FireFly Farms and the Chamber of Dairy Secrets

Once upon a time, a family wanted to make goat cheese.

They moved from the big city to the green countryside to start FireFly Farms Creamery and had some goats on their farm. Milking the goats was hard work…and that was before the family even got around to making the cheese.

So the cheesemaking family, husbands Michael Koch and Pablo Solanet, called other farm-owning families around them in the Garrett Country, Maryland countryside to find out the cost of goat’s milk. In their quest, Mike and Pablo discovered a mystifying Chamber of Dairy Secrets, with its most confusing riddle, “Baseline Pricing.”

Baselining works like this: In late summer a milk buyer (a cheesemaker, a yogurt maker, etc.) travels to the green countryside to visit a dairy farm and measure how much milk the animals produce in, say, a week. Maybe that week it’s 1,000 pounds of milk but it varies because the animals are, well, animals and their environment affects the amount of milk they produce.

But business must go on, so the milk buyer and the dairy farmer sign a contract that the dairy farmer will provide 1,000 pounds of milk per week so the milk buyer can reliably sell his product (cheese, yogurt) to markets. The milk buyer has his own contracts that he will provide a certain amount of yogurt or cheese to his buyers, and now he knows that the farmer can give him 1,000 pounds of milk each week. And if the farmer doesn’t give 1,000 pounds of milk per week, the contract states that the farmer will be penalized and get less money.

The milk buyer leaves the green countryside happy, the market is happy because it will have a reliable stream of products, and consumers are happy because prices won’t fluctuate too much. Not so happy: those who are actually providing the food, the family farmer and his animals back in the green countryside.

When summer turns to fall, milk production naturally decreases, declining even further in winter. The farmer has to figure out ways to artificially overmilk the animals or else be financially penalized for producing less than 1,000 pound of milk, as per the contract. “Baseline pricing forces farmers to stress the herd to produce more milk, and they start using nasty, unsustainable practices with the animals,” Mike says.

To make matters worse, in spring when milk production naturally increases well beyond 1,000 pounds, farmers are monetarily penalized again because prices go down due to ordinary increased-supply-reduced-cost pricing. Family farmers and the animals lose both ways to make everyone else happy.

Mike and Pablo have dedicated their past 15 years of cheesemaking to solving the riddle of the baseline pricing. “We aren’t interested in establishing base; we are interested in high quality goat’s milk and taking it any time. It separates us from the big producers of goat cheese, no one is doing what we’re doing.”

Instead of making money off of farmers and their animals with baselining, FireFly pays for milk based on quality rather than quantity. FireFly purchases milk in individual batches from each dairy farmer so it can test for protein, fat, bacteria, and somatic cell content, all of which affect both the quality and yield of cheese. Mike and Pablo pay more if the protein and fat content of the milk are higher, regardless of how much milk is delivered. High bacteria and somatic cell count decrease cheese quality and indicate sick animals so there is a financial penalty for high levels and incentive for low levels, encouraging a healthy, well managed herd.

“If that’s where we had stopped, FireFly would have closed because our farmers wouldn’t have milked from Thanksgiving through February and FireFly needs to supply Whole Foods and sweetgreen.” (I found a large chunk recently proudly branded on the buffet at Nationals Stadium’s President’s Club.) FireFly added an extra step to meet collectively with its milk producers during the winter, all of whom are within 20 miles of its spectacular creamery and local-foods retail shop in the Allegheny Mountains, to stagger winter breeding times so milk is always flowing into the creamery to fresh cheese. All milk in the winter goes to making fresh cheese, while abundant spring milk contributes to FireFly’s aged cheeses.

In rejecting baseline pricing for quality pricing, FireFly became a small family farm that itself created small family farms. None of the six family goat dairy farms that FireFly uses existed until the creamery started purchasing milk. And that is seeping into the greater, non-farming community: “The food movement is taking root in Garrett County. Farmers markets don’t have the energy and food commerce they have in the city but they’re growing.”

Can a plan that suits goat’s milk, a specialty food, work economically on a larger scale, with cow’s milk, which has such an exponentially higher demand it’s a practically different product?

FireFly is hoping to soon produce cheese from a relationship with a small family cow’s milk farm. “We are going to make this work for cow’s milk, and if any competitor calls me for advice to move away from baseline pricing for any milk, I will absolutely help them. This is about the planet, the humane treatment of animals, and better food. The flip side, the big producers using frozen curd flown in from Mexico, is not sustainable. This falls into to the category of ‘please copy me.’”

The United Nations (UN) General Assembly designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming. (International, by the way, includes America.) October 16 is World Food Day, when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) seeks to highlight Family Farming’s critical role in

2.     providing food security and nutrition,

3.     improving livelihoods,

4.     managing natural resources,

5.     protecting the environment, and

6.     achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.

FireFly’s move to quality pricing achieves each of the UN FAO’s goals. As Mike says: “The farmers’ money increases as the milk quality and animal health increases, whether they provide the milk in January or June.” The riddle of the Chamber of Dairy Secrets is solved. And if others follow suit, we will all live happily ever after.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.