A Maryland small business on how buying local is a very big deal

Cheese lovers can now find Firefly Farms goat cheeses in grocery store chains, but when Mike Koch and Pablo Solanet started their business in 2002, they were operating on a very small scale and doing everything themselves.

“We started in the way that a lot of cheesemakers do on a farmstead on our property,” said Koch, describing the first operation in Garrett County, Maryland, as a microbusiness. “Pablo was a fulltime goatherd,” Koch said with a laugh.

Their cheeses were sold at farmers markets across the D.C. area, and Koch said they marked their first full month in business that year with “just shy of $700 of sales for the month.”

Now, Koch told WTOP, “between the retail business and the manufacturing business, it looks like 2022 will finish a little over $4 million” in business.

Despite the growth, Koch said, Firefly Farms still falls under the definition of a small business, according to the Small Business Administration.

Koch and Solanet operate a business in Accident, Maryland, that includes a manufacturing space and a retail outlet. They also have a shop in Baltimore’s Whitehall Mill.

Solanet says when you buy from a small business like theirs, “you’re supporting a community.” In their case, he said, “we’re supporting all our farmers, all our employees,” and the money ripples out across the community.

“You see it,” he said.

Koch told WTOP that Firefly Farms buys milk from 17 family farms, 13 of which are “30 miles from where I’m seated” in Accident.

“Support for farmers is why we’re sitting here,” he said. “It’s why we did this.”

Like any business, Firefly Farms has seen swings in the economy, and the pandemic changed the way people bought cheese. Coming into retail spaces for a sample was out, so packaging cheeses for grab-and-go customers became more important.

The pandemic had some silver linings for western Maryland businesses such as Firefly Farms, Koch said. Many of the vacation homes in and around Garrett County were suddenly occupied in the offseason by people who wanted to leave cities. That meant more sales in the county, and some of that increased traffic has persisted.

Consumers were also making conscious decisions on purchases.

“There was a real change in the way we saw consumers standing up and saying ‘I’m supporting my local makers,'” said Koch. “Smaller players in the food system were all of a sudden very interested in strengthening their ties with local makers.”

Anyone wishing to start their small business should keep a few things in mind, said Koch.

“You’ve got to really want it,” he said, and be prepared to make changes to the business model.

“A half-dozen times in the past 20 years, any sane, conservative business person would have shut down,” he said.

But he’s grateful they didn’t, “because we’re in a really good place.”

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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