Farmers make hay with ferry policy

Box trailer loads of hay prohibited from some ferries; SSA calls it a fire hazard.


Updated Jan. 6

How dangerous is hay? The Steamship Authority thinks it’s dangerous enough to relegate to open freight boats. Local farmers disagree. They find the restrictions on an essential livestock food burdensome, and are ready to make some hay over the situation. 

SSA general manager Robert Davis specifically used the word “dangerous” in describing hay at Wednesday’s Port Council meeting. He spoke on the subject following an inquiry by Tisbury Port Council member John Cahill, who said after a Times article went online, he began to receive inquiries about hay. Cahill said, “Surprisingly, hay is a hazardous material now.”

Davis countered by saying, “Hay is not hazardous; it’s dangerous.” 

During the meeting, Davis confirmed hay needed to be “tarped and put on the freight boats.” And when space is available, it could be put on a hazardous cargo ferry, he said: “Because of the nature of the material, we want to have it on the open-deck freight boats.”

Davis said he believed the “incident” Cahill referenced was “where they had it in some sort of enclosed vehicle but it’s still hay, the agent need[ed] to put them on the freight boat.”
Hay restrictions allegedly reached a new plateau this autumn, according to Julie Scott of Slough Farm in Katama. Scott, who is also a vice president of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, said tarped loads of hay had already been relegated to freight boats, but she was surprised when she was told hay in box trailers would also be banned from ferries like the Island Home and the Martha’s Vineyard, which have enclosed vehicle decks. 

The box trailer news, Scott said, only came to her in October, when she was trying to schedule her delivery for that month. She said the reservationist told her she was just handed a memo from a colleague that outlined the new restriction. For 12 years, Scott told The Times, she’s been scheduling hay deliveries to the Vineyard. “I never heard that before at all,” she said.

In an email to The Times, SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll wrote the restriction is nothing new.

“There has been no change in SSA policy regarding transportation of hay,” he said. “Regardless of whether or not it is in a semi, hay must be transported on an open-air vessel as a safety measure, as it is highly flammable. Any instances that hay would have been taken in an enclosed vessel would have been with the permission of and at the discretion of the vessel’s captain.”

Cahill said at the Port Council meeting that he found it “confusing” whether captain’s discretion on whether to accept a hayload was policy.

Driscoll responded by saying “any exceptions” to the policy of no hayloads in covered ferries would be waived “at the discretion of and with the permission of the captain.” He did specifically address whether the captain’s discretion was granted through policy.

Asked by The Times what the difference in dangerousness was between hayloads or truck cargo composed of toilet paper, or whiskey, cedar shingles, or mattresses, Davis said that can depend on how they are stored.

For example, he said, if butane lighters were commercially packaged, they would be evaluated differently than butane lighters in bulk. Davis did not offer an example of who might transport butane lighters in bulk, or why they would. 

SSA director of marine operations Mark Amundsen said the SSA follows the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code. And in contradiction to what Driscoll said previously, Amundsen said captains “don’t have the discretion” of opting to take whatever vehicle they want. “This is all about safety,” he said. 

Scott provided The Times with reservations made over several years for semi trailers. In light of that, and Scott’s apparent discovery in the fall, The Times asked Davis if SSA policy on hay had recently changed or tightened.

He said no. “It’s whether the agents were aware of what the materials were,” he said. “We do have individuals who will be transporting a horse for instance, and they have hay in their trailer with it. You know, that kind of thing. It’s kind of a case-by-case basis there.”

The restriction was baffling to Paul Vaccaro of Paul Vaccaro Hay and Straw, Inc. Vaccaro’s trucks, which drive from Oneida, N.Y., regularly deliver to Slough Farm. “He’s the one that we’ve been buying from for at least 10 years,” Scott said. 

Vaccaro said he’s been in the hay transportation business for a long time. “I’m 54,” he said, “I’ve been doing it since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.”

Scott said Vaccaro’s drivers can’t get the rest they need and get back off-Island and to their next destination when scheduling is limited to certain boats later in the morning. After one of the last deliveries, the driver had to sleep in his truck at the farm, Scott said. 

“By the time we’re out of there, we can’t make it home,” Vaccaro said. “It makes it a two-day trip.” 

He said not only does he not understand why hay is deemed so dangerous by the ferry line, but also why all early morning boats that could accommodate his hay loads under the SSA restrictions are booked up solidly. months in advance — “boats filled with empty garbage trucks,” he said. “What are these trucks that are locking them up?” he asked.

Vaccaro said the federal government doesn’t deem hay hazardous, and he has no trouble transporting it through New York’s tunnels, over the George Washington Bridge, thorough the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel, or across similar infrastructure. “I don’t know who came up with the idea it’s hazardous,” he said. 

Scott said her next delivery is slated for an 11:05 am crossing. Between travel time to Woods Hole, two crossings, and unloading, the driver will likely be forced to sleep before his return.

“He can’t make it back the same day legally,” Vaccaro said. This could add $500 to the cost of the delivery, he added. 

Driscoll basically said truckers are on the honor system when it comes to hazardous cargo. “Drivers are required to disclose hazardous cargo to our personnel,” he wrote, “regardless of the size of their company.”

Liz Packer, who owns SBS and sells hay, said her driver recently told her of the change. “He said that our hay … can only go on the freight boat, even if it’s in an enclosed trailer.”

This can leave the driver waiting around in Woods Hole several hours to get on another boat, she said. “I’m paying him to sit there,” she said. 

She said the restrictions are an added bit of frustration. “We need one more hoop to jump through? It adds to the bottom line,” she said. 

Packer said she could appreciate why the SSA requires hay loads to be covered or enclosed, but she was at a loss over the vessel restrictions, and got no notice about them. “I haven’t had any official correspondence from the SSA,” she said. 

Martha’s Vineyard Farm Bureau president Dan Martino said there are a number of agriculture-related issues he needs to discuss with the SSA.

“We’re in the process of scheduling a number of sit-down meetings with the Steamship Authority,” he said. He described the hay issues as “exactly” the type of issue he’ll want to discuss with the ferry line. 

Updated with additional reporting from the Port Council and the M.V. Farm Bureau.


  1. Interesting policy coming from a boatline which has exposed so many travellers to its positive Covid-19 employees, yet somehow bales of hay require resolute action.

  2. As someone who organized loads of hay and equally flammable loads of shavings for many years I can tell you that it’s either a brand new rule or a brand new interpretation of the rules. We always knew if the load was on a flatbed with a tarp that it would have to be on a freight boat but if it was in an enclosed truck it could travel on any boat. Sounds like maybe some new rules for the new rules are in order as this is food and should take priority over building materials etc if it must go on an open boat.

  3. Whether tarped or in a box truck there’s no way to tell if the load has been exposed to moisture. Moisture that infiltrates a hay bale can create a very dangerous situation. The SSA makes a lot of crazy decisions, this is not one of them.

    • John,
      You do understand no one is baling hay this time of year, therefore it is safe to assume the hay has been is storage for months tightly packed and has not caught on fire, therefore why would it catch on fire just because it was in a box truck on the ferry?
      This is perhaps the logic used by the federal government when they make rules the prohibit dangerous loads like liquid fuels and gases from tunnels but do not prohibit hay trucks
      Is there any record of hay in a box truck lighting it self on fire when in transit.
      There should be an intelligent logical discussion at a steamship authority meeting, with our island representative having a say, and the farmers, the farm bureau, and the AG society weighing in.
      I am fine with a temporary restriction until the next meeting but this policy should not be implemented on a whim, that is bad business.

  4. To the editors: “Making hay” means to make the most of an opportunity, often to make money or otherwise use a situation to one’s advantage. It seems to be used here to mean raising objections, which is not at all how the expression is correctly used.

  5. More mysterious weirdness from the SSA. Bales of hay, straw, or shavings are just not that flammable. Inside the box of a trailer they are even less so. You’re in more danger of fire from a load of cedar or asphalt shingles on a Cottles truck. Or from the containers of solvents, chemicals, and other mystery substances that are in probably at least half of the hundreds of trade vans and trucks that travel on the “closed” ferries every single day.

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