goddess of fertility and grain crops — that his inner firebrand comes out.
“The modern farmer needs to turn heads, make the public know who they are,” says Andrus, creator of the Vermont Sail Freight Project. “If you’re anonymous, you’re dead.”
In the wee town of Vergennes, there’s little risk of Andrus going anonymous. He’s a farmer who boldly decided to grow rice — a tropical crop — in the wetlands of Northern Vermont. He’s a baker who peddles bread in town, using an old-timey draft horse and wagon. He’s an outspoken sustainability advocate, holding forth on opinion pages and radio shows. And he’s the guy who’s bringing farm goods to New York City, on a sailboat built by hand.
Ceres will make its maiden voyage in early October. The plan is to dock at 10 different wharfs between Lake Champlain and New York, peddling his wares at every stop. And once the boat reaches NYC — if all goes to plan — the remaining products will be dispatched through the city on a fleet of rickshaw bicycles.
Andrus’ plan can seem a bit precious, like the New Zealand company that delivers sandwiches by parachute. But Ceres is no whimsical plaything — for all its fancy riggings, the hull is plywood and epoxy, designed to haul up to 15 tons. “It looks very cool, with that Tall Ships thing going on,” says Andrus. “But if you really inspect it, this boat was built to work.”
Ceres will haul durable goods from 30 different farmers in Vermont and Upstate New York — honey and beans, apples and potatoes, squash and wool. Tracking a route from Lake Champlain down the Hudson River, each stop will be part wholesale delivery (restaurants and stores have already placed orders), part CSA, part open market. Andrus wants to emulate the rowdy, bustling river wharfs of yore. He’ll encourage haggling, partying with locals, even cargo theatrics — the Ceres has an old-fashioned block and tackle (see right), capable of hoisting a one-ton payload ashore.
If it was 1790, this wouldn’t seem so far-out; New York’s waterways used to be a major trade route. But commercial river freight has long since withered, especially higher up the Hudson. Andrus’ plan — to provide a viable, carbon-zero shipping alternative for farm goods — is unmatched in the Northeast. In addition to helping out farmers, Andrus wants to inject life into New York’s ailing river ports. “Waterfronts should be more than a backdrop for bike paths and condos,” he says.
The idea for Ceres came years ago, but Andrus couldn’t go it alone. He wanted to partner with a local school, giving the project some organizational structure — and some extra hands to build the boat. But most schools found the idea impractical, a fanciful pipe dream and nothing more. It wasn’t until Andrus hooked up with the Willowell Foundation — a group that provides agriculture and art-based education for Vermont public school students — that the idea gained legs.
“I’m pretty sure none of our students thought they’d be learning how to build a boat,” laughs Hannah Mueller, Willowell’s administrative director.
The project gained modest funding from Kickstarter, as well as some private donors (Vermont band Phish ponied up $10k.) But overall, Ceres was built on the cheap, with low-end materials and five months of volunteer labor. Once the boat heads out, costs will remain low — the crew will only be Andrus, an intern, and the seasoned captain, Steve Schwartz. Schwartz will make each 300-mile journey for a minimal stipend.
Each trip is budgeted to take three weeks, a generous timeframe so a) Andrus will have plenty of time to party on the docks and b) Captain Schwartz will have a cushion for leaks and other repairs. The mens’ styles contrast sharply. Schwartz is a new edition to the team, lending a little “spit and polish” to a somewhat ragtag adventure (Andrus likens his own style to the notorious Thames River bargemen.)
Andrus admits he has a lot to learn from Schwartz; besides a short boat-building stint in Maine, his nautical experience is limited. Still, the strong-willed 41-year-old farmer finds it hard to play student. “I’m glad to have Steve around, and to take his advice,” Andrus says. “But at this point in my life, I just don’t think I can be anyone’s pupil.”
Driving back to the farm, Andrus is in high spirits. All traces of reserve are gone — he sings a sea shanty, written for Ceres. “We’re five in the galley with whiskey a’plenty, The streets of Poughkeepsie will hear us in song!” Andrus belts out.