Frenchy Meissonnier doesn’t get around his Merced ranch as easily as he used to when he was younger.
At 72 years old, there are some aches and pains that come with being a lifelong farmer. Meissonnier is a third-generation rice farmer. His father was a rice farmer, as well as his grandfather before that. “It’s taken a toll on me,” Meissonnier said. “I’m pretty worn out.”
However, Meissonnier says he wouldn’t want it any other way. The Meissonnier Ranch has been in the family since Victor Joseph Meissonnier bought 40 acres located at 2684 Dickenson Ferry Road in Merced in 1897. Meissonnier now owns 350 acres and rents another 170 acres. He beams with pride that someday soon his son Zachery, 40, will take over the ranch. “I enjoy everything about farming,” said Meissonnier. “I enjoy the mechanic work. I like fixing things. I love watching the crop grow. It starts as a seedling; you watch it grow and then you harvest it. There are a lot of challenges, but I still love it.”
Meissonnier will harvest about 85,000 pounds of rice this September from his farm. The Meissonnier Ranch was recently recognized by the California State Fair for 125 years as a continuous farming operation. Frenchy now lives at the ranch with his wife Debi, 69, who he’s been married to for nearly 30 years.
Meissonnier says it hasn’t been easy at times, but he takes pride that the family has been able to keep the ranch going from over a century and that he’ll be able to hand over the reins to his son eventually. “The hardest part was when there was no money in it to have the tenacity to reach down and pull yourself up by the boot straps,” he said. “You just had to bow your neck and say ‘I’m going to do this and it’s going to work out.’ It means everything that I can pass it on to Zach.”
Zachery says it means a lot to be able to take over the farm one day. “It’s been in the family for many years,” he said. “It’s been in our family through world wars, the Great Depression and many ups and downs. It’s good to know we’ve come this far.”
Meissonnier’s grandfather came through Ellis Island. Victor Joseph Meissonnier quickly found out life was tough as a French immigrant. He had a tough time finding a job working on the docks in New York.
Fortunately, he spoke five languages and told people he was Italian. He saved enough money to move and join his brother in California.
In 1897 Victor Joseph Meissonnier for 50 cents per acre bought the 40 acres in Merced that would become Meissonnier Ranch. He started farming rice around 1910. “I’m very proud my grandfather was the first person to grow rice commercially in Merced,” Frenchy said. “He saw some people were growing small patches of rice, but he was the first to farm it commercially.”
Eventually the ranch was passed down to Frenchy’s father, who was also named Victor, and later Frenchy’s father asked him to partner with him in 1973 at the age of 23. “Rice farming is no different than any other type of farming,” Meissonnier said. “You work seven days a week most weeks. You may take a few days off in the winter. It you’re not watching it can turn on you fast. There are a lot of disease and insects. You can’t take a day off during the growing season. Then you have to harvest it before the rain comes.”
Meissonnier said his father almost always had a second job while operating the ranch. He often drove a truck. Frenchy would also work a second job in construction or work side jobs. On the rare occasions when Meissonnier is away from the farm, he likes to travel up the coast, travel with Debi, and he’s always enjoyed riding motorcycles. “My dad has always been a hard worker,” Zachery said. “He puts 150% in everything he does at work and in his home life. He’s someone who is not to be crossed with but when you get to know him underneath all that is one of the biggest, kind-hearted, softy biker-farmers you’d ever meet who is always willing to help someone out.”
Meissonnier says he still wears many hats for the ranch, including working the books, and as a mechanic and farming the crops. He’s been teaching Zachery the tricks of the trade. Life wasn’t always easy. “In the early 80s there was 23 rice farmers in Merced,” Meissonnier said. “My dad and I bought 150 acres after rice had a high price of $12 (per 100 pounds) in 1979. The next year the cost of rice went below the cost of production at $6.50. Other rice farmers went broke. We did everything ourselves. We worked around the clock.”
He says even when times were tough he never dared sell the ranch. “When I was younger I remember my grandmother telling me ‘Never sell the land, David. Never sell the land,'” he said. “I’ve always had that ghost in my ear. I had to keep the legacy going.” After being in debt most his life, Meissonnier said things started to turn in 2000 and by 2007 he was totally out of debt. “I bought 40 acres next to me and I paid in cash,” he said. “I refuse to go back into debt again.”
Meissonnier says keeping the ranch in the family means everything to him. That’s why it was special to be recognized at the State Fair for 125 years of running a continuous farming operation. The Merced County Farm Bureau was being honored on the same stage for its 100 year anniversary — meaning the Meissonnier Ranch has been around longer than the Merced County Farm Bureau. “It was fantastic because they weren’t just recognizing me but also the two generations before me who had the tenacity to stick with it,” Meissonnier said. Meissonnier still loves the grind. “It’s a daily challenge,” he said. “Jobs will take me all day when in my younger days it would take me an hour. There’s some aches and pains, but I take pride that I can still do it.”