The United Nations declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) to highlight the importance of family and smallholder farmers. Food Tank is partnering with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to commemorate IYFF, and will feature weekly posts and other media highlighting the innovations that family farmers are using to alleviate hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation along with the campaigns and policies that support them.
On paper, Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, this week’s Food Heroes, might seem better suited for the boardroom than the barnyard. But Ridge, a physician and former Vice President of Healthy Living for Martha Stewart, and Kilmer-Purcell, a New York Times Bestselling author and former advertising executive, truly epitomize the spirit of family farming.
While living in New York City, Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell purchased the historic Beekman Farm located in Sharon Springs, New York in 2007. Although Beekman Farm was intended as a weekend retreat from the tumult of city life, it soon became their lifeline. Months later, as the economy began to crumble, both men lost their jobs within a month of each other. This challenge, however, provided the opportunity for Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell to delve into farming, their true passion, full-time.
To avoid foreclosure, they realized that they would have to transform Beekman Farm from a vacation home into a profitable enterprise. To achieve this end, they turned to their neighbors for advice and assistance, and before long were producing cheeses and other goods for sale in local markets. Since then Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell – the “Beekman Boys” – have expanded not only their product line, but also their representation in the artisanal foods market. Beekman 1802 has been called “one of the fastest-growing lifestyle brands in the United States,” and the duo is living proof that smallholder farms can thrive and flourish in America today.
In addition to winning the reality show competition The Amazing Race in 2012 and landing their own program on the Cooking Channel this past June, Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell were presented with a Farmer of the Year Award by the USDA. Ridge recently spoke with Food Tank to discuss sustainable business models for farming and how tomato sauce may help save homes.
What was your reaction to being recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for your work, and what role do you see public institutions playing in the success of the American farmer today?
We were so honored to be recognized by the USDA. Most Americans think that the USDA exists only to support large-scale agribusiness. While agri-business is important as a means to support the country’s growing population so, too, are the small and medium-sized farms that form the backbone of so many American communities.
What is your response to those who claim that being a smallholder farmer is economically unsustainable in America today?
Starting any business is difficult. Starting a farm-based business is even more so because of the low [profit] margins and the capital-intensive nature of the business, and so many variables that are beyond a farmer’s control. We have been very clear about our struggles, even documenting it throughout The Fabulous Beekman Boys TV show and our memoir, The Bucolic Plague. However, it is possible for small-scale farming to be a sustainable business model, but you really have to focus on listening to what the customer wants and being very in-tune and involved in your community. You also have to pay attention to the marketing trends that are being driven by larger entities and figure out how you can latch onto those movements. Lastly, value-added products are essential. How can you turn the low-margin product that you are growing or raising into a more valued product for the consumer?
Can you tell us a bit about the idea for your “Mortgage Lifter” plan? Where did it emerge from and where do you see it heading in the future?
The mortgage on Beekman Farm was like a noose around our neck. While we were growing our Beekman 1802 business to be profitable, it was still difficult to stay far enough ahead and still cover mortgage expenses. We were so blessed to have won The Amazing Race–a victory which we used to pay off our mortgage–and then wanted to do something to help other small farms with their mortgages. We’ve launched a line of products in which 25 percent of the profits will go to help small farms with proven and successful business models to pay down their mortgages. Our first products are in the tomato-sauce category (the heirloom Mortgage Lifter tomato being the namesake), but we eventually hope to expand that line across a wide range of [product]s similar to what Newman’s Own has done. All products will have the same philanthropic mission.
You are white collar NYC transplants who now live in rural upstate New York. What promise does Beekman Farm have for less privileged urban populations back in the city?
We like to say that Beekman Farm actually started on our rooftop in New York City. And it did. The first tomato crops we ever grew were on the 14th story of a building on the corner of 63rd Street and Third Avenue. It’s tremendously important for children, particularly those with disadvantaged backgrounds, to learn the difference between healthy foods and processed food.
What are some of the ways in which you minimize food and resource waste on the Farm?
Our ultimate goal at Beekman is to be biodynamic. It’s a lofty goal, and we will be working towards that for a long time, but the majority of our animals are pasture-fed, we have a large compost bin constructed in the base of an old grain silo that alternates as our pig pen (the pigs are natural diggers and help keep the compost turned), and we utilize both solar and wind energy
In short, how is what you are doing at the Beekman Farm changing our food system?
Right now, we raise or grow about 80 percent of all the food that we personally consume. If we can inspire a small number of Americans and communities to do even a fraction of that, it will make a huge impact.