Hanson Ranch: Planning for the Future

April 30, 2024 by Madison Goss

The question of succession weighs heavily on the mind of nearly every rancher: “Who will take over my ranch once I am gone?” According to the USDA, within the next two decades, approximately 70 percent of U.S. farming and ranching operations will confront this issue. While the next generation often assumes responsibility, this isn’t always the case, necessitating careful planning and arrangements to safeguard the operation into the future.

For the late Louise Hanson, the original proprietor of the Hanson Ranch, a conservation easement emerged as a cornerstone of her estate planning.

Black and white photo of Louise Hanson standing next to her sister, Charlotte in front of a pickup.
Louise Hanson with her sister, Charlotte.
Photo courtesy of the Mathis family

Louise hailed from the Moulton family—a family deeply engrained in Orange County’s ranching heritage since the late 1800s. They owned Moulton Ranch, formerly known as Rancho Niguel, which spanned over 22,000 acres of rangeland in El Toro, California. Growing up on the ranch, Louise spent time riding horses alongside her father and helping run the family’s cattle operation; she developed a deep passion for the lifestyle and the business.

As the county’s population surged over the years, space for ranching dwindled, and the family reluctantly sold the ranch in the late 1960s. The loss fueled Louise’s desire to find a place of her own to carry out her ranching dreams.

After visiting the Santa Barbara area several times, Louise felt that the region reflected much of what she remembered of her younger years ranching in Orange County. In 1972, Louise and her husband, Ivar, laid down roots in Santa Barbara County on property off Highway 1, nestled along the Gaviota Coast. Over time, they meticulously assembled eight separate ranches, creating 14,000 acres of contiguous open space for their ranching pursuits.

Ivar’s passing in 1979 marked a tragic loss. But, like any resilient rancher, Louise persevered. She single-handedly ran the ranch in his absence during an era when less than five percent of ranches in the United States were owned or managed by women. Despite the odds, she remained resolute in nurturing the land and livestock for as long as she could on her own—a true testament of her grit and determination.

When the time came to plan for what was next, and with no children of her own, Louise decided to transfer the land to her sister, Charlotte’s family upon her passing. But first, she wanted an additional layer of protection to ensure the land’s continuance in ranching.

In 2013, Louise chose to partner with the California Rangeland Trust to extinguish the development rights on the property by donating a conservation easement on the entire 14,000-acre ranch. Her decision secured the land and her ranching legacy indefinitely.

“Financial gain was not the motivation behind the easement; she probably would have made more money selling it off,” Jeff Mathis, Louise’s great-nephew and current manager of the ranch, attested. “She wanted to make sure that the land would remain intact and be used for ranching in the years ahead.”

Louise passed away in 2014 at the age of 99, just after the conservation easement was completed. After her passing, Jeff and his wife, Stephanie, along with their sons, Lewis and Zane, assumed responsibility of the operations and to this day, continue to carry out Louise’s goals for the ranch. Over the past decade, they have worked to grow their operations without the threat of development or heavy tax burdens looming over them.

Stephanie and Jeff Mathis, along with their sons, Lewis and Zane.
Photo courtesy of the Mathis family

“Without the easement, I am not sure that we would have been able to hold on to the ranch on our own. It’s a great comfort knowing that we can direct our focus to caring for the land and know that it is protected into the future,” explained Jeff.

Through their cow/calf operation, the Mathis family reinvests in the land, while prioritizing its health for future generations. Much like Louise’s childhood, Jeff and Stephanie’s sons are involved in the management of the ranch and have developed an appreciation for the land and the work that goes into stewarding it.

“The boys have been riding since they were in diapers,” Stephanie reminisced. “While on the ranch, they have been able to develop a lot of skills and work ethic, along with a genuine love of cattle, nature, and the work we do.”

Acknowledging that they have time before determining who will succeed them in running the ranch in the future, Jeff and Stephanie encourage their boys to explore interests beyond the fence line. Meanwhile, each day, Jeff and Stephanie rise and continue working to ensure their children and every generation that follows has a place to forge shared life experiences and meaningful memories while also maintaining a connection to their family heritage, just as Louise intended.

“There are a lot of reasons that my family still ranches, some could say it is luck or location, but I like to think it is because each generation has taught the next how to work and love the land,” Jeff shared. “And that is the reason I get up every morning.”

In the next two decades, the Mathis family will face the task of determining who will be next to take over the ranch. Fortunately, Louise’s foresight and decision to conserve the ranch guarantees that whoever steps into that role will have the assurance that the integrity of the land will endure forever.

Originally published in the Rangeland Trust’s Spring 2024 Newsletter