Ceres’ small outboard motor chugged the 12-ton barge slowly along the Hudson until Captain Steve Schwartz guided the vessel into a slip in Mechanicville.
Under gray skies with intermittent rain, the stop was a quick one for Schwartz and his crew of three. Many miles of river lay ahead to traverse before Ceres can deliver its payload to the New Amsterdam Market on the edge of the East River in Manhattan.
There, the crew will introduce 7 tons of products pulled from farms and small businesses extending from Vermont’s Northeastern Kingdom down to the Capital Region. Once empty, the barge will be filled with similar products from downstate destined for markets in the north.
In a sense, Ceres — the Roman goddess of agriculture — is a floating farmers market. The barge was built last year by volunteers, its mission to bring nonperishable farm-fresh products to points along the Hudson.
“This is part of our plan,” said Schwartz as his crew loaded crates onto the barge, “to deliver goods and pick up other goods on the way.”
Ceres is the invention of Erik Andrus, a Vergennes, Vermont, rice farmer who wanted to pioneer an environmentally conscious way to deliver his product to downstate New York markets. His initial idea was to operate a raft from the Lake Champlain canal system down the Hudson.
But when other farmers took interest, Andrus started thinking about the big picture. Last year, he and a crew of skilled volunteers from the Vermont Sail Freight Project began building Ceres, a 39-foot-long ship propelled largely by sails on a 35-foot mast with only a small 20 horsepower engine to consume fuel.
The ship took its maiden voyage in October, a three-week, 300-plus mile journey with numerous stops along the Hudson. Along the way, Ceres docked in several communities where its crews offloaded products — everything from Vermont maple syrup to rice from Andrus’ farm — at makeshift markets set up along the river.
“We left people on the dock waving dollars at us,” Schwartz recalled of his first stopover in Mechanicville last year.
Eventually, the goal is to have set stops and markets along the way down to New York City. But with Ceres still very much in its trial phase, determining when the ship will arrive is still a bit of a guessing game. “This is still kind of a test balloon,” said Schwartz, a veteran captain of more than 35 years. “Our goal is to establish a route and then come that way whenever the canal is open.”
On its second voyage south, the barge is bringing crates of specialty tea from Mechanicville’s Blu Tea Co. and jelly from Halfmoon’s Pixies Preserves down to New York City.
Having Ceres deliver the product to New York City will help open new markets for small farms of the Capital Region, said Peter Bardunias, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Southern Saratoga County.
“It’s a major issue for our small farms,” he said. “They cannot get the distribution networks of the large farms.”
Michelle Petuske, owner of Pixies Preserves, agreed. Though she ships as far away as Norway and has her jellies sold at several large retailers in the Capital Region, the opportunity to get customers in a market like New York City is too good to pass up.
And besides: Shipping something on the Hudson in a wind-driven barge just sounds cool. “I was just kind of fascinated by it — the idea of putting my product on a barge,” she said.
Nellie Ackerman, owner of Blu Tea Co., sees Ceres as a great way to make a name for her business outside the Capital Region. She sees value in the type of exposure the ship can bring to her product.
“This is going to be a good opportunity for all of us in the Capital Region,” she said.