Michael Koch started selling goat cheese at FreshFarm Markets 11 years ago.
Now he’s poised to take over leadership of the nonprofit organization that operates 13 markets in the Washington region.
“It’s a great coming-together of a lot of things in my life,” said Koch, who has served on FreshFarm’s board for four years, including two as treasurer. He had also been the director of economic development in Garrett County, Md., for two years. Previously, he’d worked for 20 years at Fannie Mae, followed by about a year and a half at Freddie Mac.
Koch, 53, takes over FreshFarm’s top post from Ann Harvey Yonkers and Bernadine “Bernie” Prince, who founded the organization almost two decades ago and have since served as co-executive directors.
“He knows FreshFarm inside and out,” said board President Susan Buffone. Koch’s economic development experience and his “localized knowledge” made him the best choice for the job, she said.
Yonkers said she expects Koch to hit the ground running and start analyzing the vast amounts of data — sales, attendance, farm acreage — that FreshFarm has collected since its inception.
“He’s a numbers guy,” Yonkers said. “He can make numbers talk.” That “critical wonkiness” is crucial, she said, for a second-generation leader who will be faced with challenges different from those Yonkers and Prince encountered in trying to establish the markets.
Koch and his partner, Pablo Solanet, founded FireFly Farms in 2000 and began selling commercially in 2002. The goat cheese business is based in Garrett County, where the couple have a home. They also have a house in the District.
FireFly sells at the Dupont Circle and Downtown Silver Spring FreshFarm markets. Koch said being a producer will give him a unique perspective as executive director. (To avoid a conflict of interest, Koch said, he and the board are working to establish a “bright line” between his responsibilities as a vendor and as executive director. That will include limiting FireFly’s sales to its current two markets.)
“I think I’m uniquely credible” as someone who can listen to vendors, he said. The fees that vendors pay to sell at FreshFarm make up a large percentage of the organization’s operating budget, said Koch, who added that he intends to establish a producer advisory board.
He said he understands the challenges of making money as a small producer and hopes to facilitate vendors’ growth through other channels, such as wholesale.
At the same time, Koch said, he wants to educate shoppers about the local food system and how the work of those who sell in it “translates into a certain cost.” He said people still “think food should be abundant and cheap,” which can be a hurdle when it comes to farmers market prices.
Koch officially assumes his new role June 1. During the summer, he will work with Prince and Yonkers as part of the transition. By fall, the two founders will have retired. Around that time, Koch said, he hopes to have a new strategic plan in hand.
Buffone said the top priority for planning will be ensuring that producers “are being served the best way we can,” because strong businesses are critical to the success of the local-food movement.
Last week, Koch declined to discuss specific plans he might have for the future of FreshFarm.
“I think expansion is likely,” he said. “What form it takes will be the subject of a lot of healthy debate.”
FreshFarm has been exploring the idea of a permanent location in an urban food hub that would also provide space for like-minded organizations and businesses. Koch said he would like to further collaborate with partner groups, including food banks and those that address food access and education, to ensure that their missions align without overlapping too much.
To address the fact that Koch is moving into a position now shared by two people, FreshFarm is creating several new director-level jobs. Koch said he wants to both promote from within the organization and recruit from the outside.
Part of the idea, he said, is to have a crop of potential successors by the time he is ready to retire, years down the road.
“I think this is my last job,” Koch said. “Let’s just say that.”