Solvang's Founding Family
“The Santa Ynez Valley is the best place to live; the people here are wonderful and the scenery is gorgeous.” Hans Gregersen
Originally from Denmark, Jens Gregersen was one of Solvang’s founders. As a pastor, he helped to establish the town’s first Lutheran Church. Little did he know that his American grandsons would return to Denmark as children, travel the globe for work, and finally settle on the family ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Brothers Erik and Hans Gregersen always knew that they would someday return to the valley. Having worked around the world, Hans reflects, “The Santa Ynez Valley is the best place to live; the people here are wonderful and the scenery is gorgeous.”
Early life and careers
Their father was a petroleum geologist who was involved in the discovery of the Cuyama oil fields. Their mother was one of the first women to obtain a Ph.D. at Yale, and later worked as a librarian at the Huntington Library. Immediately after World War II ended, Gulf Oil was looking for a U.S. trained geologist to manage its oil and gas exploration program in Scandinavia. Their father was picked to do this job and they moved to Denmark in August, 1945. As schoolchildren in Denmark, Erik and Hans became fluent in Danish and enjoyed Danish holiday traditions, food and music. This was the beginning of their global perspective. Living in a country recovering from the ravages of WWII gave them a unique experience, not only to appreciate their American heritage but to continue to grow as universal citizens. After returning to the U.S. for high school and college, they each embarked on careers that took them abroad again.
Erik studied engineering and business, earning an MBA from Harvard. He spent 15 years in various management assignments with FMC Corporation, which specialized in commercial machinery related to the food and agricultural industries. He worked in the U.S., England, and South Africa. With this background, he and a friend from England started a produce labeling business after acquiring manufacturing and marketing rights to the patented labeling system that was invented in Ventura. “We had 85% of the market worldwide.” After a 30 year career in the food and agricultural machinery industry, he chose to return to the family ranch in 1997.
Younger brother, Hans, studied forestry, social sciences, and economics, earning a Ph.D. in Economics of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan. While still in graduate school, he began working with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. As a professor at the University of Minnesota, he developed a program in international natural resources policy and continued lifelong work with the UN, the World Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank, and many other international groups. After early retirement from the Universityin 2000, he served on the Science Council and headed the impact assessment Unit of the World Bank-chaired Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). “The CGIAR is a major entity that does agricultural and natural resources research to benefit the less developed countries and the poor around the world. It has centers all over the world. I visited and worked with all of them, including centers in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Syria, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Colombia, Peru, Mexico and other countries. The centers have made and continue to make major contributions to global agriculture, food security and natural resources management and conservation.” Erik and Hans exemplify what it means to be global citizens. “You learn how to deal with different kinds of people, with different languages, cultures and customs,” observes Hans.
Reflections on the Santa Ynez Valley
Changes in recent decades include growth of the wine industry and commercial development by the Chumash tribe. Hans reflects, “There were no vineyards in the early days; cattle ranches are less common now and the cost of land is high. Normal young people can’t afford to purchase land here anymore.”
The Gregersen brothers retired from their highly successful careers and moved with their wives to Solvang where they enjoy their families and grandchildren who live both locally and farther afield. It is interesting to note that both of these men made their careers in agriculture and land management. These are the same motivators that brought a large group of immigrants from Denmark to the U.S. and eventually Solvang. Although their career paths deal with agriculture and land management at the international level, land is still a resource that plays a significant role in their lives today. Their respective industries (agriculture and land management) have new millennial challenges. The cost of land and availability of water threaten agriculture as development outpaces the economic return from growing food and availability of water.
Erik and Hans have a “world” of experience between them and continue to use their knowledge both in service of their immediate community and the global community. They are heavily involved with improving the quality of life locally and globally. Today, Erik runs the ranch and is involved with non-profits, including the Elverhoj Museum, “I’m passionate about preserving the history of the Danish community.” He is also active with The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County and the California Rangeland Trust. “Our grandparents had 2200 acres, cattle and also beans and barely. When they passed, there were too many heirs and taxes soour parents’ generation was forced to sell. If we had the ability [at that time] to put a conservation easement on it we could have kept it together. That’s what The Land Trust allows.”
Hans continues to work with various groups on deforestation and global forest policies, and is currently working on global forestry contributionsto the new UN 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. When asked about the challenges facing the Santa Ynez Valley, Hans reflects, “I feel people will adapt to the changes taking place. Hirschman’s principle of the ‘Hiding Hand’ applies here: We tend to underestimate the emerging issues, but we also underestimate our ability to resolve the issues. ”
By Katherine Bradford