David F. Romero
They bought the farm (so to speak) in 1997, a 130-acre weekend retreat in Bittinger, in the mountains of Garrett County. Their neighbor’s daughter raised goats for her 4-H project, and they soon had a herd of their own.
“The next thing you know, we’ve got goat cheese aging in our cellar,” says Mike Koch, partner with Pablo Solanet in FireFly Farms, founded in 2000, the first commercial goat-cheese producer in Maryland.
Both partners had long wanted to own a business, and the idea of a farm-based one was increasingly attractive and feasible. The movements for both locally grown food and artisanal products were igniting, and Solanet, a professional chef in Washington, DC, had noticed the growing use of goat cheese in upscale cuisine.
It wasn’t until 2002 that FireFly was ready to sell its first cheeses, after much experimenting by Solanet, its original cheese-maker. From the start, the partners knew they couldn’t survive on local demand alone.
“We had to build the business in major cities,” says Solanet, who, 10 years ago, moved to the farm full time.
With $200,000 of their own money, they bought more goats and enlarged the creamery (then located at a neighboring farm) to increase production; created a website; positioned themselves as a locally owned Mid-Atlantic company with a unique regional product; and actively sought a market for their cheeses.
They found a ready welcome at farmers markets, via online sales, and through Solanet’s restaurant contacts and wholesale distributors. In 2010, gross sales were $525,000; in 2011, $750,000 (split 60/40 percent between wholesale and retail, respectively). Today, FireFly’s customers include Whole Foods supermarkets and Sweet Greens restaurants.
The company employs 20 full- and part-time workers, including four cheese-makers. Solanet and Koch, a former executive with a federal agency who left his full-time job last summer, handle marketing and administration.
FireFly’s road to sustainability was paved with tough decisions, including the choice, in 2006, to sell their 400-goat herd because it couldn’t meet demand.
“We needed a reliable year-round supply,” says Solanet, who now buys milk from four nearby farms.
In 2011, FireFly purchased a 4,500-square-foot building in Accident, turning the space into its first-ever retail store and new, larger creamery. The town is near their farm and, not coincidentally, on the main highway to Deep Creek Lake and Wisp.
Judging from sales, FireFly Farms Creamery & Market is quickly becoming a popular stop for vacationers, second-home owners, and locals alike. Already, Solanet has given tours of the creamery to area school groups.
Solanet runs the cozy, wood-floored store with its inviting, glass-front case. He has carefully cultivated the shop’s offerings, which include an assortment of wines from small vineyards and cheese-related items like trays, crackers, and nuts to accompany them. On one wall, a colorful mural depicts a country scene.
Windows in the store look into the creamery, and the contrast couldn’t be greater. On one side sits the rustic, charming shop. On the other lies the antiseptic creamery with its white walls and metal equipment.
In the creamery’s aging room, gauze-covered wheels of cheese rest on racks. The preparation room contains a pasteurizer, long work tables, and various molds. Other spaces include a holding room for raw milk, delivered twice weekly; a tank for the whey, which is separated from the curd during the cheese-making process and sold to farmers for animal feed; and a dedicated aging room for blue cheese, whose spores could contaminate the other cheeses.
All the rooms are temperature- and humidity-controlled, air-filtered, and scrupulously clean.
“You are trying to control a microbiological process. Anything you introduce into that process changes the outcome,” says Matt Cedro, a chef and certified cheese-maker who joined the company in 2003 as director of operations and head cheese-maker.