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Raised in Rice: rice brand a family legacy

Louisiana rice brand CEO Meryl Kennedy fulfills a family legacy.

Raney Rapp, Senior Writer

April 17, 2024

7 Slides

Meryl Kennedy rode shotgun for farm checks, walked flooded rice fields and picked up enough lingo to keep her fluent in the unique vernacular of a Louisiana farming community. Those moments spent learning at her father Elton’s side imprinted in her a deep appreciation for overcoming the hardships of farming in the near-hostile environment of the Gulf state.

Deep down though, she knew her heart just wasn’t in the dirt. She needed the glamor of the corporate world, of meeting with investors and negotiating global deals. The complete opposite of her father’s down-home rice farming, drying and land management business - or so she thought.

“I greatly underestimated what he really did,” Kennedy said. “Many times farmers are unassuming. Here I am, I grew up as the daughter of a farmer, and you would think that you would know what your parents do and really understand it. But my experience with my father growing up was really on the farm, driving me around and trying to teach me water irrigation systems and things like that. And I was just not interested, especially at the time.”

Meryl was interested in business and travel, so a proposition to work a summer on the farm in return for funding for study abroad and an advanced degree proved the right motivation to draw her back home - where Elton knew she’d find everything she was searching for.

“When I got back, I realized here he was, trading commodities and talking to people all over the world. The business was so dynamic, and I just really fell in love with it, along with the people,” Kennedy said. “I fell back in love with my little town. Until that point, I thought the big city might be a place for me. But I realized the importance of community, and having people support you, family, but also, your friends and your neighbors.”

Family First

In the late 1960s Elton Kennedy finally had the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of farming. He made his start with cheap, marginal farmland and earned a reputation for bringing it to profitability, an ability he would grow into a large agricultural legacy – one he hoped his daughters would take over.

“I tell people that I feel like I got lifted on the shoulders of giants,” Kennedy said. “It’s just a saying but it's true, not just him, but other people have supported me as well in this journey.”

While Meryl’s introduction to the family business as an adult came with invaluable assets, many of the company’s most interesting innovations, such as the mill and family-branded rice, started with the incorporation of her fresh perspective.

“We have many people that have worked for our family for over 40 years. And they're incredible people, their institutional knowledge is invaluable,” Kennedy said. “There's also a value to having fresh air and new ideas and bringing different thought into a business as well. That innovation piece and the marriage between the two – if you can get it right, it's magical.”

Kennedy Rice Mill began in 2012, offering a state-of-the-art facility for rice producers in northern Louisiana and parts of southern Arkansas an outlet for rice processing. More than 50,000 acres of crop ground feeds into the Kennedy system, which specializes in meeting variety and quality standards for national name-brand customers.

“We do a lot of DNA preservation of varieties, as well as a lot of work with farmers to make sure we're planting the right varieties,” Kennedy said. “We contract varieties based on our customers’ demands, and those products are then identity preserved, and then all the way through the supply chain to make sure that we deliver the same quality every time.”

Although Meryl now wears the CEO title more prominently than her farmer’s daughter badge, her early experiences learning irrigation systems and watching marginal ground grow great rice continue to fuel her passion for the business and the farmers she serves.

“Because the Delta is suitable for multiple crops, and because farmers are very accustomed to moving between different crops year after year, there's been more of a movement towards row rice practices in this area, which lend themselves towards more sustainable practices and lower methane gas emissions,” Kennedy said. “Our farmers have been more adaptable to change, because they've been managing multiple crops for many years.”

Jumping in

When Meryl returned home to spend one summer back on the family farm, she wasn’t anticipating beginning the farm transition process. Instead of taking time to study abroad, she dove into the family business with both feet, and gladly welcomed her sisters Patchez, Chantel and Felicity, back to the business as well.

“My father was older, when I started - I'm the youngest of the four of us. And my sisters had gone off and done their own thing,” Kennedy said. “As we've started the brand come back and helped me and it's been awesome to have my family back and for us to work together as a family.”

Meryl and her family began a new venture in branded rice honoring her family’s closeness titled 4Sisters.

“When we decided to start the brand, in 2019, we started with the mission to take a little grain and make a big difference in the world,” Kennedy said.

The brand available online and in local chain grocery stores like Super1Foods, distinguishes itself from other offerings through certifications labeling its qualities, such as certified organic, and operating as a women-owned business.

“We do believe that in some cases, organic is a really great way to preserve the land and to bring nutrients back into the soil,” Kennedy said. “My father's been a huge conservationist through the years and taken a lot of land that should never have been agricultural and put it back into wetlands, for instance. Regenerative practices have always been at the core of our beliefs.”

The 4Sisters brand’s dedication to organic products helps separate sales into a niche market, but Meryl said she still understands and resonates with the demands Delta growers face in a challenging growing environment.

“We do also know that we operate in the south, and we have very intensive weather and tons of pressure from pests,” Kennedy said. “To grow organic on a large scale is not always feasible or possible in this environment. We really wanted to meet our customers where they were, we wanted to provide them not just organic or conventional, but the highest quality product, a product that's going to taste the same and cook the same every time.”

Read more about:

Louisiana Rice

About the Author(s)

Raney Rapp

Senior Writer, Delta Farm Press

Delta Farm Press Senior Writer

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