When Brent Ridge asks, "Who says gays can't raise kids?" in the premiere episode of "The Fabulous Beekman Boys," he isn’t talking about parenthood. The kids in question are baby goats, some of the livestock Ridge, a doctor, and his life partner Josh Kilmer-Purcell, a Madison Avenue advertising writer and author, are raising to make goat's milk soap and goat cheese on a farm in Sharon Springs, N.Y. If you think this modern "Green Acres" scenario sounds like perfect fodder for a reality show, so does Planet Green, which will debut the first of 10 episodes on June 16. How did two cosmopolitan Manhattanites end up knee deep in fertilizer? Fate had a lot to do with it.
Three years ago, "We were taking a weekend trip into the country and we drove past the Beekman Mansion and fell in love with it," Kilmer-Purcell tells MNN. "After we purchased it a week later, we found a letter in our mailbox from a local farmer named Farmer John who had lost his farm and he had a month to find a new home for his goats. He asked if he could come and be our caretaker and bring his goats with him. So we are literally accidental farmers."
At the time, ad man Kilmer-Purcell, and Ridge, a geriatric medicine specialist and the resident health and wellness expert at Martha Stewart Omnimedia, commuted the 144 miles to the farm on weekends, but "just like many Americans who've had transition periods," Kilmer-Purcell points out, Ridge lost his job and moved upstate full time. "If we were going to keep this place, we had to figure out a way to support it." So two years ago, they launched Beekman 1802, named after the year the mansion was built, and began marketing their artisanal soap via their Website and a newsletter. Now keeping six times as many goats as arrived in the original herd of 20, they've recently expanded their brand to include aged goat's milk cheese.
The farmers also raise pigs and chickens and grow heirloom vegetables for their own consumption and sales to a local restaurant. "Both of us grew up in rural locations. Josh is from Wisconsin and I'm from North Carolina. Both of our families grew vegetable gardens, so we're not complete novices," Ridge points out. "We'd started growing our own food on the rooftop of our apartment building in New York City. We grew tomatoes, peppers, every type of herb we could grow."
That's not to say it's been an easy transition. For now full-time farmer Ridge, it has involved "learning by the seat of your pants, observing a lot, talking to the neighboring farms and trying to figure it all out." Bitter cold temperatures and a house without central heat didn't help. Trying to make the business succeed while living apart raised the pressure several notches. "There are real stakes here," Ridge acknowledges. "If we don't make a success of our business, we're letting a lot of people down in our community and we could lose the farm. This is a make or break year."
Of course, that kind of drama makes for compelling TV. When Planet Green approached them, "We did have to think about it," acknowledges Ridge. "I watch reality TV so I know what it's all about. We were very concerned about how we would be portrayed. So there were a lot of discussions. But ultimately we decided it was a good opportunity to inspire other people to make some of the decisions that we were making, to grow their own food, to support local agriculture, support their community."
Their circumstances have certainly changed since they met online 10 years ago, when Kilmer-Purcell was a drag queen, wearing a costume incorporating live goldfish swimming in a see-through bra. Now he's a best-selling author, whose latest book, "The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers", serves to promote the TV show, and vice versa. "Our relationship has been tested since day one," he declares. "We're both very driven people, and we're making a big change in our life. We call it our year of sacrifice." Ridge thinks viewers going through or contemplating a similar transition "will see themselves in what we're doing."
The fact that they're a gay couple was never an issue for Planet Green, he says. "To their credit, when they green-lit this show, that didn't come into question." Kilmer-Purcell believes "it will be less of a novelty to the viewing public than to the media. We've been completely accepted in a very small rural area, that's solidly Republican. When it comes to neighbors, it doesn't matter if you're Democrat, Republican. We're there for each other."
As for their own relationship, the magnifying lens that is TV has strengthened it, says Ridge, "Because it makes you self-reflective. A lot of times when you're in a long-term relationship as we are, you become lazy about the relationship and sometimes you don't pay attention to things that you say that can be hurtful or argumentative, but seeing the playback, it's real-life therapy."
Their commitment to healthy living and local and organic farming has made them more conscious of eating seasonally. "We have tomatoes for one week out of the year before the frost sets in," confides Kilmer-Purcell, which means lots of canning, pickling, and freezing for future use. "We've learned to take advantage of what the farm is offering that day and appreciate it," he says.
As organic farmers, they eschew pesticides and fertilize their plants with manure from their livestock, and have turned a broken down silo into a giant compost bin and pigsty. Looking ahead, they're contemplating putting solar panels on the barn. "Our ultimate goal with the farm is to make it biodynamic, which is an ambitious undertaking with such an old structure," Ridge realizes, nevertheless ready to take on the challenge. "Our best quality is that when opportunity knocks we take it. We're not governed by fear, which I think hinders a lot of people," he muses. "When there’s something we're passionate about, we go for it," adds Kilmer-Purcell. "That's what we've done all our lives."
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