Food by Boat: The Appeal of Floating Farmers Markets

market thailand

Food by water.

When we talk about eating local, we often forget that for centuries, eating local wasn’t a choice. It just was. If it didn’t grow on your farm, or your neighbor’s, you most likely didn’t eat it. But as time went on and transportation improved, new foods popped up. This was especially true if you lived close to a waterway; boats and barges have for centuries been an essential method of food transportation. It comes as no surprise then that just as there is a return to localism, there is a return to food by boat. Enter the floating market.

It is no surprise that Europe, for example, has such a strong boat market culture, given its network of canals and rivers that have allowed its cities to flourish. If you’ve traveled, you may have discovered the floating markets in destinations like Thailand, Vietnam and Venice.

Current-day floating farmers markets allow not only access to food, but a discussion of the regional food landscape. In Vermont, Erik Andrus is raising money to launch a floating farmers market, building a 39-foot canal barge, that will take products from Vermont to New York City. The boat will be able to carry up to 12 tons of nonperishable goods, and the journey will take about 10 days. Slow travel, slow food.

In the Pacific Northwest, a similar concept is alive and thriving. Farm Boat Floating Market on Lake Union in Seattle, Washington is a 125-foot wooden vessel that opens up for a market once a week, selling local produce and artisan goods. But the boat is also part of a larger project, one that will ultimately consist of Floating Markets in 18 different ports in the Puget Sound region. That and taco boats.

On the other side of the country, David Berry of Merrymeeting Farm brings Maine’s island residents a fresh batch of produce and other local goods on what locals call “the vegetable boat.” In the case of food boats, sometimes it’s as simple as making the connection between supply and demand. As Berry told Down East, “I had the boat, and I had the [goods]. I’d been down the peninsulas delivering poultry from my parents’ farm when I was a teenager, and I knew that the people in those places — and on the islands — didn’t have good access to fresh produce. It was a wonderful combination, pulling my interests together into another enterprise.”

The same idea is behind Marché sur l’eau, Paris’ floating market. Allowing city residents to buy local products from the Île-de-France region; produce comes to Paris on the boat and is sold right on the quai at different locations during the week.

Expanding beyond the market concept, New York Sun Works’ The Science Barge puts a new spin on urban agriculture and is home to a a small farm that’s sustainable in every sense of the word. Launched in 2007, it’s now run by Groundwork Hudson Valley and docked in Yonkers.

In a world of semi-trucks and fast food, floating markets might not be the entire answer to the problems of our food system, but they’re certainly a part of it, and ultimately, remind us to slow down and think about what we’re eating and where it comes from.

Image: Russ Bowling

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.