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Gentlemen Farmers

Gentlemen Farmers


If it seems like you've seen Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell before, you probably have. Ridge, known to Martha Stewart devotees as Dr. Brent, was a frequent guest on Stewart's TV show as her company's vice president of healthy living. And Kilmer-Purcell is an advertising executive, an Out magazine columnist, a contributor to this magazine, and the author of The New York Times best seller I Am Not Myself These Days, a 2006 memoir about his years as a New York City drag queen named Aqua.

Both were incredibly busy guys, with schedules as hectic as the streets outside their Manhattan apartment, when in fall 2007 they rented a car to get out of the city and, by chance, found themselves in front of the Beekman estate, a 205-year-old Georgian/Federal-style mansion and 60-acre farm in Sharon Springs, N.Y.

"We thought it was a museum at first because it was so beautiful and it had one of those historic signs in front of it," Kilmer-Purcell says. "But then we drove a little farther and saw a for sale sign."

A what-if fantasy--the kind you toy with when you buy a lottery ticket--turned into phone calls to a real estate agent and then schmoozing with the home's widowed owner. And before they knew it, these busy city boys were gentlemen farmers and the stars of their own reality TV series, The Fabulous Beekman Boys, which premieres June 16 on the Discovery network's Planet Green channel.

"The Beekman, for us, started out as a weekend place, with the ultimate goal of making it a bio-dynamic farm, meaning that everything we used at the farm was to be derived from the farm," Ridge explains. But within a year of the purchase, he and Kilmer-Purcell were, like almost everyone in the world, hit with the new economic realities of the recession. "So what started out as a weekend place and a sort of play farm had to turn into a business," Kilmer-Purcell says. "We realized we had to make a go of this as a business or we risked losing the farm."

Making a go of it means being apart from each other. Kilmer-Purcell stays in the city during the week to earn a paycheck while Ridge, who quit his job with Martha Stewart, has become a full-time farmer and Sharon Springs resident. "We call it our year of sacrifice," Ridge says of the arrangement, which has now stretched into its 16th month.

When asked the ultimate goal of their year of sacrifice, Kilmer-Purcell says, "What I realized at the end of the first year is that you can set as many goals for yourself as you want. But you're never going to reach the goals you set out because those goals keep changing. So as long as you're in a better place than you were when you started, then you should keep going."

From all outward appearances, the sacrifices have been paying off. The Beekman Mansion has spawned Beekman 1802, a lifestyle company that sells products taken solely from the farm. Its biggest seller--and the product that essentially launched the brand--is goat-milk soap, the demand for which took off after it was introduced on Martha Stewart's TV show (there's no sense in getting rid of your big-city friends just because you've moved to the country). Business is so brisk, Kilmer-Purcell says, that the U.S. Postal Service has suspended plans to close the Sharon Springs post office. "Our mail orders made them busy again," he says.
Mor e Fabulous Beekman Boys

The Fabulous Beekman Boys coincides with the release of Kilmer-Purcell's third book (and second memoir), The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers (Harper). Both TV show and book are as much about the men's relationship as they are about their burgeoning business. Kilmer-Purcell, who is from Oconomowoc, Wis., met Ridge, who is from Randleman, N.C., in 2000, soon after Ridge moved to Manhattan for his medical internship. "We met on," Ridge says, adding that at the time he'd never been on a date or even kissed another man.

"Brent didn't have a profile picture and was afraid to meet me in person," Kilmer-Purcell says. "But I was just finishing up my club days, and I thought, A doctor and new to New York. Sounds pretty good. So I told him, 'Tomorrow night I'm going to be at this subway stop at 8 o'clock, and you're either going to be there or not.' " Ridge was there.

Ten years later the two men have encountered none of the hassles one might expect an openly gay couple might face in rural upstate New York. "We were lucky because our friends Doug and Garth moved here about 13 years ago, when Sharon Springs was well into an economic decline. We call them the 'gay pioneers,' " Ridge says. "They opened a cafe, bought and restored the American Hotel, and helped bring tourists back into town. They're pillars of the community. So when we got here people probably thought, Oh, good! Here come the gays. They're going to fix something else up!"

Because the Beekman is so well-known in town, Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell nevertheless attracted some attention when they moved in--and they were immediately labeled the Beekman Boys. Soon after arriving in Sharon Springs, they received a note in their mailbox from John Hall, known as Farmer John on the show. "It basically read, 'My name is John. I'm a goat farmer, and I need a place for goats. And I'm gay.' " Before long, Hall and goats (80 of them) moved onto the farm (Hall into the caretaker's home and the goats into the red barn), and Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell began helping Hall make a viable business out of his herd.

The experience--and the resulting success of the goat-milk products--has helped turn the Beekman into something of a test case for family-owned farms in the 21st century. "After John moved in we met other farmers who were going out of business and we thought, Maybe we can apply what we know--branding and media, and really that's all we know--to find a new way of farming that other farms can learn from," Kilmer-Purcell says. "So if having a TV show, a book, and luxury soap and artisanal items is the new way to farm that's sustainable, then maybe we're on to something.

Only time--and The Fabulous Beekman Boys, which Planet Green has already picked up for a second season--will tell.
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