'There's a story in the land'

As a young boy growing up on his family’s small ranch a few miles outside of Rio Vista, Ryan Mahoney naturally helped out with jobs on the main ranch of vast acreage located on remote Goose Haven Road in Solano County.

Once he was old enough, “I decided I didn’t want to do all that manual labor, so I got a job waiting tables in town until I went off to college,” recalls Ryan, now 39.

After graduating from Rio Vista High School, he went off to Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon on a football scholarship. In addition to his athletic pursuits, he soon became deeply interested in religious studies, after taking some courses in first century Christianity and Judaism from noted Professor Robert Kugler.

After he transferred on a redshirt year to St. Mary’s College in Moraga and studied in Rome through Loyola University of Chicago, a critical juncture in his life came in the summer between his sophomore and junior years. St. Mary’s canceled its football program and he decided to pursue a religious studies major for his degree.

At about that same time, his grandfather, Richard Emigh, who had led Emigh Livestock for decades, Ryan’s mother, Christine, and his grandmother, Faye Emigh (who died in September 2022), asked him to consider learning the business and eventually taking over the ranch operations. “Since I had a giant stack of job offers waiting for me as a religious studies major,” Ryan laughs, “I thought I’d better take the solid one offered to me.”

Fast forward to the present, Ryan is now president and CEO of the company, which employs more than 20 people, with the main office in downtown Rio Vista. On the dryland pasture near Rio Vista, they raise Wagyu-bred cows, Angus-bred cows and breeding ewes. On the feedlot outside of Dixon, they custom feed commercial lambs from all over the western United States, resulting in quality natural and antibiotic-free animals.

Emigh Livestock traces its roots to 1877, when the Emigh family first settled in the hills near Rio Vista. They farmed and raised sheep for nearly 100 years, before Richard (third generation) incorporated in 1977 and began growing the company to include irrigated pasture, the commercial feedlot, and the company’s first cow and calf herd. At present the company is the largest it’s ever been.

Ryan met his wife, Kelli, at St. Mary’s College and they were married there later by Father Avram Brown (now pastor of St. Isidore Parish in Yuba City). They have three children: McKayla, 13, Emily, 11, and Connor, 8. The Mahoneys are involved in many activities as members of St. Joseph Parish, and Kelli teaches freshman English at Rio Vista High School.

The first time Ryan brought Kelli, who is from Atwater in the Central Valley, to meet his family, even though “she knew about rural areas, it was a bit funny, as she wondered where I was taking her into the middle of nowhere,” he says. “Later on when we were talking about marriage, of course she had to agree to live in Rio Vista.”

Carrying on the tradition of the ranch and related businesses “was a big question for me,” Ryan says. “It’s so very difficult for ranches to stay in a family for multiple generations due to many factors – family dynamics and estate tax rules, among other issues.

“We’ve been extremely blessed in our family – our ability to maintain, all the way up to the present day,” he adds. “Before I was in college, working on the ranch was just work to me – I didn’t understand what the work meant. When I decided to take this on, that’s when it became very personal to me. I realized that I was part of something much bigger than myself. A farm and the opportunity to work with animals, the environment and nature, and then to do so with a family heritage – it’s been an incredible blessing. It’s both a blessing and a responsibility.”

Ryan identifies with the British author, James Rebanks, who wrote “The Shepherd’s Life” in 2015 about his family’s small sheep farm in England. Rebanks writes about continuity, roots and a sense of belonging in an age that’s increasingly about mobility and self-invention, and a way of life essentially unchanged for centuries in an era that’s all about change and flux.

“He (Rebanks) makes the point that when specific animals have been grazing the same pasture for generations, and when a shepherd/rancher participates in that, their story is imprinted in the history of that land,” Ryan notes. “So when I’m on our ranch, and I see the ground in all seasons of the year, there’s a story there. There’s a story in the land and it expresses itself in the animals and in the environment. To be able to participate in that is one of the greatest privileges of my life.”

On a day when he’s taken numerous calls on his cell phone while driving across the ranch, “I also have to be attentive to the business side,” he says. “It’s easy to romanticize or make this into a fantasy. People might think I’m out here staring at the sheep all day. That’s nothing like farming or ranching. Farming and livestock agriculture are life and death. It’s the whole cycle. You have a job and you have a duty to see it to the end, so you are going to experience the whole breadth and depth of life. You can’t pretend that death doesn’t exist on a ranch. It’s an integral part. It’s easy to idealize it to remove that part, but every year the grass grows and every year it dies, and same with the animals.”

Ryan says his favorite time of year is the fall, when more than 5,000 lambs are born on the ranch within a month’s time. The ranch lies within the vista of wind turbines south of Rio Vista and majestic Mount Diablo in the distance. “My family is here on the weekends. The kids learn to drive the tractors; they help with the lambs, and learn how to do bottle feeding. We work seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. I love the work. I love the lambs. I love the life. Like anything, there are a lot of challenges, but to me it’s the most beautiful time.”

Change is inevitable, but Ryan relies on his faith in God. “As a Catholic, your faith connects with everything you do; life is all about change. Every generation is going to make sustainable decisions. A lot of the ranching practices haven’t changed, because a sheep is still a sheep. But our ability to manage them changes with new technology and with different kinds of grazing patterns, you can do better – you can do more as a single person than before, but the basics are the same today as they were 5,000 years ago.”

One way he expresses his faith is “in the people we work with, the way you value and interact with them, you show that their human dignity comes from our ability to do work. We are created in the image and likeness of God, our creator, and much of that is expressed in our ability to assist in creation. You aren’t creating from nothing, but you are taking a seed and planting it and growing it into something different. You’re taking a sheep and turning it into two sheep through different stewardship practices. So we enter into the God-given dignity found within work. We work together as a team. You see persons for persons, recognize their dignity and treat our people like family.”

In the past few years, a new chapter has opened up for Ryan and Kelli, as Ryan discerns with his family about future ordination to the permanent diaconate for the diocese. At first that meant discussions with his family and friends, a recommendation from his pastor, Father Mervin Concepcion, orientation, application, evaluation and interviews. He is currently an aspirant in formation, immersed in theological studies, retreat weekends and small group meetings.

“Prayer drives a lot of the process,” he notes. “Discernment is best done in community, so it’s also being willing to ask questions of people who will tell you the truth. My wife and kids talk daily about what we should do, because it’s a big commitment on our family’s part.

“I try to answer God’s call for that day, and not get too committed ahead,” Ryan reflects. “It’s little by little, step by step, live the journey and focus on the goals. Don’t forget God in everything and don’t be overwhelmed by the daily demands. Just try to be present.

“If God wants me to become a deacon, he will do it on his time, his space, his journey. I just need to make sure I'm walking the journey he wants for me. So I focus on am I walking, am I neglecting my family or my business? What about the people who are dependent on me? I am answering his call and taking these steps. Are we on the right path today? Has God been at work in our life and we can see the fruits of that? I work on the walk each day and don’t worry too much about the road ahead.”


Catholic Herald Issue