PORTLAND, Maine — Take a bunch of farm activists, a 130-foot wooden schooner, 11 tons of Maine agrarian products, a 20-hour sail from Portland to Boston and you’ve got the elements of the most radical art project to date. Or is this a politico-economic act?
“The climate is changing. It’s very obvious to the farming community that we need to re-regionalize the food economy and the supply chain,” said Severine von Tscharner Fleming, director of Maine Sail Freight, who hopes to provoke a conversation “in a poetic, old media way.”
The summer-long movement, launched by The Greenhorns, a nonprofit organization uniting young farmers across the country, seeks to show that fossil fuels are not necessarily the best way to transport local products. By chartering a schooner loaded with Maine artisan fare, they hope to highlight alternative ways to bring goods to market.
“The sailboat is just the vessel,” said von Tscharner Fleming, who did a similar demonstration down Lake Champlain from Vermont to New York. The group settled on Maine this summer, and has held events from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Hallowell to North Haven that are “very, very dense with information.”
Heady topics such as The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a free trade agreement, are part of one such lecture held up and down the Maine coast. Picnics, farmers markets, dockside gatherings and dinner parties round out the events.
The culmination is Aug. 27, when the public is invited to help load the Harvey Gamage schooner with $70,000 worth of cargo. Goods like maple syrup, seaweed, pickled fiddleheads, blueberry jam and beeswax candles — “products that exemplify a value add” — are packed in traditional wooden crates and sardine boxes made in Jonesport. Most goods are delivered by
Von Tscharner Fleming is quick to point out “we are not sailors,” but four people inviting the public to help them work on a dream.
“We are merely farm activists and community organizers. We are greenhorns when it comes to sailing,” said von Tscharner Fleming.
The 34-year-old, who lives in Essex, New York, said, “The ocean is a metaphor for the commons. The art of this is interacting with our bodies to experience the clumsiness of doing something totally different.”
And that clumsiness is something that boat experts fear could capsize the well-planned project.
“They are not boat people. They are farmers who are trying to milk it for all they can,” said Mike Joyce, co-host of “BoatTalk,” on radio station WERU. “It’s an interesting idea.”
Joyce, who builds and repairs boats for a living, had The Greenhorns on the show this week and said he was surprised and a bit puzzled by what he calls “a marketing ploy.”
He points to Ned Ackerman, who built a schooner in Thomaston in the ’70s that e ventually sank on a trade mission to Haiti. The tale was turned into a movie called “Coaster.”
To Joyce, transporting by sail is a novelty, not a resurgence that is here to stay.
“We don’t have ships that move stuff around the world anymore,” said Joyce, who considers Maine Sail Freight’s endeavor unsustainable in the long term. “Barges and tugboats are moving the business of America up and down the coast. It wouldn’t be a gig for hippie farmers.”
While shedding light on schooner travel is important to Joyce, he doesn’t see the idea as one that will catch on. “If they want to charter a schooner and put an old boat to work then God bless them,” said Joyce.
Kathy Goldner, external relations director for the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, is on board with the concept.
“Personally, I love it,” said Goldner, who applauds the use of wind power, instead of oil, to deliver goods. Transportation, she says, “is part of the local food movement. To combine it with sailing is a beautiful idea. It’s a joyful response.”
Goldner lauds the grass-roots effort to promote greener ways of doing business. “It’s a puzzle to me why we spend all that money on fossil fuel. It’s a speed thing, I guess.”
Speed is not part of the plan. The Harvey Gamage will go six miles an hour to Boston Harbor, where cargo will be offloaded and transported by bike to Boston Public Market. This increases value for the Maine brand.
“Severine is drawing attention to the fact that it can be done,” said Goldner. “Going into the future we need to reach back into the past to old technology. That’s what sail is. We don’t want to lose that. We want to bring it forward into the 21st century and see how it works.”
The public is welcome to participate in Maine Sail Freight. For details, visit www.thegreenhorns.net/mainesailfreight.