Reclaiming a waterway
What's the best way to ship produce from Vermont to Manhattan? First, build a boat
When Erik Andrus ’94 first imagined using a flat-bottomed sailing barge to carry local farm products some 300 miles from the shores of Lake Champlain to New York City, he saw it as a way to promote traditional small-scale farming and carbon-neutral transportation.
Preparing his Vermont Sail Freight Project for its second season, Andrus finds that the toughest nut to crack isn’t finding produce or buyers, it isn’t a lack of people willing to pitch in and help, and (usually) it isn’t the wind. It’s the 21st-century insurance industry.
The 42-year-old Binghamton native, Binghamton University alumnus and Vermont rice farmer drew national headlines last year with his handmade barge, named Ceres after the Roman goddess of agriculture and built by an army of volunteers in 2013 at his farm in Vergennes, Vt.
Departing last fall from a dock in nearby Shoreham, the Ceres carried 12 tons of local produce purchased by Andrus from some 30 farms around the lake. Propelled by wind, and sometimes by a small engine to make up time, a cargo of such items as wheat, flour, maple syrup, apples, potatoes and honey made its journey down the lake, into the Champlain Canal and the Hudson River, making stops and sales in riverfront towns and cities along the way.
All along, Andrus wanted to prove that his idea of carrying produce along the historic waterway was commercially viable and not just some sort of historic reenactment.
He succeeded in selling his cargo at prices that he had hoped to get. But what he had not counted on was what it was going to cost to get commercial liability insurance for the Ceres.
That turned out to be $20,000 for the season, a figure that battered Andrus’ business model, which relied on keeping costs as low as possible. The insurance bill “turned out to be more than the $18,000 that it cost to build the Ceres,” he says. “This is a huge millstone around our necks. It is the equivalent price of insurance for 10 tractor trailers on the highway.”
Unique and untested
The high cost of insurance is part of the price that his enterprise pays for being “unique and isolated,” Andrus says. “It took us 10 months to get this policy, and it was the only quote we could get.”
At 39 feet long, the Ceres is based on the “triloboat” design developed by an Alaskan sailor to be simple, inexpensive and durable, with a hull made from lumber, plywood and epoxy. Andrus was able to raise nearly $16,000 from 270 donors using the Internet fundraising site Kickstarter. He got another $10,000 from the Vermont jam band Phish through its charitable arm, the WaterWheel Foundation.
But commercial insurance had to be in place, or the Ceres would not be allowed to use many of the docks it needed to conduct sales, he says. “It was unforeseen, but by the time it came to light, we were totally committed to the project and to our 2013 season,” Andrus says.
He could find only three companies that were writing new commercial maritime insurance policies, and only one was willing to offer a quote. He hopes that if Ceres runs for a year or two more, there might be enough safety history to encourage another company to offer a lower rate.
Chris Hull, an account manager with the Insurance Agency of New England in East Montpelier, Vt., says the unusual nature of the project made it a challenge to insure. For one, Vermont doesn’t have much commercial maritime traffic, so insurance carriers in that region have no experience in providing such insurance.
“This was a home-made vessel and a new venture with no specific experience in this type of operation,” Hull says. “And they were traveling to New York City. The risk exposure is high there. Those yards also have a high liability limit requirement, as they are used to much larger vessels.”
The only such insurance “middleman” that was willing to write a policy for Andrus was New Jersey-based International Special Risk, which specializes in maritime insurance.
This year, to stay afloat and afford insurance, Andrus is making an unpleasant choice — turning to an all-volunteer crew for the Ceres. Last year, he was able to offer small stipends to people such as Jordan Finkelstein ’13, a newly minted Binghamton University graduate who served as first mate.
“There are still people out there willing to crew this boat for free, but that is not the way that I wanted it to happen. It’s very vexing that this project of complexity and beauty can be created out of thin air, but then its existence can be threatened by the world of risk management,” Andrus says. “But I hope that if we can hang around, and get some experience, we can figure this out.”
Drawn to water
Andrus’ connection to the water dates to his boyhood canoeing on the Susquehanna River and piloting a small sailboat on a pond, says his father, Richard Andrus, associate professor of environmental studies and biological sciences at Binghamton University.
“I am tickled pink watching him do this project,” says Richard, who had his son as a student in his ecological agriculture class while Erik was earning his degrees in Arabic and anthropology. “Erik is thinking in terms now of re-creating scenarios of what people used to do on our waterways and that will make sense for people to do again.”
One of Richard Andrus’ students was so taken with the project that he has signed on as a member of the unpaid crew this season. Matthew Horgan ’14 grew up in Rockaway Park, Queens, a narrow peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay.
“I’ve gone out sport fishing with my father a few times, but I have no experience with sailing, rigging or any of that kind of stuff,” says Horgan, who graduated in May with a degree in environmental studies.
He spent the past two summers in Costa Rica working on a tropical forestry initiative run by Richard Andrus — the first summer for class credit and the second as a volunteer. Horgan became intrigued by the Vermont sail program after hearing about it last year from Richard Andrus and Finkelstein. “I heard that Erik was looking for crew members this season, so I just jumped at it,” he says.
Ceres will again be skippered by Steve Schwartz, a Poughkeepsie resident who has captained the sloop Woody Guthrie for the Beacon Sloop Club and works with the Hudson River advocacy group Clearwater.
Also still committed to the idea are farmers who sold products to Andrus last year.
“I love the wind nature of the project. I just hope it can be made financially viable,” says Racey Bingham, the 36-year-old co-owner/operator of Reber Rock Farm, an 88-acre draft-horse-powered farm in Essex, N.Y., that produces grass-fed beef; pasture-raised pork, chicken and turkey; herbs and a variety of vegetables. The farm sold about 10 gallons of maple syrup to Andrus. “We saw it as a great marketing opportunity to get our name out there. I think that the agritourists ought to love this. We will definitely be doing it again,” she says.
Adam Hainer has been growing vegetables at his Juniper Hill Farm in Wadhams, N.Y., for five years, and last year sold carrots, beets, potatoes and dried herbs to Andrus. “They sold everything we sent with them. I certainly plan on doing this a second season and hope it continues to be profitable and worth doing for Erik.”
Andrus is hoping to run the Ceres twice this season — once in June and again later on — as he figures out a viable, long-term financial model. That might require turning the boat into a not-for-profit operation as a kind of floating classroom for students, he says.
“But I set out to make the project a market expander for local farmers, and we did succeed in that,” he says. And the Ceres also does something that cannot be measured in dollars and cents, he adds. It helps draw people and their imaginations back to the historic waterways that once bound the region together. “As we stopped along the old canal and river towns along the way, we were magnetic to the hipster crowd, to the old Jewish ladies in Nyack, to people in the down-in-the-mouth canal towns, to the Rotarian crowd,” Andrus says.
“We had something for each of these groups and were able to use a feature of their community — something that they value — in an uplifting and inspiring way. And that makes me not want to give up.”