On a gray autumn morning heavy with the promise of rain, Northeastern University co-op student Maddy Russell eases a Toyota Tundra pickup truck into reverse as she backs a trailer carrying a Carolina skiff into a marsh on the coast of Maine.
Three great blue herons take flight as the skiff makes its way from Pine Point in Scarborough, stopping short of the mouth of the Nonesuch River.
Moments later, Russell and fellow co-op student Moreira Salsman, both in wetsuits and flippers, slip over the side of the boat to start another day of work at their internship on Nonesuch Oyster Farm.
It’s Monday so the women spend the next few hours flipping hundreds of rectangular mesh bags floating on the surface. A harvestable bag can contain up to 65 pounds of oysters; the flipping dislodges algae and marsh grasses that threaten to crust over the bags.
On Tuesdays they help farm manager Joshua Burns, a 2013 Northeastern graduate, and assistant Sydney Abramovich harvest the oysters that go to market Wednesday for delivery to restaurants in Portland and beyond.
“This co-op is pretty unconventional,” Salsman says.
It’s one that Salsman and Russell, both 20-year-old third-year students, sought out for the novelty of the experience and the chance to be outdoors and get a water level view of the blue-green economy.
Majoring in environmental and sustainability science, like Salsman, Russell says she was inspired by professors’ stories of their own fieldwork to see if she, too, could handle the rigors of working in a natural environment.
“I wanted to do this job and test myself and see if I like working outdoors as much as I hoped,” Russell says. “So far, so good.”
Salsman says she scrolled through a lot of internships that required sitting at a desk when looking for a co-op job.
“This looked way more interesting,” she says.
‘GETTING MY HANDS DIRTY’
The role that oysters play in removing nutrients from water made Salsman curious about their life cycle and growing conditions.
“I enjoy getting my hands dirty,” says Salsman, who has to hose the tiny brown shrimp that help build the marsh off her wetsuit and braids every time she gets out of the water.
And she says she enjoys the team approach Burns brings to the job. It makes her feel more involved in the process, Salsman says. “We get our say. I feel comfortable suggesting things.”
“Josh is definitely open-minded. He listens,” Russell says.
The co-op interns have helped the boutique oyster farm double its capacity and have allowed Burns to take a few days off midweek to celebrate his recent marriage.
“Definitely we’re able to harvest more oysters,” Burns says. “It’s just made everything so much faster. When they first came, they had no idea how to back up a trailer or drive a boat or do any of those things. But now they do, and it’s infinitely helpful. Everything is just so much more streamlined and awesome.”
In mid-September, the women took charge of deliveries themselves, driving the company’s refrigerated truck to drop off oysters in Edgecomb at the Coastal Harvesters distribution site run by Nonesuch owner, Glidden Point Oyster Farms, and picking up other oysters for delivery to a dozen or so restaurants in Portland.
“It’s nice seeing and talking to people from the other farms,” Russell says. Going to the service entrance of restaurants made the women feel like insiders, she says. “This is behind the scenes.”
Burns was teaching environmental education at the Catalina Island Leadership Program in California when he learned of the opportunity to work at Nonesuch Oyster Farm from the previous farm manager, who also graduated from Northeastern.
“When I first moved to Portland, the experiential education director at the Roux Institute actually reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be a mentor for any Northeastern students who were in the area,” says Burns, who moved to Maine in early 2020 to be closer to his wife’s family.
“At that point, it was probably one month into having started working here as a farmhand, and I was like, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t think I can mentor anybody about this.’”
After he was promoted to farm manager in June of 2021, he got back in touch with Roux Institute and put out an application for interns.
Russell, who is from Granby, Connecticut, and Salsman, who is from Cheshire, Connecticut, arrived in July and will remain at Nonesuch until their co-op ends in December. During the fall semester, 4,335 Northeastern students were enrolled in co-op programs.
Salsman got her diving certificate this summer, in case she needed to do any underwater repairs to the anchors and ropes that hold the oyster bags in place.
FLIPPING BAGS OF OYSTERS
The cold water in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she got certified, prepared her for the cool waters of the Nonesuch River’s Scarborough Marsh, where she and Russell will enter the water until November to flip 1,500 bags containing oysters and oyster seeds.
The water turns muddy brown as Russell and Salsman shake the bags to dislodge algae and the marsh reeds that give the oysters grown in 7 acres within a nature preserve their mild grassy flavor.
The shaking breaks off the growing edges of the oysters so they grow plump and wide instead of flat as pancakes. It also removes algae, marsh grasses and barnacles that can weigh the bags down.
The oysters grown to 4 inches long in the mesh bags are white and known as Abigail pearls for the company’s founder, Abigail Carroll. Nonesuch Oyster Farm was recently purchased by Ryan McPherson of Glidden Point Oyster Farms.
GREEN OYSTERS KNOWN AS NONESUCH EMERALDS
In a channel next to the rows of oyster bags, “free range” green oysters known as Nonesuch emeralds grow scattered along the bottom. Burns dons snorkeling gear and dives down about 8 feet to pull up several emeralds.
He opens the glossy green oysters with a shucking knife and offers them to visitors. They are fresh as can be, with a briny, slightly grassy, sweet taste.
The extra sweetness comes from the oysters storing up glycogen to hibernate in the winter, which they will likely spend in the company’s refrigerators, Burns says.
Outside the skiff, Russell, Salsman and Abramovich float and swim in water up to their necks. The rain is holding off for now, as they wave blue gloved hands at a cargo train passing over the trestle that separates the river from Saco Bay.
The train sounds its horn, to their delight.
Russell and Salsman say they sometimes feel a little envious when friends from Northeastern tell them about internships in high rises with fantastic views of city skylines.
CO-OP STUDIES ON THE RIVER
But that feeling evaporates out on the Nonesuch River, where plovers resting on the oyster bags watch them from an arm’s length away, and Mount Washington can be seen on a clear day.
Salsman says she expects that having such a unique co-op experience will help them stand out as job seekers.
And the women say the rigors of the job are such that they haven’t needed to work out at the gym for weeks.
“You can feel yourself getting stronger,” Russell says. “At the end of the day, I feel like I accomplished something.”
This article originally appeared on [email protected]
Photo by Alyssa Stone.