Cheese has always been associated with transformation: Innocent milk is introduced to strange bacteria, then curdled by rennet. Over time, it can harden and develop its own unique character. People change with the passage of time as well. Recently, Passport met with three gay couples who each make cheese in a different part of the United States, and there were many tales of transformation to be heard.
Producing artisan cheese for commercial sale is an expensive, sometimes-daunting endeavor, but the middle-aged men profiled here all found themselves at points in their lives where something new was in order and the risks were worth taking.
Today, they are all successful. Not only at making cheese, but at enhancing their rural communities. Each of their companies is located in a unique part of the country and is open to visitors. Just one-to-three hours from popular cities (New York, Washington, D.C., and Santa Fe) travelers can get a taste of the country life and savor the possibilities of transformation.
“It seems corny when you’re in the middle of a soul-sucking corporate job and you hear people say ‘Do what you love and the money will follow,’” reflects Mike Koch, president of FireFly Farms Creamery. “But to be honest that’s really kind of what happened for me.”
Corny beget cheesy back in 1997 when Washington, D.C.-based Koch (a one-time literature major who’d wound up in the salt mines of the home finance business) along with his partner Pablo Solanet, a chef, took their first steps toward the dairy business by buying an old farmhouse two and a half hours outside the District.
“When gay men in the D.C. area want to get away in the summertime, most of them choose to head east to Rehoboth Beach and other shore towns,” says Mike Koch. “We always wanted something even mellower, so we went west, out to Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County, Maryland.” Over the course of a two-and-a-half year renovation, the couple began planning to turn their second home into the center of second careers.
“We wanted to have a farm-based business that would also be a culinary platform for Pablo,” says Koch.
One of the couple’s new neighbors had a handful of “leftover goats” living on their property from a child’s long-ago 4H project. Solanet, who was raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina and had spent time on a family ranch while growing up, got permission to milk them and begin experimenting with making fresh goat cheese.
The couple began studying the cheese business in earnest, doing independent research and traveling together to the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Research where they enrolled in an intensive short course in cheese technology.
“Pablo always loved the culinary aspects of cheese,” remembers Koch, “but it turned out that I was fascinated by the microbiology: measuring the pH of the curd, determining how quickly to drain the whey, and the effects that every little variation could have on the flavor and consistency of the cheese.”
In 2001, Solanet moved to the farm full-time to continue his self-education in cheesemaking, overseeing a newly acquired herd of 30 Nubian goats and a quarter million dollar conversion of an old barn on the property into a commercial creamery up to USDA standards.
“Our first commercial sale was in October 2002,” recalls Koch with a laugh. “We were still learning how to do everything, but we sold $600 dollars worth of cheese and were like ‘Wooohoo!’”
Nurtured by patience, that initial exuberance has fueled remarkable success for FireFly Farms, taking them far beyond their initial clientele of farmers’ markets, independent gourmet shops, and well-known D.C. area restaurants, including The Old Ebbitt Grill and the Blue Duck Tavern.
By 2006, with word-of-mouth and industry awards driving demand, the couple sold their goat herd and began contracting with other local farmers for milk, allow- ing them and their growing staff to focus purely on cheese making without the distractions of livestock management.
Then, in 2011, the couple moved their operations to a new building in nearby Accident, Maryland in order to be able to handle orders from larger commercial customers, such as Whole Foods Markets and the Sweetgreen farm-to-table restaurants, which recently featured the couple in a promotional video.
Last year, FireFly sold over 100,000 pounds of their goat cheeses. Their new creamery build- ing includes a storefront cheese shop with large picture windows that allow visitors to have a good look at the cheesemaking and aging processes. With advance reservations, visitors can participate in an educational wine and cheese tasting at a large community table in the center of the store.
“When we first moved here,” recalls Solanet, “we were wondering what the locals’ reaction to us as a gay couple would be. And it’s never been negative. Some people are totally welcoming and acknowledge us as a couple. Others just don’t bring it up.”
“Five of the six local farms we buy milk from are run by Amish families,” notes Koch. “Walking onto their properties is like being transported back to the 1850s. But there I am with my Apple Watch and my iMac and full sleeves of tattoos up my shoulders. I don’t sense any judgement in the way they deal with us. We don’t talk about it, but believe me, they know Pablo’s not just my best friend.”
“From practically day one,” Koch notes, proudly. “We’ve been investing in the local community. We’ve hired locals to work for us, we buy milk from nearby farmers, and we’ve trained nine apprentice cheesemakers. Putting people to work in Garrett County is a big deal.”
As Koch and Solanet have helped create jobs for others, Koch has found rewarding new work of his own to supplement and support FireFly farms. After a stint as Garrett County’s economic develop- ment director, Koch now serves as executive director for Fresh Farm Markets, a non-profit that operates 11 producer-only farmers’ mar- kets and promotes sustainable agriculture throughout the Chesapeake Bay Area.
Plan A Visit
FireFly Farms Creamery and Market (107 South Main St. Accident, MD, Tel: 301-746-8188. www.fireflyfarms.com) can be found in western Maryland’s Garrett County, a growing tourist area with summer visitors focused on boating, fishing, and hiking around Deep Creek Lake (www.visitdeepcreek.com) and winter sports enthusiasts flocking to the Wisp Ski Resort (www.wispresort.com).
Just 35 minutes away from the creamery is Frank Lloyd Wright’s renowned Fallingwater (www.fallingwater.com) house, where intimate guided tours are offered by first-rate docents. It’s a worthy bucket-list destination for serious afficionados of this master of 20th-century architecture.
Try It At Home
Selections of FireFly’s cheeses can be ordered online, though Mike Koch is slightly reluctant to promote the service. “We keep the mail order limited,” he explains, “because we are concerned about sustain- ability. Making artisan cheese doesn’t exactly jibe with jet fuel and vaccum boxes.” If you’ll be able to live with yourself, though, FireFly’s Mountain Top Bleu has won over 20 awards and been named one of Saveur magazine’s 50 “Best American Cheeses”.