Mike Koch, 54, recalls the summers he spent at his paternal grandparents’ 88-acre farm in Waverly, Iowa. The stern Swiss-German couple raised cows, pigs and chickens. What they didn’t eat they sold for some cash.
Koch looks back through the haze of 54 years and remembers making cheese in the kitchen with his grandmother, “a gravely serious woman of few words” who held a special love for nature and the land she lived upon.
“She was as much Wiccan as Christian,” Koch said, referring to a pagan, nature-loving movement. “She was a devout Christian and Protestant and had an incredible connection to the Earth and the seasons.”
That memory had a lot to do with Koch and his husband, Pablo Solanet, buying a tiny farm in Western Maryland a couple of decades ago. They have built a thriving cheese business named FireFly Farms, with a creamery attached to a welcoming retail store. (They also own a home in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of the District.)
FireFly is no subsistence farm. It sold 110,000 pounds of its nine brands of cheese last year, grossing $1.3 million. The business managers expect to sell $1.6 million this year.
They are more than entrepreneurs. They are more than foodies. Koch and Solanet are committed champions of rural business and sustainable agriculture, and they have created an enviable life as self-supporting as Koch’s grandparents’ farm in Iowa.
“Nobody is going to get rich making cheese. It’s a way of life,” said Koch, a former high school English teacher who served two years as director of economic development for Garrett County, on the western edge of Maryland. “I want to put people to work in rural America. It has become unfashionable to do so.”
FireFly employs 15 full-timers, which equates to an annual labor bill of $600,000. There is health insurance, a 401(k) plan and vacation for each employee.
Koch and Solanet pay themselves $70,000 each annually. Some years, there is a bit of profit left after they reinvest in the business (they recently bought a $78,000 refrigerated truck). That boosts their income.
“I will take that math any day,” said Koch, who handles the finance side; Solanet works the front end of the business, including the market and its wine tastings. “If at the end of the year, we break even, it’s a success.”
You may have eaten their product. Their Merry Goat Round is in the cheese case at Balducci’s, Whole Foods, MOM’s Organic Market and Wegmans. They sell on Sundays at the Dupont Circle Freshfarm Market in the District.
One of their biggest business accounts is the salad chain Sweetgreen, where the Allegheny Chevre graces a Harvest Bowl salad. Their goat cheese is in the cheesecake shake at the Silver Diner. Their Black & Blue is on a salad at Clyde’s or Old Ebbitt Grill, or on the cheese board at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. Even Zabar’s in New York, the mecca for all things foodie, carries FireFly Farms.
The goat’s milk comes from seven nearby farms, delivered daily to its state-of-the-art plant in Accident, Md., a blink-of-the-eye-size stop in the state’s panhandle. FireFly pays a middleman to collect the milk and deliver it to the creamery.
Koch was born in Iowa but grew up in the D.C. area.
He taught British fiction and drama to high school students in Tidewater, Va., after graduating from the College of William & Mary in 1984.
Fannie Mae hired him in 1989 to write software manuals for its business customers. His career took off from there, and he spent 19 years at the housing finance giant.
“I learned a lot about finance and business,” he said. “My Fannie Mae career was one of the biggest blessings of my entire life.”
He and Solanet, a professionally trained Argentine chef, paid $200,000 in 1997 for a 130-acre farm in Western Maryland, not far from the West Virginia border.
“My co-workers at Fannie Mae were laughing at the executive liquidating his stock to buy something real — a goat farm in Garrett County,” he said.
Koch and Solanet kept their home in Chevy Chase but renovated the 1856 farmhouse in Maryland.
Koch said he had a hankering to run his own business since the summer days when he visited his grandparents’ Iowa farm.
“We knew right away we wanted a farm-based business,” Koch said. He drew up three business plans:
●Grow herbs for sale to restaurants.
●Beekeeping for honey.
Cheese won. Koch knew something about the chemistry behind making cheese from his grandparents and from college science courses. A small herd of goats on a neighbor’s farm had caught his eye, so there was opportunity.
Plus, there were no Mid-Atlantic cheesemakers, much less goat cheese makers.
The entrepreneurs began making cheese in their kitchen and aging it in the stone cellar below.
Koch says that manufacturing cheese is “the art of calculated decay.”
FireFly cheese arrives at the loading dock in the form of goat’s milk and pumped into a storage tank. It is then carried through pipes in the ceiling to 132-gallon tubs in the next room, where it is pasteurized. Then it is cultured for taste. The soupy curd is ladled into cheese molds, which have holes to allow the whey to drain. They are then carefully aged in climate-controlled rooms.
“When we started making cheese, we would have friends come for the weekend. We would sheepishly put it on the table. They would eat it and like it.”
In three years, they incorporated as FireFly Farms. The name is from the Milky Way of lightning bugs that dance off their back porch on summer evenings.
FireFly’s first big sale came in 2002, when it sold three pounds of Allegheny Chevre logs (Chevre is French for “goat”) to Cafe Cimino in Sutton, W.Va. Chevre is FireFly’s flagship product, accounting for 60 percent of sales.
That fall, the owners attended a cheese conference in the District, winning first place for their MountainTop Bleu.
The award, and others to follow, helped them gain enough word of mouth for their goat cheese to create a comfortable niche. The vast majority of cheese comes from cows, so one of the advantages Koch and Solanet wanted to build on was the exclusivity of the goat cheese market.
The business isn’t all uninterrupted glory. They lost tons of money their first six years as Koch liquidated his Fannie Mae stock to keep the thing afloat. He assuaged the money half of his brain by reminding himself of his grandfather’s admonition to invest in land.
“We hemorrhaged money the first six years,” he said.
FireFly got its costs under control, hiring a cheesemaker in 2003 who is still head of operations.
The seven farms supplying the goat cheese are paid based on the quality of the milk. Milk heavier in fat and protein is more valuable and priced higher because it yields more cheese.
His paternal grandmother would appreciate that.
“She spoke to me about cheese, farming and food in a manner that made me understand quite clearly — these things are holy. “