Hero Image

Marissa Thornton Kickstarts New Enterprise on the Family Farm

Marissa Thornton_horiznotal
By Lisa Bush, Agricultural Ombudsman

Sixth generation Tomales rancher Marissa Thornton speaks about paying homage to her ancestors when asked why she decided to revive the family dairy that closed in 2001. Marissa and her sister Brianna make up the youngest generation of the Marshall/Thornton family, which settled the town of Marshall and the Thornton Ranch in 1852. With Brianna working as the Marketing Manager of a major shopping center, the key to keeping the family ranch operating into the future lay in Marissa’s hands.

Fortunately, from the time she was a small child, Marissa knew that she wanted to stay on the ranch and continue her family’s agricultural tradition. Working alongside her father and grandfather, who inherited the ranch from two Marshall aunts, Marissa always felt at home working out in the fresh air with the cattle and sheep that graze on about 1,000 acres of pasture.

With a degree in Animal Science from Chico State University, a father who encouraged her interest in ranching, lots of determination, and help from a wide range of supporters, Marissa will soon be milking cows on the Thornton Ranch, where a dairy operated continuously for 149 years until her father Gary was forced to sell the herd to pay estate taxes.

Marissa and cow
During an internship in the UCCE Marin office right after finishing college in 2010, Marissa’s interest in keeping the family ranch going was apparent to her UCCE co-workers who looked for ways to support her. As the Marin County Agricultural Ombudsman, Marissa contacted me in 2012 about permits needed to open a dairy and build a creamery. This sparked the beginning of a relationship that culminated with development of a small creamery and “boutique dairy.”

As a first step, UCCE Marin County Director Dave Lewis and I facilitated a visit from Regional Water Quality Control Board staff to evaluate the existing dairy waste disposal system. The Regional Board eventually granted permission to use the waste disposal system, clearing a major permitting hurtle and allowing Marissa to focus on moving her project forward.

Meanwhile, Seana Doughty and Dave Dalton of Bleating Heart Cheese, who were searching for a site to relocate their creamery, signed a lease for part of a former dairy building on the Thornton Ranch. A new creamery was built with extensive permitting assistance through UCCE Marin and the Marin Community Development Agency, and it will be leased to Bleating Heart for five years. After that, Dave and Seana may need a larger facility, in which case the creamery will be turned over to Marissa. But no one is certain what the future holds. Dave and Seana may stay on, possibly sharing the creamery with Marissa who plans to make cheese one day. At this point “neither one is predicting what will happen” Marissa said.

Bleating Heart produces sheep milk cheese but has wanted to branch out with cow milk cheese for some time. It’s difficult for cheese makers who don’t have their own dairies to obtain cow milk, as traditional dairies sell their milk through contracts with larger milk plants, such as Clover, Organic Valley and Horizon. Marissa’s new cows will solve that problem.  As well as providing Bleating Heart with much of its milk supply, Marissa works part-time in the creamery, learning about cheese production so that in the future she can make her own cheese.

“I always had a vision of wanting to bring our ranch back to what it was when my ancestors were here” said Marissa when asked why she wanted to restart the dairy. “I want to come full circle - producing the milk for the cheese, and being able to put the Marshall name on a product to showcase my family’s dairying tradition.”

Seana, who came up with the term “boutique dairy”, shot the Kickstarter project video on her iPhone for Marissa’s “boutique dairy” crowd funding campaign. With nearly $50,000 from Kickstarter to invest in her project, Marissa is shopping for Jersey cows, installing a new milk tank, and just purchased a grain tank for storing feed.

Marissa’s short-term plans are to milk the 108 East Friesian dairy sheep that she has acquired over the past two years and start her Jersey cow herd with 10 animals, growing the herd to 20 by the end of the year. She’ll soon have her hands full with milking six days a week, dairy bookkeeping and management, and helping Seana make cheese.

Marissa is a serious and focused young rancher, but she always smiles when speaking about the ranch, her heritage, and carrying on the agricultural tradition. I asked her what the most rewarding thing about all of this is. “Knowing that I’m carrying on the ranch to another generation – that it doesn’t end with me – I’m bringing it back to what it was in the beginning and whatever obstacles I face are nothing compared to those my ancestors faced when they came here from Ireland” she replied. Then she raced off, hopped on her 4-wheeler and sped away down a dirt road. Work was waiting for her.

Now, thanks to help from UCCE Marin and many others, the Thornton Ranch once again supports an operating dairy, Marissa Thornton has a bright future on the family ranch, and has a market for her milk 100 feet away at the Bleating Heart creamery. Marissa is truly paying homage to her ancestors because her 21st century boutique dairy is similar to dairies of past centuries in size, and in the fact that her milk will be processed on-site into a farmstead product, eventually stamped with the proud Marshall name.