Nov 05 2013

Resiliency via Sailboat

If you live a middle class life in a first world country, you have the option of absolving yourself from any connection to self-sufficiency. Whatever your need, there’s someone or something to provide it for you. You can outsource cleaning, cooking, laundry, grocery shopping, and even answering your own mail. Even if you elect to perform these duties on your own, the actual “work” of many tasks can be outsourced to a machine. This escape from the “mundane” frees up time to dedicate to other tasks, the argument goes (although this free time frequently ends up diverted to watching tv or surfing the internet). But for all this modern convenience, today’s generation is canning, gardening, baking bread, and raising backyard chickens out of choice, not of necessity.

Michael Pollan writes that he cooks and gardens to feel a connection to what our species has been doing for thousands of years. In Cooked, he shares that “handling plants and animals, taking back the production and preparation of even just some part of our food, has the salutary effect of making visible again many of the lines of connection that the supermarket and the ‘home meal replacement’ have succeeded in obscuring... To do so is to take back a measure of responsibility.” When Pollan bakes bread or weeds his garden, he exercises parts of his brain and body that typing and sitting simply can’t do, and these tactile duties serve to stimulate more awareness while he performs other, more sedentary tasks. In modern society, though, this pursuit of increased self-sufficiency comes with a safety net: we can always rely on modernity to bail us out if we burn a loaf of bread or accidentally kill our tomato plants.

Beyond the fruitful results and tactile connections one makes while feeding chickens or cooking one’s way through a CSA box lie a few uncomfortable questions: is there something more to this self-sufficiency movement besides pleasure and accountability? Will we reach a time where the pendulum swings from choice back to necessity?

With the convenience of outsourcing one’s life comes the very real possibility that these outsourced, technological, chemical “solutions” can fail without the requisite checks and balances in place: our uniform food and transportation systems are fragile structures that can’t easily recover from hiccups or break-downs. Because the key companies – from seeds, to fertilizers, to meat processing and packing – in our food system are consolidated, an infection, supply management issue, or distribution error could have disastrous effects on our nation’s food access and safety. Our fields are planted with incomprehensible acres of monocrops (conventional corn is grown on 91,900,000 acres, 99% of which are grown conventionally) with enormous inputs of fertilizer and pesticides. Weeds and pests have begun to develop resistance against these chemicals, leading to the increased application of even more chemicals. Eventually this system is bound to collapse: either the weeds and pests take over, or the chemicals continue to be sprayed at levels that harm humans, water, air, and wildlife, resulting in a food supply that’s riddled with uncertainty and danger.

When food is grown in these isolated monocrops, a natural or weather disaster, such as blight, drought, or an unexpected blizzard can have a ripple effect on food access and distribution. Finally, because much of our nation’s food is shipped thousands of miles on trucks and planes, when oil prices increase, so do food prices. This modern system is inherently vulnerable to threats both natural and man-made.

Learning how to grow and preserve food while simultaneously supporting a network of local farmers can lead to a more flexible, interconnected food and transportation network, a system that can bounce back from weather, human error, and blight because of the redundancies in place to absorb such stressors. When a farmer grows multiple crops, if one crop fails, others are still available to feed customers, animals, and nourish the soil. And when a farmer is connected to his community, then another farmer might have an excess of that failed crop to share with the community. A resilient system creates alternative modes of distribution (such as food hubs and buying clubs) and transportation (such as bike infrastructure and even sailboat transportation) while building a community that can absorb challenges closer to home.

The concept of “community resiliency through individual self-sufficiency” provides a useful lens for understanding Salish Sea Trading Cooperative, a Seattle based non-profit that transports local goods via sailboat. Salish operates out of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, a community on the locks that merges a strong maritime tradition with a progressive mindset. Salish Sea Trading Cooperative was founded three years ago in response to declining energy supplies, the increasing price of gas, and concerns revolving around food security. In an effort to conserve resources and offer an alternative form of transport, Salish transports goods – currently CSA shares from Quilcene based farm, Dharma Ridge – to the Ballard community every other week from June through October, along with a special Thanksgiving delivery.

We should talk about the elephant in the room: a CSA delivered via sailboat sounds more silly than viable, seemingly morphing the concept of nourishment and food security into a marketing ploy of rustic quaintness, adding fuel to the already polarizing conversation that springs up around food access, food miles, and seasonality. Those who don’t know about Salish’s goals and community connections might be baffled by the concept of a three day sailboat trip to collect boxes of food.

If faced with that kind of reaction, Kathy Pelish, one of the founding members of Salish Sea Trading Cooperative, would assertively nod her head and offer to paint a deeper picture of why the organization transports goods via sail. Pelish, along with co-founder Fulvio Casali, who has since parted ways with the organization, didn’t design Salish Sea Trading Cooperative (SSTC) to directly change the global epidemic of undernourished and overfed humans, or to espouse the use of sailboats instead cars or trucks. Rather, Pelish views Salish Sea Cooperative as existing in several parallel arenas: a philosophical one, in which Salish is a figurative example of alternative fuel sources and how transport might look when we reach “peak oil” (when the maximum rate of oil extraction is reached), and a literal one, in which a community offers a tangible product to people seeking self-sufficiency and alternative systems for connection, food, and commerce.

“There’s a lot of anxiety about what’s going on with the economy and government,” Pelish explained when asked about the reaction the Ballard community has had to SSTC. “What if gas goes up to 10 dollars a gallon? This was something small scale, very practical, and something your neighbors could do because there are boats all over the place.”

I met Pelish on a bright Sunday morning at Toast Ballard, the coffee and waffle shop that acts as Salish’s partner and pseudo-storefront. Pelish wasted no time launching into Salish’s origin story and before I could fully settle in, she was eagerly sharing names, stories, and details, with her enthusiasm continuing as we left Toast to drive down to the docks to meet Ty, a skipper that volunteers for Salish. Ty had sailed his boat, the S/V Vicky Lee, to Quilcene, loaded the boxes of fresh food, and sailed back to Ballard’s Salmon Bay Marina, a process that started on Friday morning. After loading the vegetable boxes into the rented Zipvan (SSTC usually uses an electric minicar), we drove the short distance back to Toast Ballard to arrange the CSA shares at a table in front of Toast and its neighboring nail salon for the CSA pick-up.

Salish Sea Cooperative rotates the skippers who sail these biweekly trips. Pelish relayed that they “don’t want to burn people out” and instead want the organization to bridge the line between fun and serious, as they “grow this into actual transportation.” Because SSTC is operating in uncharted waters (so to speak), the past three years have been ripe with change both in Salish’s member makeup and the cooperative’s vision for the future. Some of their members remain from the original influx of members from Sustainable Ballard, others joined after seeing the table outside Toast or at a community event, and still others are referrals from the collection of skippers. A constant presence since SSCT’s incarnation, Pelish, who works as a technical editor at Microsoft, has gained a deep knowledge base of maritime law, coastal trade, and how much weather plays a factor in sailing. She recalled sailing on a trip where the wind died and the water became completely placid; the crew had no choice but to wait until the weather conditions became more favorable.

Salish isn’t alone in the sail transport sphere. Along with a larger organization called Sail Transport Network, which provides resources, information, and support to sailing transportation projects all around the world, there are also two viable sail transport operations in Michigan and Vermont. Salish has communicated with Michigan’s Dragonfly Sail Transport and the Vermont Sail Freight Project, sharing ideas and offering advice back and forth. The Dragonfly concludes their inaugural season this Thanksgiving, while Vermont’s scow, the Ceres, rounded its season out by docking at the New Amsterdam Market. Despite their connections to these similar projects, Pelish and Salish don’t plan to join a national network of sail transport, explaining: “I think this is very regional – there’s a regional flavor in Seattle that’s different from Michigan and Vermont.” It’s this regional flavor, in which Salish tailors the boat’s transportation routes and conducts Ballard-specific outreach, that leads to the creation of a more resilient, adaptable system.

This winter Salish is building a scow that will be officially certified for commercial trade. The organization hopes to continue their cooperative pattern of having interested parties volunteer time and space, as they simultaneously raise money and find a location to build and store the boat. With this scow, they’ll still use their network of volunteer skippers, but the organization won’t have to rely on other people’s boats. From there, they plan to increase their presence and outreach in Ballard and the surrounding islands, with their eyes specifically set on Bainbridge Island. Pelish excitedly bubbled over with a variety of ideas, including sailing goods from Bainbridge’s farms, wineries, and distilleries, leading to a viable route between the island and Seattle. They also plan to continue strengthening partnerships and resiliency in their own community by sailing food to bigger operations like Swedish Hospital and Ballard’s Skillet restaurant.

Any socially conscious movement offers a variety of entry points. Joining a CSA for the first time might be considered an entry point into a more self-sufficient lifestyle. Carrying a canvas bag for all of one’s shopping trips could be seen as an entry point in becoming more environmentally conscious. As the surrounding culture absorbs these small steps and more and more individuals participate, each movement progresses to a more challenging and complicated stage. Pelish views SSTC as a way to structure these early conversations around energy dependence, local connection and community, and foodshed resiliency, into something deeper and more viable. As she explains, “We call it building a shadow infrastructure. There are times that people don’t see us or think it’s cute, because it’s small scale. But the meta-message is powerful: we’re going to do this ourselves. At the same time, we’re going to partner with the city and sustainability specialists.”

A truly resilient food and transportation system, one that can withstand and endure unexpected challenges, results from innovative perspectives, and is most effective on a small scale. Resiliency doesn’t spring from flashy solutions, but rather from adapting to one’s environment in a steady, resourceful, flexible style. Consider the multiple systems that seaside municipalities use to prevent flooding: the most resilient and effective systems have cohesive methods that include analyzing the composition of the shoreline, nurturing natural water-trapping systems such as dunes and reefs, and employing common sense (i.e.: not building on top of an eroding coast) to prevent catastrophe. Any of these approaches on their own would be insufficient; only in unison can they hope to be successful.

Small communities throughout the world will increasingly need to face the local consequences of global developments – in energy, climate, and food security. For Ballard and other like-minded communities to ensure themselves against future challenges, they must develop and experiment with novel ideas of community resiliency and environmental adaptability. The shadow infrastructure provided by Salish and other organizations may prove a crucial component in a web of environmental defenses, or it may not, but the increasing explorations of elective self-sufficiency will undoubtedly help nourish our communities, now and in the future.