The celebrity farmers are on a mission to fix the broken food system.
The celebrity farmers are on a mission to fix the broken food system.
May 13, 2016
Every time an employee at the Beekman 1802 Mercantile utters the phrase “lifestyle brand,” they have to put a quarter in a jar. This version of a swear jar is a perfect example of what makes Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge, AKA the Fabulous Beekman Boys, unique.
When Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge left their fast-paced life in Manhattan to start a farm in a 200-year-old farmhouse in upstate New York, it wasn’t with the intention of creating a mega-brand. But since then, the couple has gone on to star in their own reality TV series, write a series of books, launch a quarterly magazine, and a new line of home and farm products with Target. They were also the winners of the 2012 season of CBS’ “Amazing Race.” But in addition to making a profit, Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge say they hope to help fix a broken food system. We dove a little deeper with these celebrity farmers to hear about their latest efforts to support small farmers.
How did you get started working in the food?
We moved to our farm, Beekman 1802, in 2009 and started growing most of our own food. It’s primarily a goat dairy, so our first commercial product was goat milk cheese. We then started making jams, condiments, and honey that could pair well with our cheeses, and our product line grew from there. In 2012, we started growing Mortgage Lifter heirloom tomatoes on our farm and jarring a pasta sauce. We made the pledge to give 25 percent of the profits of the sale of the sauce to help other small farms.
As part of the Mortgage Lifter Project, each year several small farms are awarded “Lifts” to support projects on their farms that have proven to be viable business models. So far, we’ve given away over $60,000. It was the Mortgage Lifter sauces that first caught the attention of the folks at Target, and they asked if we would work on a collection of food products for them. Working with small manufacturers and small farms across America, we developed the Beekman 1802 Farm Pantry at Target. What is unique about this project is that not only do we attempt to source [at least 10 percent] of the ingredients in each jar from small American farms, but we also give a portion of the sales back to the Mortgage Lifter Project.
Can you tell us any more about how much of the profits are going to small farmers?
We have been making the pasta sauces for about three years now and have the process completely worked out—and for those we give back an exact 25 percent of the profits. Since the rest of the items are still new on the shelves, and we are still working through production and costing, we don’t have enough data yet to know how each item will net out, but our hope is to hit that same giveback goal.
What inspires you to do your work?
We became farmers out of necessity. We both lost our jobs in the midst of the recession in 2008 and decided to change our lives. Moving from NYC to a rural agricultural town made us appreciate the importance of community but also the struggle that small family farms face. The average small farm in the U.S. makes less than $10,000 each year. If you think about that farmer who works to plant, grow, harvest, and then sit at a farmers’ market on the weekend to sell his goods—that’s a lot of work for very little return. That farmer wants to send his/her child to college too. That farmer wants to have something for retirement. For so long, Americans have not paid the true cost of food. The demand for cheaper and cheaper things is what has led to products full of fillers and corn syrup. We’d like to help educate the consumer on why it’s important to place a higher value on the foods that they bring into their homes.
In that case, why did you decide to work with Target, which is known for selling a lot of cheap food?
I think that is a mischaracterization of Target. While Target offers economical options for their guests, they sell groceries just like every grocery store, and the truth is that even with the fantastic growth of farmers’ markets and the “buy local” movement, the vast majority of the food Americans eat is purchased within the center aisles of the grocery store. In order for our project to take hold and to have the chance to move the needle in any meaningful way, we needed to have a partner that could provide visibility and help us achieve economies of scale.
What have been your most difficult challenges in your work so far?
As a small company trying to source ingredients from small farms, there are lots of production inefficiencies that we have to overcome to make it work. Honestly, without the support of a partner as large as Target and the economies of scale that this enables, we would not be able to grow the program. Just creating and sourcing packaging and labeling for a product is almost an insurmountable financial burden for small producers.
What do you think is some of the most exciting work going on in our food system at large?
We love the continued growth of farmers’ markets, CSAs, and the farm-to-table movement. Last year, farmers’ markets in the U.S. brought in around $1 billion in total revenue. However, we have to compare that to the $600 billion that consumers spent shopping in the packaged food section of the grocery store. Until we can find a way to get small farms represented here—where the majority of Americans buy their food—we cannot make a difference. We have actually been very impressed by the team at Target.
From their mandates for third-party claims verification (gluten free, non-GMO, organics, etc.) to their Made to Matter initiative to their willingness to provide a lot of marketing support for our own project, these are things that one might expect from a more niche retailer like Whole Foods, but not from a mass retailer. Target realizes that it’s the decisions that companies of their size make that actually helps move the needle.
What is the most important change you would like to see in the food system in the next 5-10 years?
On a whole, we need to change our value systems in America. People must understand what real food costs to produce and also be willing to pay for it. Right now as a society we tend to value things like a new TV or a new smartphone, and our desire for those things is greater than our desire for better food.
What would our readers be surprised to learn about you and your business?
Everyone (especially those who don’t work in farming) is always surprised to learn that we still manage our farm operation with just three people, the two of us and Farmer John [Hall]. Farmer John does all the animal care, Josh does all the vegetable gardening, and Brent does the flower gardens and all the rest of the ground maintenance.
What advice do you have for farmers hoping to make a living the old-fashioned way, without a retail outlet or television career?
The great thing right now is that simpler, more authentic living is of the Zeitgeist, so in that sense there has been no better time to start a farm-based business. But there are two parts to that: farm and business. To manage the business side of things you have to think about the business as much as you do the pure joy of farming. You have to think about marketing, social media, and design because ultimately you want to be able to sell the things that you produce. If those are things that are not in your wheelhouse, or you don’t have the time to do them appropriately, then find the right person to do that part of the equation. You have to have someone who can grow the fruit, but also someone who can bake the pie.
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