Farmer Feature: Thornfield Farm

May 31, 2021 by


Layla Khoury-Hanold


Susanna Thornton never envisioned farming as her future, despite growing up on a farm where her parents raised dairy and meat cows. She spent her formative childhood years here with her siblings, then left home after high school to study Spanish and Chinese at The University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. So, returning to her family’s land in Fincastle, Virginia and starting Thornfield Farm, which she co-owns with her partner, Alex, and raising her own daughter, Diotima, here, is a full- circle moment.

After graduating college in 2008, she headed to New Orleans to work for the Democratic party. She then parlayed that into a career in D.C., where she worked in public policy lobbying for non-profit education reform. Next, she headed west to work for Reading Partners, a San Francisco non-profit dedicated to improving literacy rates in low-income neighborhoods. At that time, Thornton says, “I was in my twenties thinking about who I wanted to be. The city was not for me and I felt a calling back to the East Coast.”

During a fateful visit to an organic vegetable farm in Maine, where she was attending a friend’s wedding, Thornton discovered a different farming model. She then moved to Maine to work at Six River Farm, located on the shores of Merrymeeting Bay. Here, Thornton saw a different way to be a farmer and developed a deep appreciation for quality, locally grown food. Armed with a new philosophy and a renewed sense of home, she returned to Virginia.

“I tried to copy the playbook from Maine, unsuccessfully,” Thornton says with a rueful laugh. “Virginia is very different than Maine.”

She goes on to explain that in Maine, the loamy soil is soft, workable, and full of naturally rich organic matter. Because of its proximity to the bay, Six River Farm has a high water table, so the farm needs very little irrigation. Plus, the harsh winters kills all the bugs and disease in a way that doesn’t happen in Virginia, although Thornton is quick to point out that Virginia’s warmth and long growing season is also an advantage.

“The biodiversity on our farm is like a jungle; there’s a lot more stuff to deal with,” Thornton says. “It’s a different working experience and I was unprepared for it when I moved back. I’ve learned a lot in the last seven years.”

Thornton describes the area as mountainous and hilly, though she has carved out four to five acres of various smaller plots around the farm that are flat and workable. Here, she grows 50 to 80 different
kinds of vegetables; Thornfield Farm first made its name on the high-quality lettuce available year-round (don’t miss the spicy greens mix). During LEAP’s summer season, look for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and eggplant, and if you’re lucky enough to snag early summer strawberries (and early in the morning on market day), you’ll be rewarded with a sweet, snackable ruby-red treat. Thornton is investing more in fruit crops and has started patches of blueberries and blackberries. Come fall and winter, she’ll harvest staples such as radishes, turnips, kale, spinach, and sweet potatoes.

Flowers are one of Thornton’s passions, and she loves both growing and arranging them, for LEAP market days and retail partners like Crystal Spring Grocery, as well as weddings and events. Some of the specialty blooms include early spring ranunculus; tulips; peonies; lisianthus, a summer highlight; and dahlias in the fall.

Thornton describes herself as the type of person who gets bored easily, so she takes on a new project every year to keep things interesting. But her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Diotima, keeps her on her toes, too.
“There’s something special in childhood having the freedom to be here and safe on the farm and be able to eat anything [that grows here],” Thornton says. “She spends all day, every day with both parents and bounces back and forth. She has already become very self-sufficient and resilient and capable just being on farm.”

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