Running Deer Ranch: Overcoming Obstacles to Fulfill a Family Dream


An engineer decides to pick up his family and move from Los Angeles to Napa County to buy some open land. Some may call that crazy, but for John Ahmann, it was his way of fulfilling a dream passed down to him by his father.

John’s father grew up on a family farm in the Midwest. But like many in the agricultural industry, his family incurred outstanding debt and lost the property and any chance they had at creating their idealistic lifestyle. Instead, they picked up their belongings and headed west toward Los Angeles in a travel trailer in search of a fresh start and stability. They moved from construction site to construction site for almost eight years while John’s father was grading hillsides to be developed and working on major projects for the Corps of Engineers. They finally settled in Westchester, CA, near LAX, and bought their first home.

Hearing stories about the beloved family farm his father grew up on, John jumped at the opportunity to fulfill his father’s dream in the 1970s by purchasing 300 acres of his own in Napa County to start a small cattle herd. The cattle operation, along with starting a company that supplies voting election materials, later financed the purchase of over 3,000 acres of ranchland along Lake Berryessa in 1986, known today as the Running Deer Ranch.

With no prior experience in the ranching industry, John and his wife, Judy, took to organizations like the Napa County Farm Bureau and their local divisions of the Cattlewomen’s and Cattlemen’s Associations to learn the trade. They exposed their three daughters, Christina (Ahmann) Roberts, Anna (Ahmann) Reed, and Erica (Ahmann) Smithies, to a whole new world filled with early mornings and long days caring for livestock.

Image of three women branding cattle
The Ahmann Sisters, Christina, Anna and Erica, working on the Ranch.

Today, the Running Deer Ranch stands at over 3,075 acres of grassy canyons teaming with oak and pine trees and seasonal waterways that provide a picturesque view of Lake Berryessa. In 2010, John and Judy made the decision to conserve 1,275 acres of the property through a conservation agreement with the California Rangeland Trust. The effort was funded by the Department of Conservation and the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) who had a vested interest in the land because of the potential wildlife migration corridor for multiple threatened species and its location along the Lake.

John and Judy’s daughters were involved in the process from start to finish and knew it was the right decision for their family to forever protect the property as a working landscape. Erica, the Ahmann’s youngest daughter, noted “the fear of forcing open land and space to be sold for government use and/or someone forcing it into a subdivision” as the main reason behind the family’s decision to conserve the property. 

With the money the Ahmanns received from the sale of the development rights as part of the conservation agreement, they paid off debt incurred by the ranching operation and put the remaining funds towards the type of regular maintenance that goes along with any agricultural business.

While the Ahmanns have certainly fulfilled their dream of starting a family ranching operation and preserving the land for future generations, their journey has not always been easy. John and Judy’s daughters acquired the ranch from their parents in 2012, and over the last few years, they have faced a number of hardships. In 2018, the County Fire came through the back portion of the property and burned the land completely down to the soil.

“There was so much grass that year in the springtime and we had great feed — when that fire came in, it burned hot and fast,” said Anna, the Ahmann’s middle daughter.

Without much time to recover from the devastation, disaster struck again in 2020 when the LNU Lightning Complex Fire engulfed a portion of the property destroying the new growth after the previous fire.

“When those fires first came through, it was complete devastation,” exclaimed Anna, “but you take a step back and look at the neighbor’s house that is still standing, our house that is still standing and realize we still have a lot, and we are going to make it through.” 

Image of the County Fire raging across the landscpae
In 2018 and again in 2020, disaster struck when wildfires raged through the ranch.

Fortunately, all the structures on the ranch survived the wildfires, which the Ahmann sisters largely credit to the management of the land. As a former firefighter, Christina, the Ahmann’s eldest daughter, understands the benefits of livestock grazing better than most. She knows that proper land management can be the difference between returning to the sight of a family home or a pile of ash and debris after a fire rages through.

“Our ranch, because it is maintained and grazed and it’s the last stop for electricity, ends up being the place where [fire crews] try to stop [the fires] because there’s places they can make a safe haven, if need be,” explained Christina.

In addition to wildfires, the family has also faced drought, excessive heat, and small calf crops due to Foothill Abortion Disease. Through each of these trials and tribulations, the daughters have continued to learn and grow. Their aspirations for the ranch moving forward are to continue to find responsible ways to manage their cattle operation while maintaining the integrity of the land. By working with Rangeland Trust staff and environmental agencies, like the NRCS, they have found creative ways to make improvements that promote the viability of the ranch and sustainability of the landscape.

Erica said, “We are working with NRCS to put in a solar water system up there, so we can be resilient and sustainable during something like a three-week power outage, like we were in during the fire.”

The Ahmann sisters are continuing to build upon what their parents started for them 35 years ago. Involvement in the ranching business comes with a lot of ups and downs, but they know that working together as a family unit will get them through whatever challenges may lie ahead.

Christina said, “It’s a family-run job; it’s not just one of us… We all come together when we need to because one person cannot do it all.”

Image of a family gathered around the pens on a ranch
Regardless of what the future may hold, the Ahmanns find comfort in knowing that the Running Deer Ranch will be passed down from one generation to the next because of their partnership with the California Rangeland Trust.

A few times a year, the whole family gets together, including the Ahmann sisters and their husbands, their children, and John and Judy, to process cattle and work on ranch maintenance. It is a time to do the necessary work that needs to be done, but most importantly, it is a time for the older generations to pass on their knowledge to the younger ones.

The years will go on, and as they do, they are sure to bring new joys and challenges. Despite whatever the future may hold, the Ahmanns find comfort in knowing that the Running Deer Ranch and their ranching legacy will forever be passed down from one generation to the next because of their partnership with the Rangeland Trust.