Thursday, December 12, 2013
Abigail Carroll, aka the "The Oyster Lady" or "Accidental Oyster Farmer"
The quote, “parfois il faut savoir se salir les mains,” (sometimes you need to know how to get your hands dirty) comes from the play, “Les Mains Sales” by the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It is a message oyster farmer Abigail Carroll takes to heart.
“They were not talking about getting your hands dirty through work like oyster farming, but I have always appreciated the existential tenant that you are defined by your actions,” said Carroll. “There is just no getting around hard work if you want to do something well.”
Abigail, and her oyster farm, Nonesuch Oysters, represent Maine’s do-it-yourself food movement. Building on the state’s long-standing agricultural roots, she is forging a successful career as an oyster farmer growing high quality oysters in Scarborough and Biddeford, Maine.
Her farming career began in 2009 after returning home to Maine from Paris, France where she had been working in finance and business consulting. While home she advanced a friend funds to start an oyster farm, and quickly found out she owned the farm. With no time to enjoy the romantic notion of farming, Carroll dug in and learned hands-on how to raise oysters. She purchased larger juvenile oysters from another Maine farm, let them grow out a bit more, and in 2010 sold them. She did very little volume initially, but was able to begin building a reputation for good tasting oysters and to find a market.
Last year she started her own nursery. Abigail consulted with Aquaculturist Bill Mook of Mook Sea Farm about how to build a ‘land based’ upweller as most of them are integrated into floating docks. Mook set out the general requirements, inflow/outflow, screen sizes, disease prevention, and Chris Betjemann, owner of Full Circle Design, designed it. For a visual on how the upweller works go here.
Now that Nonesuch Oysters is growing, Carroll has been able to hire two full-time staff and hopes to ramp up more next summer. She said a lot of people burn out due to the challenging schedule and dirty, wet work. Because, Scarborough River does not freeze Abigail is able to farm in February and March, making working conditions tougher.
Me holding two-month old oysters summer of 2012.
Are there any corresponding experiences/concepts between banking and oyster farming?
It’s funny you should ask because actually I think about that a lot! When I came back from France where I had been trading stocks, I was looking at investment opportunities in Maine. I thought it would be good to hedge and place some money in something more solid than just the stock market.
Then I wound up with an oyster farm! There is nothing less predictable than farming! It’s just like stock trading! We are at the mercy of Mother Nature, just as the stock market is at the mercy of economic indicators and geopolitics. I guess the trick to both is to grow your intuitions well enough to be able to predict and hedge. Hedging bets is something that farmers and traders both spend a lot of time doing I think.
How did you come upon naming the farm?
We are located right off of Nonesuch Point and the word Nonesuch said everything that needed to be said. It means one of a kind AND it refers to a place. What more could one ask for in a name?
How did you decide what oysters to grow?
There really was no decision to make. Our principal crop is the Crassostrea Virginica, which is what everyone on the Eastern Seaboard raises. What makes everyone’s oysters different is the environment in which they are raised. We speak of “Meroir” with the French root of “mer” or “sea” now the way wine connoisseurs speak of “Terroir.”
We also grow Belons – but in much less volume. This was purely personal and it’s a small niche market. The Belons are a “newly native” species of oysters that grow wild along the Maine Coast but that were introduced from France mid-century. Since I’ve spent almost a third of my life in France, I was eager to grow this species just for fun. It’s given me an excuse to connect with oyster growers in France. Two years ago my father and I went to see Anne de Belon on the Belon river in Brittany France. There is a little video of that on our YouTube site.
Would you describe the “traditional, environmentally-safe” grow-out method you use.
We buy very small spat, about 1.5 mm in size, and put it into a nursery - an up-weller - where the oysters are contained and fed by water we pump from the estuary. There are no additives; they drink only natural water from the estuary. When the oysters get to be about ¼” we take them to our grow-out site in floating bags where they stay until we harvest. As the farm grows, we hope to do more ground seeding. Our “Free Range” oysters are particularly gorgeous.
How does environmental responsibility equal good business? Does it make for a better product? Is crop yield affected?
Oyster farms are generally seen as having a net benefit on the local watershed. Oysters filter water, keeping it clean and during intense algae blooms they absorb excess phytoplankton which keeps dissolved oxygen levels balanced for other marine organisms. Oyster shells breakdown and help lower acid levels and natural oyster beds can help slow erosion as well.
But there are best practices we maintain to make sure that our human presence on the water has a minimum impact.
Personally, I’ve tried to get involved in some of the environmental issues facing Saco Bay as a whole. And when I’m invited to speak about Nonesuch, I always segue into a discussion about the ecology of our bay and the impact we as individuals all have on the watershed.Tweet
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.