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Tomales Bay woman launches Kickstarter campaign to revive dairy

  • Marissa Thornton wants to work on the 1,000-acre ranch that her ancestors founded more than 160 years ago above Tomales Bay. She has launched a crowdsourcing campaign to reach her goal. (JOHN BURGESS/Press Democrat)

Marissa Thornton always knew she wanted to work on the 1,000-acre ranch that her ancestors founded more than 160 years ago in the expansive grasslands above Tomales Bay.

Now, with the help of a crowdsourcing campaign, Thornton is gearing up to reopen her family's dairy, which was closed in 2001 when her father sold his milk cows in order to pay estate taxes.

At age 26, she counts herself a sixth-generation dairy farmer.

By Tuesday, Thornton had received more than $27,000 in Kickstarter pledges to help her buy 20 organic Jersey cows. Her goal, which she must reach by 7 p.m. Jan. 25 or receive no funds, is $35,000.

Her plan is to sell the cows' milk to an artisanal cheese maker that last year set up its creamery at the Thornton family ranch southeast of Tomales.

Along with the cows she wants to buy, Thornton in March plans to start milking 108 East Friesian sheep that she already has purchased. The cows would share the ranch with her dairy sheep and with her father Gary Thornton's Black Angus cattle and Dorset/Hampshire cross sheep, which both are raised for meat production.

Thornton smiled when she recalled that her first ancestors in west Marin County ran a small dairy and sold the milk to cheese and butter makers.

“It makes me feel like I'm coming around full circle to what they did when they were here,” she said.

Thornton's efforts have drawn boosters in part because of the difficulty in reviving North Bay dairy operations.

“In most cases, when a dairy sells out in our part of the world, they're gone for good,” said Sam Dolcini, president of the Marin County Farm Bureau.

He speaks from experience. His own family, which had been dairy farming in Marin since the 1850s, also sold its herd in 2001. “We could never figure out a way to get back in,” he said.

Dolcini has been alerting friends to Thornton's Facebook and Kickstarter pages. He notes that the region has lots of city dwellers who buy artisanal products and who want to know what they can do to help local agriculture survive.

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