The Beekman Boys (Josh Kilmer-Purcell and his partner, Brent Ridge) are truly fabulous! In 2008, while on a weekend apple picking trip, the pair decided on a whim to purchase a farm in upstate New York. Initially they thought the farm would serve as a great weekend getaway from the city, but as luck would have it, they both lost their jobs in late 2008, shortly after closing on the farm. The couple found themselves in a desperate situation. They had to find a way to make ends meet. “Accidental farmers” or not, they needed to save their investment. Find out how they saved their farm, launched their brand, and simultaneously breathed life into a struggling community in the following interview with Proud Times columnist, J’son M. Lee.
Brent, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. Can you begin by telling us what is Beekman 1802?
Brent: Beekman 1802 is a company we started based on our farm. Originally, it was products we were making right from the farm, and now it’s expanded into a wide array of products. We work with companies like Anthropologie and Williams-Sonoma to design products that really have an artisanal or heirloom quality to them. We’re really focused on creating products that are meant to last for generations.
We all know there is risk starting a new business. Were you two nervous about that given the fact that you were novice farmers?
Brent: No, because again we were desperate. The economy in New York City was terrible in 2008, and we had no idea when it was going to improve. We really just had no other choice if we wanted to save the farm. There at the beginning we thought we were going to lose the farm. We called it “The Bucolic Plague,” which was Josh’s book about that time period. So we really had no other choice. We had to make it happen or we were going to lose the farm.
So did this tie into what you guys term the year of sacrifice? What exactly did that mean for you?
Brent: After we both lost our jobs, we thought, okay, how is the farm going to sustain itself and be a profitable business? [We agreed] whoever got a job first would go to the city and work in that job and help pay the mortgage, while the other person stayed here and tried to get the farm business up and running. So Josh got the job first. At that point we had been together for eleven years, and had been living together for ten years. So that was the first time we had really been apart in our relationship. This was just for a year until we could get the business up and going, and be able to cover the mortgage. Then we would be back together. We called it the “year of sacrifice.” We really did think within a year we would be able to make this happen. Lots of people when they start new businesses are delusional, just like us. Plus we were in the recession. So that year of sacrifice turned into almost five years; we were living apart for almost five years. It took us a long time to get to a point where we could cover all of our expenses. Actually, we weren’t to that point until we won The Amazing Race.
That’s a fascinating story. Tell us about your reality show, The Fabulous Beekman Boys, and how that came to be?
Brent: We started a blog. On the train coming from the city up to the farm on Friday nights, we would write all we hoped to accomplish on the farm--we want to plant this, we want to do this and what not. Then on Sunday nights on the way back to the city we would blog about what we actually accomplished. As we started planting our garden, we started making up recipes. The President of what was then the Planet Green channel, somehow was clued into our website or found our website and sent us an email saying, “It’s very interesting what you guys are doing. Can you come in and talk to us?” We just thought they wanted us to blog for them about life on the farm. We went in to talk to them and they said “You know what? You guys would make a very interesting reality show.” We really didn’t want to do a reality show, because we watch reality; we watch Housewives and what not. We didn’t want to come off looking crazy. We certainly didn’t want our neighbors looking crazy. They hooked us up with World of Wonder, the production company. We met with them and just felt really comfortable they were going to present our community and us in a positive way, so we agreed to do it and it was great. It has shown a spotlight on this area of the country, which for so many years has been very impoverished because it’s been mostly agricultural.
Is this Sharon Springs?
Brent: Yes! Now we have people from all over the world who make pilgrimages here because they’ve seen the show. So it’s just been amazing for the community.
You grow a great proportion of your own food, correct?
Brent: Right now we are growing or raising about 80% of all the food we consume.
You also sell goat milk soaps and cheeses. What else do you sell?
Brent: Well, lots of stuff. If you go to our website you can click on the SHOP section, and you’ll see all the stuff we do, but from the farm we do goat milk cheeses, goat milk soaps, goat milk caramel, goat milk fudge and goat milk lotions. We just launched our tomato sauce, using heirloom tomatoes. We do a whole host of things.
You also have a store?
Brent: Yes, we have a physical store in the village of Sharon Springs. Back at the turn of the 20th century, in the early 1900s, Sharon Springs was one of the most prominent spa destinations in the world because it is one of the only places in the world – well, it is the only place in the world - where there are three distinct mineral springs. There is a sulphur spring, an iron spring and a magnesium spring. So people would come to take the waters. The New York Times would send up a society columnist and they would be here all summer reporting on the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers and all those people. Then The Great Depression hit and things dwindled. So now you just have all these huge, old hotels and guest houses that, for the most part, are just abandoned. We started our business from our house. We would pack, wrap and ship everything out from the farm. As we grew, that was no longer feasible because it was just taking over the hallway and the dining room; everything was covered with packaging and boxes. We needed to find warehouse space. We started looking at some buildings just outside of town. There was this huge, old hotel on Main Street that was empty. So we were like, well, why don’t we move our operation into that building and that would help bring some life into that part of Main Street.
Are you both in the same city now?
Brent: Yep, so after winning the Amazing Race, Josh moved here full time as of Christmas. So we’re now here full time working on the business together.
What are you most proud of?
Brent: Oh, by far I’m proudest of being a part of the revitalization of this community and seeing so many people, both long term residents of the village and new people, who have moved here really working together to revitalize this community. It was impoverished and down-trodden. I think one of the most positive outcomes from the show, aside from having people come to visit from far away, is that it showed people in the community how beautiful and special the place that they were living actually is. When you are living in a place you take things for granted or you don’t see the beauty around you because you are so mired in your own little world. So for them to see their community reflected on TV and to see people from around the world commenting on what an amazing place it is really made people inspired to want to work harder to bring it back to life. I think that’s what we are most proud of. Right now we are getting ready to prepare for our festivals. We do three festivals a year. The next one is the Garden Party Festival (June 1st and 2nd). We’ll probably have about 8,000 people come to the village during that weekend. The bigger festival, which is the Harvest Festival in September, we’ll probably have about 10 to 12,000 people here for that. This is only a village of 500 people, so it’s a huge thing to have that many people come here. Back in Sharon Springs’ hay day, the summer months (when the spas were open) saw 90,000 people here. We are trying to work our way back.
I applaud your efforts to revitalize the area where you live. From a professional standpoint, what is next for you guys?
Brent: Well, our next cookbook comes out this holiday season, Beekman 1802 Heirloom Desserts, so we will be touring around for that. People can look out on our website to see if we’re coming to a place near them. Then we are just continuing to grow the business. The “Mortgage Lifter” tomato sauce that we just launched was really successful. Twenty five percent of the profits of that go to help other small farms pay off their mortgages. So what we want to do is expand that line of products into other things, kind of like what Newman’s Own did. We want to do the same thing, so that ultimately five or ten years from now, we have a whole line of products, all of which are contributing to keep small scale farming alive in America.
Congratulations and thank you again for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with Proud Times!
For more information on The Beekman Boys or to shop, please visit their website at www.beekman1802.com.