The Beekman Boys: Brent Ridge (l) and Josh Kilmer-Purcell (r).
Clever branding gives muddy farming some sharp marketing.
The story behind the Beekman 1802 brand began not long ago on a quiet autumn afternoon in 2006, when Manhattanites Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell took an unexpected turn during an upstate apple picking expedition. They literally stumbled upon the town of Sharon Springs and, more specifically, the estate of the late William Beekman, a prominent 19th-century county judge and merchant. A few weeks later they placed a bid on the unoccupied property, and shortly thereafter it was home. They were soon joined unexpectedly by a herd of goats and their caretaker. Josh and Brent would come to be known “the Beekman Boys;” with a high learning curve, they embarked on the transition from their jobs in New York City to a life of learning how to be “Gentlemen Farmers” in Central New York.
Since the brand’s founding the couple — who were married this past summer, incidentally three days after DOMA was successfully overturned — has traveled well beyond New York’s borders. In 2012 they proved victorious on The Amazing Race by traveling to nine different countries in just three-and-a-half weeks; currently, they are wrapping up a nationwide tour to promote their most recent publication, The Heirloom Dessert Cookbook. Yet home for former Manhattan residents is improbably Beekman Farm, the property behind their Beekman 1802 brand in Sharon Springs, N.Y. (Brent and Josh are childhood natives of North Carolina and Wisconsin, respectively).
The couple cannot emphasize enough how much potential and possibility there is within their adopted home state of New York. “There are so many industries that started here and grew big here,” says Josh. “The people and the ideas and the capabilities are still in New York State, we just need to rev ‘em up again.” It’s a theory that Josh and Brent have proven in just five years.
In 2008, the two men faced the very real prospect of needing to sell the farm they had purchased only one year prior, when Brent was laid off from his job and Josh’s firm lost many clients. At the time, Brent was Martha Stewart Omnimedia’s resident health and wellness expert, better known as “Dr. Brent,” while Josh worked as an advertising executive with major clients (and was also, in a former life, a nightclub drag queen known by the stage name “Aqua”).
“When we moved [to Sharon Springs], we were two city guys who bought a farm; we had no idea how to farm. We lost our jobs … and we wound up having to learn how to be farmers,” recounts Josh. “Our community taught us how to farm, and that’s sort of what really gave us our second career.” Brent and Josh explain that they have “been able to look at farming through different eyes than people who have been farming for generations” in a collaborative way, because the techniques of traditional and contemporary farming really complement each other.
A Main Street Mercantile, several cookbooks, a memoir, a reality television show, and an entire lifestyle brand of products later, the Beekman Boys describe themselves as “a symbol for a lot of people who are starting over, reinventing,” says Josh. “The jobs they had before weren’t ever coming back so they had to find something new to become.” And so their bucolic retreat became a brand, beginning with making “whatever [they could] out of goat milk.”
There is no typical day at Beekman Farm. “Farmer John starts milking at about 3:30 in the morning,” say Brent and Josh of the goats’ caretaker, John Hall. “So we try to get up around the same time as him and start working … we work all day and then Farmer John milks again at about 4 [p.m.]; but we’re working ‘til around sundown every day.” The 88 goats that John first brought to the farm have grown to a herd of over 100. Brent and Josh also like to raise food for their own consumption, so every other year they raise two pigs and occasionally a cow.
Though outnumbered by the goats, one animal rules the Beekman roost: “Resident diva” and star Polka Spot the llama. Acquired by Josh and Brent at four months old when the farm on which she lived closed down, Polka Spot has been cultivated into a brand name. She has staked her claim with a 12,000+ member Facebook fan page (a sounding board for her “opinions” on fashion, punctuated with “llama-vernacular” double-Ls, ex: “Today feells llike a day for wearing pearlls. Who will join me, dhallinks?”) in addition to a comic book series, an iPhone app, and line of clothing and home accessories available in the Beekman 1802 Mercantile.
Even as the brand grows by leaps and bounds, what remains consistent at Beekman 1802 is the authenticity of the mission, the products, and Brent and Josh’s ongoing adventures as gentlemen farmers in the charming (and enchanting) village of Sharon Springs. “I think that we approach our products as storytellers,” Brent explained as we sat in the beautifully restored Beekman mansion. “And so [in] every product that we create, we think about not only the story of its production, and the idea generation, but how does that somehow relate back to where we’re at … everything has to have a story.”
You’ll find evidence of that bona fide narrative in their Mercantile, located on the village’s Main Street. What sets the brand apart from other artisanal and homemade lines is the incorporation of history and heirloom quality in each piece; the brand is based on ideas that are meant to be passed down to others. Heirloom quality is very inherent in the company and its craftsmanship. “Our focus has always been about creating things that are made well enough that they can be passed down to the next generation,” says Brent, speaking about the Beekman 1802 brand. “Or something that is so well-crafted — like a food or a beauty product — that you want to share it with somebody.”
In 1929, for example, one farmer bred a new tomato that turned out to be so successful, it paid off the entire mortgage on his farm. He in turn called it the “mortgage lifter” tomato. A few years ago, the tomato was planted in the Beekman 1802 Heirloom Vegetable Garden, and then prepared and sold as a pasta sauce at the Beekman 1802 Mercantile. “We were just going to be honest about it,” says Josh, “Buy our pasta sauce so we can pay off our mortgage.” Now that Beekman Farm is in the black, 25% of the profits sold from the Mortgage Lifter Tomato sauce go towards helping other small farms with their debt. “It’s a great story that starts way back in 1929, about a tomato that can now help farms today,” says Josh. “And that’s what we think marketing is — is tying these little stories together.”
Much of the success borne of the Beekman 1802 brand might not be possible without Josh and Brent’s prior careers in advertising and lifestyle marketing. “We showed up in Sharon Springs, we met with all these great people, and then we were able to make the connections to the media in New York City,” says Josh. “[That’s] what sort of flipped the light switch with the local economy. So the more those connections can be made between upstate and the City, the better it is for everybody.”
And through cross-marketing with other local small businesses, Beekman 1802 has begun to revive the village’s old reputation as a merchant community. “If one business is successful, then the other businesses should be successful as well,” says Brent. “And you’re not competing against one another.” By maintaining their relationship with the town in way that engages other businesses, they have begun to revive the village’s old reputation as a merchant community.
The Beekman 1802 team’s most recent marketing feat? Their 24 Hour “Last-Night-of-Shipping Phoneathon,” which took place during the week prior to Christmas Day. This clever gimmick engaged shoppers and ensured they received their Mercantile orders in time for the holidays. Upcoming products include amenities for the Andaz hotel and a furniture collection that will launch in February. Expect to see a line of soft home goods and another cookbook later this year.
What is historically known as an old spa town — the eponymous springs were long renowned for their restorative qualities — has once again become a destination, thanks to the countless number of fans of the ever-growing Beekman 1802 brand. During last year’s two-day Beekman-organized, completely authentic, locally sourced Harvest Festival, the village of 547 residents was inundated by over 10,000 guests from all over the world.
As Sharon Springs and its neighboring communities and businesses continue to grow, Brent and Josh a revival of the textiles industry in New York, such as home goods, bedding and furniture, alongside the steadfast small foods and artisanal dairy product movement. “New York State has such a long history and it’s been such a leader in almost every industry for so long,” says Josh. “There are parts of New York that have seen better days, and have lost business, but that infrastructure is still here. And the thinking and the people are still here.”
As we returned to New York City from rainy Sharon Springs, we reflected on Brent’s small town wisdom: “We don’t live in a Utopia. We’re just like any small town, there are differences, and someone’s mad at someone and whatnot—and I would just have to say that you have to put aside those things and always keep your mind on the bigger picture.”
“Everywhere you go in New York, whether it’s in the city, whether it’s in upstate. There’s just so much to be inspired by, and everywhere you look, there’s an idea,” says Brent. “We’ve always said that we were creating a farm that was bigger than our fences.”