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.
"Here is a very easy way to help," he said, pointing to Thornton's "Boutique Cow Dairy" campaign on Kickstarter.
Thornton's ancestors, the Marshall brothers, immigrated from Ireland and established the family ranch in 1852. Along with the dairy, they raised beef cattle, grew wheat and potatoes and in the 1870s built a hotel on Tomales Bay. The town of Marshall is named for them.
When her grandfather died, Thornton's father needed to sell the dairy cows in 2001 to pay estate taxes. Thornton said her family was able to keep the ranch by eventually selling a conservation easement for the land to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.
After high school, Thornton attended Santa Rosa Junior College and graduated with an animal science degree from Chico State University.
She decided to raise dairy sheep after tasting sheep cheese during a study abroad trip to Italy. The cheese surprised her for its mild, creamy and complex tastes.
But sheep provide dairy milk only six months a year. The dairy cows will provide milk all year long.
Thornton said she will start by selling milk to Bleating Heart Cheese, a creamery operated at the ranch by owners Seana Doughty and Dave Dalton. Eventually she would like to branch out and make her own cheese and yogurt products under the brand of Marshall Home Ranch - Dairy.