Submitted as part of the Women Mind the Water (WMW) digital stories project produced by Pam Ferris-Olson, in conjunction with Stories from Main Street and the traveling exhibition "Water/Ways." This story is one in a series created for a podcast in 2022-23, featuring regional and international artists whose inspiration blends conversation, activism, science, and water. Find earlier stories from the WMW initiative by searching for "Women Mind the Water" on this website.
Abigail Carroll has a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. In 2010 Abigail became an oyster farmer in Maine. After she sold her oyster farm in 2021 she became a mentor for and investor in high-growth start-ups focused on solving sustainability issues. We talk about women’s involvement in oyster farming in Maine, what it takes to be a successful innovator and what we as individuals can do to foster a sustainable planet.
Pam Ferris-Olson (00:01): Today on the Women Mind the Water Artivist Series on womenmindthewater.com. I'm speaking with Abigail Carroll, who became an accidental Mainer in 2010 when she adopted an oyster farm. She sold the farm in 2021. Her years working with oysters opened her eyes to the reality of climate change and how it impacts the ocean.
(00:23): These days, Abigail focuses on business innovation. She works as a mentor and invests in startups that propose healthy planet solutions. This is also the focus of her podcast, the Women Mind the Water Artist series podcast on womenmindthewater.com engages artists in conversation about their work and explores your connection with the ocean. Through their stories, Women Mind the Water hopes to inspire and encourage action to protect the ocean and her creatures.
(00:56): Today, I'm speaking with Abigail Carroll, an entrepreneur who is well versed in the marine environment, particularly aquaculture. Abigail has a master's in international affairs. Her degree is from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. It's a field that explores opportunities in the global marketplace. Her background in finance and banking is not exactly what one might expect from somebody doing the physical work involved in raising oysters. Abigail sold her oyster farm in 2021 and became a mentor, an angel investor, and podcaster. She seeks to help small businesses get off the ground, be financially successful, and make the planet a healthier place. Welcome, Abigail.
(01:46): Borrowing from the lyrics of an old song, I'd say you've looked at life from both sides now, as an oyster farmer and as an investor. In both cases, you believe that nature works well if you let it. I'm looking forward to exploring the art of entrepreneurship and how you apply it to create, because your podcast is named The Healthy Planet. Abigail, I'd like to begin by asking if you were always interested in nature and more specifically in marine environments.
Abigail Carroll (02:19): I wasn't one of these kids that was outdoors all the time and fascinated by the nature around me, but I always have loved the ocean. I grew up in Maine, I grew up sailing on the ocean. I grew up going to the beach, collecting rocks, collecting seashells, sea urchins and sand dollars, things that we really don't find very much of on the beach anymore. And at a very young age, between the ages of eight and 10, we rented a house in the coast of Maine next to a gentleman named Bill Curtsinger, and Bill Curtsinger was one of the first people to photograph marine mammals underwater.
(03:10): He's one of the most important underwater photographers for National Geographic, and he just happened to be my neighbor at those two formative summers. And his wife was also an artist and I had an older brother, and we would sneak over to the Curtsinger house all the time. And Bill was so kind and he had us into his dark room. He showed us how he photographed these humpback whales and all these wonderful marine mammals and he taught us about the dwindling population of whales and how it was important to protect them. So at nine or 10, I joined the Save the Whale Foundation, thanks to Bill Curtsinger.
Pam Ferris-Olson (03:55): You would think maybe you'd become a marine mammalogist, but instead, you went on a different path. So did you ever imagine yourself working in a physically demanding job like as an oyster farmer?
Abigail Carroll (04:09): Yeah, it was not at all on my... I had many career visions for myself, everything from lawyer to fashion designer to all sorts of things I wanted to do, and oyster farming was definitely nowhere in any vision that I could have possibly imagined for my future.
Pam Ferris-Olson (04:31): So I think most people have a good idea of what a farmer does but are far less acquainted what it means to be an oyster farmer. Give us a sense of what an oyster farmer does, and is it a good deal of work?
Abigail Carroll (04:45): It's called a farm and not by accident. We really do many of the same things that you would do on land. We plant oysters. You buy little seeds, you could also make seeds, oyster seeds, little baby oysters, but we call them seed but they're basically little tiny millimeter sized oysters. So you buy your seeds, you treat the seedlings different than you would the plants, the bigger plants, which you plant in the soil. So we treated the baby oysters and what we call an up-weller, which is like a nursery. You can have an on shore nursery, you can have an in the water nursery, and then when they get to a certain size, we put them in floating gear where they live for about a year. And then some would spend two years in the floating gear and some would be put on the bottom. We grew them two different ways with very different results.
(05:43): You heard the word gear a lot. There's a lot of gear for sure, but most farms, at least in Maine, are still largely manual but what we do a lot of is tinker. There's a lot of tinkering on the oyster farm. Everybody's trying to figure out how to best run their farm and everybody's farm is a little bit different because of just the way nature works and the way the coast works, and you have different issues on every farm. And they do well on the bottom in certain places by just seeding them on the bottom, and in some places, you can't do that at all. In some places, you have terrible tides or currents and it's very hard to keep gear in. So as farmers mature on their sites, they end up creating a lot of gear to try to optimize their work and the rearing of these oysters.
(06:50): So that part of it, actually, I found really fun. I built my own nursery out of a repurposed lobster tank and five gallon buckets. Five gallon buckets was a big thing on the farm. I never even thought about five gallon buckets before I had an oyster farm, but we made lots of things out of five gallon buckets.
Pam Ferris-Olson (07:15): I hear the words “challenge,” I hear the word or thought of innovation, and I wonder, how common is it for a woman to be involved in this business and how many women are able to get a foothold?
Abigail Carroll (07:31): It is not at all an industry where women can't get in because there's actually quite a long history of women, at least in Maine, in aquaculture. As long as we've had oyster aquaculture in Maine pretty much, there have been women involved.
Pam Ferris-Olson (07:49): So you did their oyster farming and then you switched, flipped the coin as it were and began offering capital to others to start innovative businesses. So I wonder, does that mean you made a lot of money from oyster farming? Is it a lucrative business?
Abigail Carroll (08:10): I don't know how many people are making a lot of money making oysters. I think it's more of a lifestyle business. I think there's legitimately some big farms making some money, but I think margins, even on the scale businesses are probably still very tight, and I think a lot of people are doing it because they love it. You get the bug. You get out there, you relate to nature in an entirely different way, you're living the seasons of the life of the oyster, and you're out in the water. I was down in Scarborough in the Scarborough Marsh, which is Maine's biggest salt marsh, and it's all very flat there. And every day of the year, the light would shift just a tiny bit. It's a beautiful life to be out there every day.
Pam Ferris-Olson (09:04): Can you describe a few of the elements that, in your mind, make an endeavor likely to succeed?
Abigail Carroll (09:13): The product-market fit, you've got to find a product that has a market. Without that, you're just going to struggle. But to get that, you need to have a lot of flexibility. The founders that I think are the most successful are really open-minded and they don't necessarily impose their preconceived ideas on their businesses. They're listening. I think listening to your clients, listening to what's going on, and making observations is probably the most important quality a founder can have.
Pam Ferris-Olson (09:59): Well, you look at a particular niche, so you're interested in businesses that are going to make the world a healthier, more sustainable place. And I'm wondering, many businesses are actually tied to some of the climate change businesses that burn fossil fuel. So how is it possible to believe that business innovation also can be a powerful tool in solving the world's problems?
Abigail Carroll (10:29): For a moment, let's not make gas and fossil fuels the enemy and let's think about over the last hundred years, all of the good things that have been a result of the fossil fuels. We can travel around the planet, we can feed a planet, our houses are warm, we have electricity. So the fossil fuels solved a lot of problems for a lot of time. What we didn't realize was that it was also creating problems. So now we have this new problem, but businesses built that fossil fuel industry up to solve all those problems. So now we've got this new problem, which is like, "Oops, we went too far." And we do that a lot. We go too far in one direction and then we have to, "Oh, we made a big mistake, we made this huge bet, and now we have to correct that." So for me, that's the new problem, and for me, just in the way the business solved all those other problems, riding on the wave of fossil fuels, now we can solve these new problems through business innovation as well.
Pam Ferris-Olson (11:40): Okay. So you're a podcaster and your podcast is called Happy Planet Podcast. So I'm wondering, do you have one guest that in your mind is building a business that is an innovative tool for solving the world's problem? Or if they're all like that, can you pick one?
Abigail Carroll (11:57): Well, the guest that was really the inspiration for the whole podcast, his name is Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda, and the business is called Urchinomics. In many, many parts of the world, there are urchin barrens. There are so many sea urchins in areas that they actually devastate the local ecosystem, and it becomes a dead zone where nothing can live because there's nothing, the urchins have sucked all the life out of it, and it gets so bad that the urchins start to die. So you've got these huge, huge areas of the ocean around the planet where these urchins are just basically gasping for life and they've killed everything around them.
(12:47): So he's going around and he is picking up all these urchins, and when he does that, the kelp forests grow back and the kelp forests are these wonderful habitats for sea life. So he's pulling out all these urchins, he's taking them on land and he's feeding them and breathing life back into them. And they're going out to the market as a wonderful delicacy, and so he's creating food, he's creating jobs, and he's restoring these ecosystems. So he is up-cycling these pretty much almost dead urchins, the ecosystems are getting repaired, and then he's actually using the shells too. Once he takes the meats out of the sea urchins, they're using the shells to make fertilizer products and other things. So he's using a hundred percent of the animal.
Pam Ferris-Olson (13:50): Abigail, I always end the show by asking my guest to issue a call for action. I'd like to ask you this question in two parts. First, what do you think is the biggest issue that needs to be addressed in order to solve the world's problems? And let's focus on those relating to the world's oceans.
Abigail Carroll (14:09): I wouldn't know which is the most important ecological problem. I think the real problem is there's lack of consensus and unwillingness to cooperate. I feel like the problem's always the people. We have to talk more, we have to share more, we need international cooperation. We need a bit of a new paradigm and it just seems like the world is getting more and more divided and humans are getting more and more divided, and the climate issue is more and more urgent.
Pam Ferris-Olson (14:54): Right. So I'd like to know, what do you think members of the audience can do to help effectuate change?
Abigail Carroll (15:01): I think we just all need to be really mindful of our footprint, and our footprint extends to the things we buy, the things we wear, the things we eat. And I think once you start thinking about your footprint and becoming aware of it, you start to change some habits. And I think everything comes down to our footprints.
Pam Ferris-Olson (15:30): So I know you're a busy person and I'm grateful for the time that you made to be on the Women Mind The Water Artivist Series podcast. I expect listeners have learned much and found our discussion interesting and informative. I'd like to remind listeners that I have been speaking with Abigail Carroll, a woman who has worked as an oyster farmer and now is an entrepreneur helping innovative startup businesses that are designed to make the planet a healthier, more sustainable place. Abigail Carroll is the latest guest on the Women Mind the Water Artist Series podcast. The series can be viewed on womenmindthewater.com, museum on Main Street and YouTube. An audio only version of this podcast is available on womenmindthewater.com, on iTunes and Spotify. Women Mind The Water is grateful to Jane Rice for the use of her song, Women of Water. All Rights For the Women Mind the Water name and logo belong to Pam Ferris-Olson. This is Pam Ferris Olson.
Asset ID: 2023.01.04.a-b
Themes: Business, Oysters, Farming, Sustainability, Industry, Aquaculture, Finance, Happy Planet Podcast, Small Business, Marine Mammals, Photography, National Geographic, Whales, Seasons, Nature, Salt marsh
Date recorded: March 6, 2023
Length of recording: 0:16:35
Related traveling exhibition: Water/Ways
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Women Mind the Water
More information: https://womenmindthewater.com