Floating farmers market has high hopes for old canal towns

The Ceres docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Oct. 26 after arriving from its first trip from Vermont.
Amy Langfield | CNBC

Sometimes doing something the old-fashioned way reminds us why someone invented a way to stop doing it that way.

That easily could have been the case for a group of farmers, artists and others who raised money to build a boat with hopes of reviving an old river trade route from Vermont to New York City.

"Nobody's done anything quite like this in over 100 years," Vermont Sail Freight Project Director Erik Andrus told CNBC after his three-week voyage. "We blew all our expectations out of the water. It was a fantastic trip."

Not that it was simple.

With 160 items on board (from maple syrup and plum cognac preserves to Red Russian garlic and acorn squash) the crew did double-time as dockworkers—loading and unloading at each destination and learning to stow odd-shaped items in a way to limit the risk of capsizing along the 330-mile route.

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"Next time, not so many items. It was totally overwhelming," said Andrus, who also chronicled the journey on a blog. "It was a feast for the eyes and a huge workload for the back."

Vermont Sail Freight Project sold its cargo out of an old warehouse at the Brooklyn Navy Yard near the end of its first voyage down the Hudson.
Amy Langfield | CNBC

The group built the boat with money they raised through Kickstarter, stocked it with 15 tons of cargo, and sold four tons at dockside markets and online pre-orders before arriving in New York.

"We sold out of almost everything," Andrus said. The boat is now heading back to Vermont, this time with 400 pounds of coffee from Brooklyn.

"I'd hoped for this. But I hope for a lot of things that are unrealistic and never get them," Andrus said. "Reach for the stars, right?"

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The goal now is to assess the operation over the winter and resume sailing in the spring on a seasonal schedule. The boat will need upgrades, along with software and organizational improvements, Andrus said. They also hope do do more sailing as their experience increases.

"The motor's training wheels," he said, adding that if all continues to go well, plans will expand to "maybe a warehouse, and more boats, and bigger boats."

Andrus already has his eye on a warehouse in Whitehall, N.Y., known as the birthplace of the U.S. Navy.

"It was a canal town, It has all this infrastructure left over from the canal era," Andrus said, waxing enthusiastic about finding enough success to support a bustling warehouse and multiple trade routes. "I'm a little giddy," he conceded.

If the Vermont Sail Freight Project accomplishes that, it will be another notch on the boom-and-bust cycle for the region's waterways, according to Dan Ward, curator at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, N.Y.

Historically, river passenger and freight traffic moved to trains when those lines were built, which were replaced by trucks on the highway system, and then, in some cases, by airplanes and pipelines.

How to make tomorrow's food affordable
How to make tomorrow's food affordable

By the 1980s, the Clean Water Act was helping to remove pollution from the waterways and to make them attractive to pleasure boaters and land-based tourist activities such as cycling, food and hospitality businesses.

"That's the full circle of the story, too," Ward said. "It's a situation where this thing keeps reinventing itself.

"Tourism is assisted by projects like this one, where the guy is bringing food on a boat. It fits our cultural heritage," he said. "And it adds to the romance of the canal, and the same thing with the Hudson River."

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Andrus said the project is on its way to fulfilling expectations. "The goal is to get past being a novelty. Ordinary is the goal," he said. "The data and experience we collected does support the transition to a business that covers all its costs. And it was fun."

—By CNBC's Amy Langfield. Follow her on Twitter at @AmyLangfield.