In early February, Abigail Carroll of Biddeford took a major step forward with her nascent aquaculture business when the Scarborough Town Council approved a contract to set up shop on its newly renovated municipal pier at Pine Point.
The deal will let Carroll’s company, Nonesuch Oysters, attach an 8-by-20-foot float at the end of the pier to serve as an incubator for “spat,” or baby oysters. From this nursery, juvenile oysters will be transported for final growth to a 4.5-acre sea farm the company leases further up the Scarborough River.
By this summer, Carroll plans to have 1 million oysters in production. By September, she says, her three-year-old company will finally achieve positive cash flow. That’s not too bad for a self-described “urban rat” with no previous experience on the working waterfront. Instead, the Maine-native parlayed a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University into a career launching various startups in France.
Based on that experience, shortly after returning home Carroll was asked to draft a business plan for someone else who dreamed of breaking into Maine’s $1.75 million oyster industry. But she quickly went from planner to principal financer to sole proprietor.
“My money came in first and then I realized the other money wasn’t coming at all,” she said. “The other person has never officially been a part of the company. It’s always been me, which is funny because the one rule I had going in was I would not be the one going out on the water.”
It’s been hard work, learning on the job how to raise American Virginica and European Flat Belon oysters, cultivated in three-year cycles from barely sized spat to 3-inch cocktail shells, then sold to a local wholesaler.
“There’s a very romantic notion people have of oyster farming until they actually do it. It’s hard, physical, dirty work,” said Carroll. “You’ve got to really nurture these guys, you’ve got to tend to them every day.”
What were your most important needs in getting started?
Really, it was all about information gathering. I had to learn the industry. From there it just took a lot of tenacity.
What was there about your upbringing that gave you the courage to venture out on your own?
Learning foreign languages, French and Spanish, by emersion. With both, I was just kind of thrown in, without understanding everything at first. When that happens, your head aches, but you get through it and you just kind of figure it out as you go. That kind of attitude is just in my DNA. I’ve picked up and moved to so many places – I’ve lived in Ecuador, Spain, Cuba, and then France, where I spent 15 years of my life. I think starting a business is a little bit like the same thing. You just have to be willing to throw yourself into it.
What do you think the advantages are of being a female entrepreneur?
Well, I won’t deny that there have been some advantages to being a female in this industry, although two of the most important people in Maine’s aquaculture industry are women. So, it’s not like I was some sort of groundbreaker coming in and doing something no other woman had done. That said, we get a lot of help from local fishermen – say if we can’t start the boat, or we need help unloading product. Last year I had a female employee and people were courteous to both of us in maybe a way they wouldn’t have been if we were men. Of course, it helps that we don’t do lobster or clams, so we’re not in competition, but I think we get a lot of respect from the fishing community at Pine Point. You still have to do the work and I think people give you a lot of respect if you are out there on the water really, really trying hard as a woman. I mean, I’m known as “The Oyster Lady.” If I was a man I don’t think I’d be called “The Oyster Guy.” There is a certain resonance because I’m a woman, but, also, we have a willingness to be a part of the community, so, I think that’s been reflected back in their attitude toward us. Not long ago something went wrong and one of the local lobstermen was like, “Oh, come on, you’ve been doing this long enough.” I think that as much as anything shows how I’ve been accepted. I really feel like most people down there at Pine Point have my back.
What advice would you give an aspiring woman entrepreneur?
Just do it. I fully admit I just sort of stumbled into this – my background and my skill set is so different from someone who would normally do this. But, that’s actually been helpful, I think. Normally, someone who might do this would have a skill set in water work, and I didn’t. I get seasick. It took me a long time to even acclimate to being on the water. So, I have overcome all these personal obstacles in order to be successful, but what’s been easy for me, what’s made the difference, is my background in business and marketing and things like that. Those are things that come naturally that might not to someone who grew up in this industry. What seems basic to me are maybe not the first steps others doing this would take, if they were well versed only in the technical skills.
If you knew what you know now, would you have done anything differently?
I’m tempted, but I won’t say, “Don’t get into it.” No, no, no. It’s been hard and it’s been a big investment, mainly because it’s taken so long. I spend a lot of time putting out fires, and aquaculture is just one apocalyptic problem after another. Yet somehow every time I think we’ve hit something I think is completely insurmountable, we get through it, and often it’s been for the better. Ultimately, this has been very rewarding. The last few years have just been remarkable. It’s been a great, warm welcome. Honestly, I get teary eyed when I think about it. I will say, I’ve changed since starting this, I have more faith that things will work out than I used to and this experience has led to many paths and many causes beyond Nonesuch that are really interesting and of concern to me. Right now, I have an expanding role in ecological issues. I don’t always have the answers but I’m good at figuring things out. I’m a problem solver. I really think I can make a difference in the Saco Bay community.
– Duke Harrington