By Claire Fortier and Katie Hoffman
Jil and Brooks Davis were high school sweethearts. They fell in love with each other passing notes in class. Jil laughs and says, “Brooks likes to tell people that we had chemistry between us, because we met in Chemistry class. He’s been telling that joke for 20 years now!”
As they look out over about 230 head of cattle grazing contently in thick meadows, the Davises of ThorneBrook Farms explain that from the beginning, their plan included becoming independent cattle farmers with their very own farm, herd, and home. “We are first-generation farmers,’ says Jil. “We started our herd from the ground up.” They began 14 years ago with a herd of 16 on 40 acres of leased land. Now, they graze over 200 head of cattle on about 500 acres. And they recently bought a farm in Cumberland County, where they are restoring a 4000-square-foot home and figuring out where to put the gardens and fences and, of course, some animals.
Brooks didn’t grow up on a farm, but he has always wanted to be a farmer. “He worked for several local farmers when he was in high school, helping with cattle and with hay and other crops,” Jil says. “Brooks was always serious about this. So he went to Virginia Tech and majored in Agribusiness. He’s doing what he was meant to do.”
Jil, who grew up on what she calls a “hobby farm,” loves animals and originally intended to go to veterinary school. But taking a few courses in bookkeeping introduced her to her true passion. She worked as a professional bookkeeper for others as she and Brooks saved money and followed their long-term plan to be full-time farmers. Now, she’s not only the bookkeeper for ThorneBrook Farms, but she’s also the marketer, and social media guru. She’s responsible for the beautiful pictures on the ThorneBrook Farms website and social media accounts. She’s also a writer who offers thoughtful entries on her blog, using her farm, family and faith as inspiration.
For Brooks, the climb from farm hand to farmer was slow, steady, and sweaty. He created a landscaping business and worked full time to make money. The couple stayed focused on the future, starting a plan for their farm in 2006 and buying their first cattle in 2007. That was the inception of the side hustle that has now become ThorneBrook Farms.
In 2009, “everything started changing,” said Brooks, including how he was raising his cattle. “I was raising grass-based cattle but there were some conventional methods in there.” As they learned more about sustainable farming, Brooks and Jil began to lean more in that direction. “We are people of faith, so we began praying about what to do. We’re also clean eaters, so making this change fit with our lifestyle. We wanted to offer others the kind of meat that we wanted to eat ourselves.”
Brooks and Jil spent their precious spare time reading up on sustainable methods in publications like The Stockman Grass Farmer, a magazine that’s been around since 1947 and is now edited by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. Salatin’s ideas have been a great inspiration to the Davises. So have other luminaries of the sustainable farming movement, including Ian Mitchell Innes of South Africa, Greg Judy of Green Pastures Farm in Missouri, and Sandy Fisher of Brookview Farm in Goochland.
Just as he had always dreamed, Brooks is now a full-fledged, full-time farmer. His love of what he does comes through when he talks about the animals. “One thing that I like about our beef,” Brooks explains, “is that they were conceived here and raised here. We even know what their mommas ate! These cows have 500 acres and no stress.” An active member in the Virginia Biological Farming Association, Brooks raises his beef organically--no pesticides or antibiotics, all grass-fed and finished. Over the years, he’s developed his own systems of watering and rotational grazing, resulting in lush meadow and grasslands. The cattle, able to move about freely and pick at the grass, thrive.
This year, the couple decided to “step out on faith,” as they describe it. “We are going to do it on our own,” says Jil. ThorneBrook Farms is now officially Brooks’s full-time occupation. Soon, they will move from their rented home in Goochland to their fixer-upper in Cumberland. Since they can’t keep all of their cattle on the 54 acres at their new place, they’ll leave most of them in Goochland, on 500 acres of leased land near Manakin.
As a longtime member who purchases most of her groceries through our online farmers market, Jil is excited about the fact that Cumberland has a pickup location for her weekly market haul. She’s also excited about becoming a producer. “I’ve always wanted to have a little store,” says Jil. “Now we can do it through Fall Line Farms and Local Roots! I’ve always loved that I can choose just what I wanted from the market. And we know most of the farmers, so we know that we have great colleagues.”
Though it makes Jil laugh when she talks about it, there really is substance to Brooks’ claim about good chemistry. The Davises definitely have it. And they are such a good fit for our market that we’re confident in the good chemistry they’ll bring as producers, too. Welcome, ThorneBrook Farms.
ThorneBrook Farm appears for the first time on our buying pages this week, offering their beautiful grass-fed beef, along with farm-oriented mugs and t-shirts. This fall, they may also offer fresh lamb as a seasonal item. Please check out their page.