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Oyster Farming Journey Allows Alumni to Find Niche on MD’s Eastern Shore

Jason Wilford ’01 left Maryland’s Eastern Shore in hopes of finding a purpose, which he initially thought was a career in advertising, but he soon realized that his future was much closer to home.

His journey is a testament to the unpredictability of life’s path. From a seasoned career in advertising to owning an oyster company, his story stands as an inspiring example of how the discovery of a true passion can be found where least expected. In a candid interview, Wilford recounted his remarkable transition into the world of oyster farming, painting a vivid picture of his life alongside his business partner and wife, Kristi DeMartino Wilford ’03.

“Oysters were never a part of our plan. The oysters found us,” Wilford explained as he cradled his baby daughter, Robin.

Wilford’s venture into oyster farming began as a desperate escape from a job that left him unsatisfied. He found himself in a career that failed to resonate with him. However, a pivotal day spent with a friend who works in waterways protection and restoration as a Choptank Riverkeeper proved to be an important turning point. During their time on the river, his friend casually introduced the idea of oyster farming as an alternative path. Little did Wilford know that this chance remark would set the stage for an epiphany.

“We were eating lunch on his boat. I was complaining about my job, and he mentioned it sort of in passing, and I filed the idea away,” Wilford said. “This was September 2016. Over the next few weeks and into the winter, I found myself running into people connected to oysters, or who were passionate about them.

“The epiphany came one day in January 2017. A snowstorm had come through Easton, MD, and nobody could go anywhere. I was snowed in, looking outside at the snow, and sat down in my living room with a fire going, spending the day researching oyster lease applications, and it just took off from there.”

Up to this point, Wilford’s professional trajectory had been anything but linear. He had previously worked in professional sports and spent several years in Minor League Baseball. He later returned to his home in Maryland’s beautiful Eastern Shore, where he grappled with the challenge of finding his true calling in an area with limited career opportunities. Even though he had no formal background in biology or aquaculture, Wilford’s curiosity grew.

He decided to embark on an oyster farming journey. He then reached out to his Mercersburg friend, DeMartino, to see if she might be interested in working in the field. They boldly embraced this unconventional career path and founded Pirates Cove Oyster Co. Oyster farming resonated deeply with their shared love of water and boats, propelling them to dive headfirst into the venture. The two eventually fell in love and married shortly thereafter.

The process of oyster farming unveiled a world that was both delicate and complex. The Wilfords started by acquiring tiny oyster seeds, measuring a mere two millimeters, from a hatchery. These seeds arrived in bags, and were meticulously transferred into floating cages. The couple monitored the growth of these seeds, sorting them by size to optimize their development and nutrient intake.

Oyster farming, like any agricultural endeavor, presented a range of challenges, including diseases, shifting weather patterns, and fluctuating markets. However, the Wilfords were proactive in adapting to these hurdles. Kristi Wilford is a biologist, so she had an understanding of these processes.

“The outbreak of diseases like Vibrio and the specter of global warming have been substantial concerns,” she acknowledged. Yet they skillfully harnessed these challenges into creating a business that championed sustainability.

For the Wilfords, oyster farming became a family affair, with their young daughter becoming an integral part of their journey. Balancing the roles of parents and entrepreneurs was no easy feat in light of the unwavering dedication needed to succeed in this challenging industry. However, Robin’s presence served as a poignant reminder of the paramount importance of preserving the environment and bequeathing a legacy rooted in a love for the great outdoors.

When contemplating the sustainability of their business, Wilford emphasized their readiness to face the uncertainties that the future might hold. They remain committed to flexibility and open to adaptation as the industry evolves. Their ultimate goal isn’t to transform into a massive oyster corporation; instead, it is to cultivate a sustainable lifestyle and business, which will enable them to continue doing what they love. Oyster farming is a challenging industry, but it is clear that the whole family has embraced these trials with open hearts. In this captivating story, they serve as a reminder that, at times, life’s most fulfilling paths are the unexpected ones.

 

Shanuka Navaratne ’25 of Frederick, MD, is a mosaic ambassador for Mercersburg’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. He leads the South Asian Student Association and is a member of the food committee, The Mercersburg News, Model United Nations, Quinn Ferguson Honors Seminar, and Debate Club. Navaratne, who plans to study humanitarian law in college, said: “Interviewing Mr. Wilford was an inspiring experience that allowed me to conclude that Mercersburg is a beginning to life’s unforeseeable journey.”

  • Alumni Life