Severine von Tscharner Fleming recently landed a spot (No. 23) on Food & Wine and Fortune magazines’ dual list of the most powerful women in food and drink. The honor came about in large part because of her work with the Greenhorns, a national organization to support new farmers, but the 33-year-old resident of Essex, New York, and frequent visitor to Maine has her hands in many projects. The latest is Maine Sail Freight, a plan to get Maine sailors and farmers to work together to ship goods down the coast to urban centers (Boston and New York, as well as points in between) in the old-fashioned way. Von Tscharner Fleming participated in a similar project in Vermont in 2013, and now her vision is to harness the sustainability of wind power and the romance of the seas to spread the Maine brand in the prettiest possible way. We talked to the University of California-Berkeley graduate, who majored in conservation and agro-ecology, about seaweed, the troublesome future and how to pronounce that mouthful of a name of hers (the “t” is silent).

IS BERKELEY WHERE YOU BECAME AN ACTIVIST? “I went to Pomona College first, where my focus was on environmental studies. I was part of the core group that started the organic farm at Pomona and became very engaged in the social logistics of making an all-volunteer-powered community farm on the campus. They actually fought us tooth and nail on that because of the liability issues.”

LIKE WHAT? “That we would build fires, and we would have children visiting and homeless people coming to sleep there. That was definitely the beginning of being an activist because I said, ‘I’m going to stand up for this and fight for it.’ I learned a lot about how, when, if you want something in the real world, how you get it done. I was so frustrated by the Pomona adminstration saying no that I dropped out and spent a year farming.”

MAINE CONNECTION: “I am a regular visitor in Maine because I am very keen on the seaweed. I have been working for the past couple of years for a couple of small seafood companies, She Sells Seaweed and Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed Company. I’m also making a film about Marada Cook and Leah Cook (of Northern Girl and Crown of Maine) and my hope is to keep coming back for the seaweed at least seasonally … And to launch this sailboat project and have an excuse to be in Maine.”

HALF-ACTIVIST, HALF-STANDUP COMIC: At the first Sail Freight meeting in Lincolnville in June, von Tscharner Fleming attempted to woo some crusty sailors who clearly thought her plan was sweetly idealistic and fairly nuts. In response, she was self-deprecating and funny (imagine comedian Kristen Schaal peddling a big environmentally friendly dream). “They hand me the microphone and I like to talk,” she said. And she knows how to work the media: “We are definitely new media kids,” she said. “I’ve been totally Internet since I was in sixth grade. But it is funny how the media works; a lot of people have learned about our work because their grandmother reads the newspaper or listens to NPR.”

WHAT’S NEXT? To announce the Maine Sail Freight Project at the Common Ground Fair later this week. The group will put together a jury of judges and will solicit ideas on business models, available vessels and stops. (The Vermont Sail Project traveled Lake Champlain and the Hudson River all the way to Brooklyn and broke even, emboldening a second sail.) Von Tscharner Fleming aims to set up a Maine Sail Summit to consider five winning proposals picked by the jury. “Any number of millionaires could probably get a boat to go from Point A to Point B,” she said. “Our goal is to involve young people in creating a possible future that straddles the present and the future.”


AREN’T TRUCKS ULTIMATELY MORE EFFICIENT? “Obviously to compete with a truck you have to do a certain amount of agro-tourism or value-added product or farm-to-table events along the way,” she said. Meaning making pit stops to run pop-up farmers markets, which is how the Vermont project worked. “We’d be reviving the working sail and developing the connection between the boat people and the land people.”

OUR COASTLINE IS, UM, REALLY BIG: “We’ve been looking at rivers as well. The Kennebec is a really powerful conduit,” she said. “One thing I’m pursuing is whether we can find an investor or donor supporter who will say, ‘If you can get your boat to Boston, we’ll buy your $20,000 worth of produce.’ ”

IS SAIL FREIGHT FOR THE OIL-LESS APOCALYPSE? No, she says, this is not meant to get everyone ready for a “Hunger Games” future. “It’s not dystopian,” she said. “It’s optimistic … it’s an educational process. It’s value-added. You are delivering the food without using carbon.”

UNLESS YOU HAVE TO MOTOR: “Frankly whether or not it is sail-powered, I feel like using the waterways makes more sense in terms of liberating the roads from all the traffic.”

YOU MUST LOVE A CHALLENGE: “It’s all about building a new economy inside the old economy,” she said. “It all seems hard but what we are doing now is clearly not working.” Citing corporate control of our food system, the international hunger crisis, our national obesity problem and the impact of climate change on land, she said, “It’s obviously impossible for us to sustain this food system. As a young person, trying to fit your life into that problematic context can be demoralizing. … These are the narratives that confound us as young people and diminish our power. Especially young people with 1.2 trillion dollars of college debt and this weird tendency to cluster in, you know, Brooklyn. But the time is now and bravery is needed.”

Correction: This story was updated at 1:52 p.m. on Monday, April 5 to clarify Von Tscharner Fleming’s role in a Sail Freight project in Vermont. 

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