As Maryland’s most-awarded cheese maker, FireFly Farms knows a thing or two about producing a good tasting product.
Since opening in 2002, the sustainably-crafted goat cheese manufacturer has taken the local agriculture scene by storm, and has gotten the attention of natural foods market Whole Foods on more than one occasion.
Mike Koch and his partner, Pablo Solanet, began the business after buying their Garrett County farm in 1997. They immediately began thinking of ways to create a farm-based business, and after realizing their neighbors had goats, everything fell into place.
“It was really a series of serendipitous events that got us here,” said Koch.
Today, the company proudly sources local goat milk from six different farms around the Garrett County region, making the distance from farmer to cheesemaker only 30 miles or less.
This endeavor wasn’t the duo’s first introduction to farming or the food industry. Solanet previously worked in fine dining restaurants in Washington, D.C. as an executive chef and pastry chef, giving him a hefty culinary background to work from.
Koch’s history with cheese making stretches back four generations—his great-great-grandfather was a cheesemaker in Switzerland. Additionally, his grandfather was a farmer, and his grandmother used milk from their cows to make cheese in their kitchen at home.
These days, FireFly Farms has a 4,500 square-foot market and retail store that sells a curated selection of cheeses, and the proof of the company’s success is in the production. FireFly’s products are such a hit, the company’s current location is at capacity and bursting at the seams. The team will soon be expanding to another facility within the new McHenry Business Park with more room for food manufacturing.
“We’re working with the state and the county to lease a portion of another building [that’s currently being constructed] for additional manufacturing,” said Koch. “We’re grateful to them for their leadership in moving this project forward. We hope there will be a second and third tenant in that building, as well.”
And while FireFly grows its footprint in Garrett County, it is also stretching east and tackling the Baltimore Metropolitan area. Early next year, the company will join the opening of Whitehall Mill Market along the Jones Falls, close to Spike Gjerde’s farm-to-table restaurant Woodberry Kitchen. The Market will feature 10 of Maryland’s best artisans, including Ceremony Coffee, Wight Tea Co., Gundalow Gourmet, and more.
“We thought this would be a great way to continue our development,” said Koch. “This ties together FireFly the manufacturer and FireFly’s retail arm, while shining a light on other producers.”
Elsewhere in retail, FireFly began selling goat cheese to Whole Foods in 2003 and has since partnered with the natural foods chain to provide select cheeses for its shelves. The company recently announced a second cheese to be sold exclusively in the retailer’s East Coast locations—Bella Vita, a long-aged, award-winning cheese similar to Parmesan and Pecorino.
“People forget that when Whole Foods’ store and cheese counter opened, they were category shifters,” said Koch. “In my humble opinion, they have driven a lot of change in consumer awareness. They’ve been wonderful to work with.”
“In the 20 years since we’ve started, people have started focusing more and more on ‘local’ — where food comes from, how it’s raised, the level of processing that goes on, if it’s built to last and is fair to the environment and the farmer,” he said. “We’ve certainly benefitted from that focus, and it has reinvigorated interest in the American food system and the American farmer.”
Koch tells us he’s incredibly grateful that consumer awareness has developed in the years since FireFly Farms was founded. The company is dedicated to its sustainability efforts, with focuses on green energy spaces, recycling, and reducing waste in its production. FireFly also aims to lessen its carbon footprint and has changed its packaging for certain products to include a compostable bamboo tray.
The cheesemaker tells us that practicing sustainability includes difficult choices and an impact on the company’s bottom line, but it’s important to take it seriously. “Doing good things for the community” and “providing good, livable wages for employees and their families” is something FireFly hopes more industries practice in the years to come.
“We work with the Good Food Foundation (GFF), who works with businesses that focus on sustainability and community engagement, which will be a big focus in our Baltimore store,” said Koch. “The organization is 10 years old now and they’re really shining a light on sustainability in food production.”
As one of GFF’s founding funders, FireFly hopes its influence in the industry will encourage other companies – like the ones at Whitehall Mill Market – to join GFF’s Good Food Guild, a nationwide group of responsible food manufacturers dedicated to producing tasty, authentic food with a focus on sustainable practices.
Stay up to date with Whitehall Mill Market, including pre-opening pop-ups around the holiday season, on whitehallmillbaltimore.com.
You can find FireFly Farms products in Whole Foods, Wegmans, MOM’s Organic Market, Total Wine, or online at fireflyfarms.com/shop.