When she studied French and Spanish literature at Barnard, Abigail Carroll never imagined she’d one day be a Maine oyster farmer. She gets seasick. She had never even tasted an oyster. Most important, she had devoted herself to two goals: getting out of Maine, and going overseas. After graduation, Carroll studied international affairs at Columbia and put her degrees to work abroad. “I spent most of my life trying to fit everything I could into two suitcases because I wanted to be able to pick up and leave,” she says.
When an acquaintance approached her seeking financial assistance and help writing a business plan for an oyster farm near Portland, Carroll was living in Paris, working as a day trader, and dating a count. Her life was portable, just as she wanted it. She loaned the money to start the company, but vowed she would never get on the water herself.
When additional financial backing never materialized, Carroll suddenly found herself the company’s sole proprietor. At the same time, she was feeling at odds in Paris. “I was having trouble finding meaning and purpose in trading stocks from my desktop,” she says. “I’d achieved my dream. Paris. Work from home. Chateau life on the weekends…. But it was a bubble. A nice bubble. But a bubble.” With zero knowledge of oystering, she decided to move home to Maine and devote herself to making the business, Nonesuch Oysters, a success.
Carroll entered the industry at a moment heavy with promise, but also with risk. Demand for oysters is booming, yet they are increasingly vulnerable to pathogens, invasive species, and climate change. She thought about quitting after two bad winters nearly destroyed her stock. But so far, Carroll has persevered. Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York recently featured Nonesuch on its menu—a coup for the fledgling company. She is constantly striving for more sustainable farming practices, and exploring ways to diversify so the business is not dependent on a bountiful harvest; she now offers summer culinary tours of the farm and a line of locally sourced skin-care products.
Today, Carroll’s life no longer fits into two suitcases. But for now, at least, she satisfies her wanderlust by navigating underwater worlds and exploring what it means to be part of a small, interdependent community.
“The farm brought with it a community. Not from one isolated socio-economic group, but a real community from all walks of life that we participate in on many levels,” she says. “And I think I felt the pull of that community.” —