A trade route used by the Mohawks, missionaries, fur traders and colonists will take a step toward revival this weekend as the Vermont Sail Freight Project embarks on a 330-mile journey downriver, stopping at historic river towns along the Hudson. They'll pick up cargo from 30 farmers and sell it at pop-up markets on its way to New York.
"We're trying to rebuild a whole sector that's been decimated and open new opportunities for young farmers and rebuild a whole aspect of the culture that's very nearly been lost entirely," said project director Erik Andrus, who also farms rice and grass-fed beef at Boundbrook Farm in Ferrisburgh, Vt.
The crowdfunded sailing barge, Ceres, will ply the Lake Champlain-Hudson River Route from Shoreham, Vt., to New York City.
"It was a very busy route," said Dan Ward, curator at the the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, N.Y. The river once had so many boats that it had stores on boats that sold household items and goods such as candy to the river traders, who didn't have time to get ashore.
"That was also the alcohol route during Prohibition," said Ward, describing boats with secret compartments. "Alcohol was massively produced in Canada, and it was massively consumed in New York."
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The cargo in the Ceres will be sold at existing farmers markets along the route and under a pop-up tent the Vermont crew will set up when they need to go solo. They will also do direct-to-door delivery at ports, where individuals and businesses have placed orders. Trucks will be used for big orders. But individuals in New York will see their orders arrive via Revolution Rickshaws, a city pedicab and freight company.
"We're flexible about our approach. The delivery of preordered goods can happen in any location," Andrus said. "The ordering is a bit like Amazon.com, and the boat is the delivery mechanism like UPS."
Northeast shoppers can order though Good Eggs, a San Francisco-based online marketplace that specializes in home delivery of farmers market-type goods. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Good Eggs has 150 local farmers and food preparers offering goods for sale, said Cathy Bishop, spokeswoman for Good Eggs.
The company is expanding with other farmers to select neighborhoods in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Brooklyn. Manhattan is next, Bishop said. Good Eggs generates revenue by charging a transaction fee for each order, plus a small delivery fee.
The Vermont Sail offerings through Good Eggs include 100 items, including maple syrup, honey, apples, heirloom beans, potatoes, onions, garlic, squash, sauerkraut, tea, sea salt and soap.
And by no means is this a Luddite-inspired adventure. The on-board Wi-Fi powers a mobile office suite allowing the crew to access the bank account and print invoices.
There are space issues, however. "You have to lie down on your back to put more paper in the printer," Andrus said.