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Thornton Ranch, Tomales


Save More Farms - donate nowThornton Ranch was settled nearly 160 years ago by Gary Thornton’s ancestors, the Marshall family, as part of the family’s vast original land holdings that once stretched from Bodega Bay to the town of Marshall (which they founded).

Thornton Family

When Gary’s father died in 2000, enormous estate taxes forced Thornton to sell off his dairy herd and nearly sell part of the property to developers in order to protect the rest. It would have been an inglorious demise of a farm with such rich history. As Gary said, “once it’s covered over, it’s not so easy to pull up asphalt and concrete.”

Together, Gary and MALT navigated complex legal and tax options over nearly a decade and, in the end, successfully protected the ranch in perpetuity in August 2011.

The Property

The 1,013-acre Thornton property maintains a sense of remoteness rarely experienced in today’s Bay Area. The emblematic rolling green hills are accessible by a narrow, 1.8 mile-long road that stretches and winds past towering eucalyptus and fields of lambing ewes and Black Angus cattle. On a clear day the ranch commands sweeping views reaching the Pacific Ocean to the west, and to the northeast, the geothermal steams of Geyserville.

MALT's protection of the Thornton Ranch is part of a 9,800-acre agricultural greenbelt around Tomales. But more than that, the Thornton ranch will be around for generations to come.

A New Generation

Marissa Thornton at the new dairyToday Gary's youngest daughter, Marissa Thornton, is deep in milk and enthusiasm for the future. She is the sixth generation of the family to steward this land.

Marissa dreamed of bringing the shuttered dairy back to life, so with a business plan in her pocket she launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to buy a herd of Jersey cows. Her plan resonated so strongly with donors that she exceeded her goal by nearly $15,000.

Gary helped Marissa select her cows and taught her how to milk them. "When my dad had the cow dairy I would watch him and help out when I could, but I had never actually milked a cow before. So he showed me step-by-step how he would clean the teats and attach the machines, post dip them, etc. He said it brought back a lot of memories."

These days, Marissa is milking 10 friendly cows and more than 100 sheep purchased with an FSA loan, and piping the milk directly to the cheese vat next door at Bleating Heart. Ten more cows are on the way come fall. Her milk goes on to become coveted artisan cheese in the hands of Bleating Heart's Seana Doughty and Dave Dalton.

Organically, one woman's agricultural passion has stirred up a lot of memories and promise in the North Bay.

"A lot of people have said they want to help make my dreams come true because they could tell I was passionate about agriculture and would hold up my end of the deal, which was really reassuring," said Marissa. "They want to feel like they have a part in this project since it is for the good of agriculture."

How to Purchase Thornton Ranch Products

Thornton Ranch lamb can be found at select Bay Area Whole Foods Markets between May and August each year. Bleating Heart cheese is available through select retailers.

Photos and More

Auto enthusiasts gathered on Thornton Ranch in 2013 to tour the ranch and check out Gary's collection of vintage farm equipment. View photos of MALT's 2013 Vintage Car Drive »

In June 2015, an intrepid group of hikers joined us for the Measure A Thank-You Hike on Thornton Ranch and neighboring Thacher Ranch. View photos »

MALT Corporate Circle members toured Thorton Ranch and Bleating Heart Creamery in 2014. View photos»

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