Early this year, the leaders of FreshFarm and FireFly Farms realized they had reached a crossroads. FreshFarm, a nonprofit with more than a dozen farmers markets around the D.C. area, needed to start a major fundraising campaign to shore up its finances, while FireFly, a Maryland-based goat cheese producer, needed to devote attention to an expansion project that could triple its capacity within five years.
The issue was that Michael Koch, co-founder of FireFly and executive director of FreshFarm, was helping to guide both groups. Something had to give, and shortly after New Year’s, something did: In a one-on-one meeting with Ben Feldman, chairman of FreshFarm’s board of directors, Koch said he was going to step down as executive director after leading the organization for 18 months.
Koch’s last day was Feb. 3., and all parties involved say the split was amicable, even if FreshFarm never issued a news release announcing the executive director’s exit.
“It wasn’t a performance issue, per se,” says Feldman, an independent consultant and environmental strategist who has been on the FreshFarm board since 2014. “At the end of the day, he ended up doing two jobs, and he couldn’t do either really well.”
In Koch’s wake, Maddy Beckwith, FreshFarm’s chief of staff, has taken on the added responsibilities of general manager. The board, Feldman says, is assisting with day-to-day operations to help ease the organization’s financial crunch and to make for a smoother transition for the next executive director.
Koch’s abrupt departure left some farmers and producers searching for answers. FreshFarm says it had alerted the farmers to the change in leadership, even if the group didn’t tell the public or the news media. The organization wanted to delay a public announcement, Beckwith says, until FreshFarm had found a replacement for Koch. “It wasn’t intentionally kept a secret from anybody,” she adds.
Several farmers contacted for this article did not return calls, but Bev Eggleston, founder of EcoFriendly Foods, texted to say that producers have a meeting with FreshFarm management on Sunday. “It’s too early to report exactly the situation,” he texted.
Meanwhile, FreshFarm will again launch a search for a new executive director, the second such hunt in less than three years. “It’s put some strain on the organization,” Feldman says. “But we’re up for it. … We’re going to get the right candidate, and we’re going to take our time.” The board hopes to have a new executive director in place by October, the traditional end of the farmers market season.
The search for a leader comes at a bittersweet moment in FreshFarm’s history: This year, the organization is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its first producers-only market in Dupont Circle, and it’s opening two new markets, one at Capitol Riverfront at 200 M St. SE and another in Rosslyn at 1800 N. Lynn St.
But FreshFarm, Feldman says, needs to raise an additional $300,000 to $400,000 this year as the costs of operating and expanding the organization rise. According to 990 forms posted online by ProPublica, FreshFarm has been operating with small deficits from 2012 to 2014, ranging from about $12,000 to $30,000 annually. But the organization’s deficit ballooned to $378,779 in 2015, Koch’s first year, according to a 990 form supplied by FreshFarm.
Koch says he wasn’t the best person to close that gap as fundraiser, even if he had served two years as the group’s treasurer and had previously been the director of economic development in Garrett County, Md.
“I’m very conscious of what I do well, and what I have less experience in,” Koch says. “And having the connection into the philanthropic circles is not something. The board knew that, and I knew that.”
Koch started as executive director in June 2015, replacing Ann Harvey Yonkers and Bernadine “Bernie” Prince, who founded the organization in 1996 and served as co-executive directors. Replacing the founders of influential nonprofits can be such a difficult task that there’s even a name for it: “founder’s syndrome,” one trait of which is a group’s “inability to make a smooth transition from the founder to new leadership,” according to an article in the Nonprofit Quarterly.
But Koch says that during his 18 months at the helm of FreshFarm, he helped modernize the organization. He rebranded the group and shortened its name from FreshFarm Markets to just FreshFarm — to underscore the group’s work outside the farmers market space. He relaunched its website. He transitioned the board of directors from a mostly friends-and-family board to a full-governing body with regular committee meetings. But once much of that was accomplished, Koch says he realized his job would be largely fundraising.
“Fundraising is really hard, and it became clear that after getting some of those things that were in my wheelhouse done, that this gig was — I say this in the most affectionate way — full-time panhandling,” he says.
Besides, Koch thinks he can promote local and sustainable agriculture just as well with FireFly Farms, a creamery and cheese-making business he founded in 2000 with his partner, Pablo Solanet. FireFly is in the planning and design stages of a large commercial creamery in Garrett County. When it opens, possibly next year or in 2019, the creamery could triple FireFly’s production and expand the business into cow’s milk cheeses. Last year, Koch says, FireFly produced 140,000 pounds of goat cheese.
“In the end, I felt like it’s the best way for me long-term to contribute to the mission, to focus on small-family dairy farming in western Maryland and northern Appalachia,” Koch says. “We’ll be able to add another farmer or two each year.”
Koch says he leaves FreshFarm with “all sorts of sorts of continued affection for the organization,” which is not just lip service. Koch and Solanet are hosting a FreshFarm fundraising dinner this week at their home featuring dishes from Spike Gjerde, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. Gjerde is a board member of FreshFarm.