Our Front Porch Interviews take you to the homes and neighborhoods of notable North Forkers. This week, Elizabeth Peeples and Stefanie Bassett, founders of Little Ram Oysters, talk about how they left careers in Brooklyn to run a 10-acre oyster farm and raise their 8-month-old son in Southold. It all started with a Groupon…
Elizabeth: We went to middle school together in Columbia, Maryland, but we went to different high schools and our paths went different directions. We reconnected in Long Island City when we both were living there in 2012: Stef and her best friend had a band, and they were playing on the 4th of July and I recognized her.
I had been working in interior design, and Stef was working in advertising and also has a background in music education. We spent a few years doing our thing and enjoying being together. And then all of a sudden, we were realizing that we were ready for whatever was next and didn’t know what that was. In July of 2017, with some of our good friends who still live in Brooklyn, we took an oyster shucking class in Greenpoint.
Stefanie: It was a Groupon! I got tickets for our friends because they had back-to-back birthdays.
“After New York, we needed to be in a place that is so completely opposite, because otherwise we’ll always compare it.”
Elizabeth: We were fascinated. We already knew we loved eating oysters, but just in this one class we learned so much about their environmental impact. Stef loves doing deep dive research and really got into it. That Christmas, we booked a week’s vacation and went up to Rhode Island to meet with an oyster farmer. It happened to be this crazy cold snap. He called that morning saying, “Are you sure you still want to go out?” We said, ‘Yeah, we’re pumped. We’re ready to go.” It was snowing. He had to chop the ice with a mallet in order to get the boat through the water. And then he jumped in and grabbed some of the scallops.
Stefanie: We ate raw scallops, right there. And he was stomping through the ice and he looked back at us. He said, “I knew you two were crazy when you wanted to come out today. But now I know you’re definitely going to be oyster farmers.”
We decided, let’s start saving our money, keep that in our mind, change our lifestyle a little bit here in Brooklyn. And then July 4th rolls around again, and a farm out here went for sale, on the east end of Shelter Island. I had never been out to the North Fork. But I called out of work on a Tuesday and I booked it up here. I was just smitten. I came back at like 1 a.m. with a bag of oysters. I’m waking her up: “You’ve got to try these!”
We were talking about culling, rigging and sorting, talking about the process like we knew it. We only knew it from books. We had never done it. But we got the farm. He liked the fact that we were women, he wanted to support that and that we were a gay couple and he wanted to support that as well. There were people who wanted the farm who had a lot of experience. But he really liked the idea that we were so passionate.
Elizabeth: It was this perfect opportunity, and it felt like all the signs were pointing this direction. We were not ready for the leap, but it was this little tiny moment where we could really go for it. And we’re so grateful that we did.
Stefanie: We’ve had the farm for two years now, and we’ve already doubled it. I’m on the water full time, doing the farming and harvesting, and she’s on land full time doing the business. Every day is different, whether I’m cleaning oyster seeds, spreading it out, or tumbling oysters that are ready to be harvested, or harvesting and then cleaning those and dropping them off at restaurants we work with, like Frisky Oyster, Billy’s by the Bay, and Kate’s Cheese Shop.
Elizabeth: There’s definitely some growing pains right now, having a small business and a baby all at the same time. We had no idea what we were walking into, even socially out here being a gay couple. A lot of families that move here have been out here weekends or part time, but we didn’t have that experience. We literally jumped in. And what we’ve found is it’s very supportive, very welcoming—both socially in the community but also the oyster community.
Stefanie: We were worried about being mixed in with baymen out there who have been on the water for their entire lives. What are we going to run into out there? Are we going to make anyone mad using the water? But we have baymen that are checking in on me every day out there. It’s become a very safe environment. We can call the other oyster farmers, and everyone’s willing to help.
I see other women going in and out on their boats fishing all the time now. We wave at each other and it’s awesome. People are always like baymen, oyster men, but it’s starting to change. Being women is definitely part of our identity and we’re proud of it. So we don’t want to hide it. You know, being gay, I personally have chosen when to hide myself or who I was with for a very long time—even from myself. So to be able to live in a community and just be proud of who I’m with and my family and my job and to have people supporting that, it’s really great. Even in the city, there’s certain moments you gotta just kind of protect those things. But it doesn’t feel like that out here.
Elizabeth: After New York, we needed to be in a place that is so completely opposite, because otherwise we’ll always compare it. We have a dog and, now with Finn growing up, being able to just run out in the yard was something that we really wanted. Being able to walk to the beach for the sunset changes everything. And now with the baby, we’ll do more neighborhood walks during the day.
Stefanie: All of the houses are filled full time as of March, and we’re running into neighbors now at the farm stand in front of our house or we’re doing special deliveries to their houses, which they love. And it’s just been awesome to learn that there is a much more diverse community here than we thought in Southold. Everyone is so friendly and happy that there’s local oysters right on the corner. And we’ve gotten to meet so many other mothers.
Elizabeth: The Southold Mothers’ Club has a really active Facebook page and a little online marketplace where you can trade of all the baby stuff as they grow out of them. They have events like a mother’s night out and playgroups. When we had the baby, they brought food over and being new to the area, we didn’t have that network of friends. We were so grateful to have that connectivity.
Stefanie: It’s the same creative vibe out here that you feel in Brooklyn. I remember when we first came out here, I felt my creativity coming back. I appreciate everything that I got from the city and everything that I learned and how I grew. But when you’re there for a certain amount of time you keep your blinders on and you don’t appreciate the city for what it is anymore and what it offers. You’re just trying to get to work and stay on your path. And when I came out here, it’s almost like everything opened back up again. I felt like playing music again.
This is a place where everyone feels like they can contribute to the area and it’s protected agriculturally, which is great. There’s also a need for what we do. Not only are we growing oysters that people love to eat, but we’re also cleaning the waters. Each oyster out there filters 50 gallons of water a day. And right now we have probably 750,000 on our farm.
Elizabeth: I do think the people moving here are willing to invest in the community. They are proud to be a part of the North Fork. And they’re proud to be making a difference. In Brooklyn we were part of a bigger whole, and we were obviously making a difference through the decisions we were making. Here, we are making a difference and we see the direct results. That’s something that we’ve both really appreciated—that we actively can affect change.