15 Minutes With… Meryl Kennedy, CEO of Kennedy Rice Mill & Founder of 4Sisters Rice
By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Global AgInvesting Media (July 14)
Note: This story originally appeared in our sister publication, GAI News
Wildly popular, rice is a global staple and widespread daily food choice. Along with wheat and corn, these world leading food crops supply more than 42 percent of all calories consumed by the entire human population. With an expected annual CAGR of 3.6 percent through 2025, and the need to produce 100 million more tons of rice per one billion people added to the world’s population, demand for rice will soon outstrip supply without increased productivity and more sustainable management of natural resources.
But no need to tell Meryl Kennedy, CEO of Kennedy Rice Mill & Founder of 4Sisters Rice of Mer Rouge, Louisiana, these details. From day one, she and her three sisters – Patchez, Felicity, and Chantel – have grown their organic and natural long-grain white and brown rice sustainably, with the organic rice even grown without chemicals or fertilizers, across their network of local suppliers and family farmers who grow their crops over 25,000 acres.
Carrying on their dad’s commitment to farming, which began in 1964, and his motto to “take a little grain and make a big difference in the world”, the sisters, of which Meryl is the youngest, oversaw the startup and development of Kennedy Rice Mill (KRM) LLC in 2012, and subsequently launched 4Sisters Rice branded rice products in 2019. A certified women-owned business by the WBENC, 4Sisters Rice grows, harvests, dries, mills, packages, and sells their rice, which is traceable from farm to fork, nationwide.
Recently, in response to the disruptions in the supply chain due to the pandemic, 4Sisters worked to rapidly deploy an online shopping platform in just over two weeks. Meryl said “launching an ecommerce site was the right thing to do during this crisis,” in a recent interview with the Huffington Post, and also noted that long-term gains included reaching those in urban areas who might not have a car or want to carry a heavy bag of rice home, and providing to those in rural areas without access to traditional brick and mortar stores. 4Sisters has also had to rethink their labor option with the now limited availability of H2A workers to assist on-farm during the crisis.
We caught up with Meryl to better understand the business and where it is heading.
1). Most businesses are facing disruptions related to the pandemic. I know 4Sisters Rice recently launched an ecommerce platform in response, and has adopted new methods to recruit and retain H-2A workers. Can you explain this and any other adjustments the company has made to counter the recent disruptions?
As a company, I honestly believe that we have responded exceptionally well in the face of a pandemic. We have seen a huge increase in demand and I am overwhelmed daily with how our employees have stepped up to the challenge. Thankfully, very few of our employees have been ill. By far, the most important thing we did to was take the situation serious very early. We began holding meetings as early as the last week of February. We quickly decided that our office staff would work from home, and then we ensured they had the technology to do this - even before the Governors’ Stay at Home Order. We implemented additional safety protocols for our manufacturing plant to make sure our employees could remain as safe as possible.
During the first days of March, we stopped all travel for employees, and we also stopped visitors and vendors from entering the plant. This allowed us to focus more on training for our plant employees, endeavoring to help keep the people in our plant safe and healthy. It is no secret that farming relies heavily on dependable labor from the large modern computerized equipment to field hand labor. Having a consistent, willing, and reliable workforce through both our H2A programs has helped to provide us with the critical labor and support necessary for successful crop production. Thankfully, we were able to bring many of our H-2A employees in early before the country lockdowns. This, along with a tremendous effort from our staff, has allowed us to meet the increase in demand due to the pandemic. When I think back on this time in the future, I will always be proud of all we accomplished under extreme conditions.
2). You and your sisters grew up on the rice farm. What is it that made you stay and take ownership of the company’s success?
When I graduated from college, my father made a deal with me. If I worked for him for a summer, he would pay for my graduate degree. I later realized, being a very wise man, he knew that if he got me back to the farm, I would fall in love with the business. I never went to graduate school. Instead, 10 years later I am still here doing what I love every day. It was the best deal of my life.
3). Rice is one of the most basic foodstuffs but it seems as though 4Sisters is giving it a personality, based on your inviting website. What is your strategy behind this?
We want to spice up the category, and bring life to a food that is often forgotten or seen as a side dish. Storytelling is not something that the center isle is known for; however, we believe that people in today’s world want to connect with something deeper. They want to really know the people behind the food they eat and connect it back to their lives. Food is something that is tied to our everyday life and brings value. The simple smell of food can easily transport us back to holidays with family, or trigger the fond image of mom cooking her favorite recipes in the kitchen. As a food company, we know that we are truly a part of our consumer’s lives and in one sense, a part of their family. As much as we want them to be a part of our family, we equally want to be a part of theirs.
4). Why organic and sustainable? How does this fit with 4Sisters’ mission and the changing marketplace, as well as the shifting direction and growing strength of consumer tastes and preferences?
We noticed a trend in many of our bulk customers asking for organic and sustainably grown products. The American customer was changing, and with that comes new challenges and opportunities. As we started to transition many of our acres towards organic production, we began to develop the idea of selling our own products at retail. We truly started with a very lofty goal, to “take a small grain and make a big difference in the world”! We see it as our responsibility to better the lives of the people that we touch, and that always starts with a commitment to humanity and nature. It is truly a perfect moment to really tell the story of American agriculture at its best!
5). The process to become a certified women-owned business requires much diligence and time. What is the return value in this designation for 4Sisters?
The process to become women-owned certified took almost two years. The value that we have received from being certified goes way beyond a financial gain. It has given us a network of other women-owned companies that we can lean on for advice. As a small company, it has also helped open doors that would have otherwise been closed to companies of our size. However, I do feel a great responsibility to live up to this certification, especially in an industry that has very few diverse and woman-owned businesses. I believe that in the future, we will see many women join these fields. I hope as a company that we can be an inspiration to them and to all those that work with us.
ABOUT MERYL KENNEDY
Meryl Kennedy is CEO of Kennedy Rice Mill LLC and founder of 4Sisters Rice, both of Mer Rouge, Louisiana. She oversaw the formation and development of the businesses in 2012 and 2019, respectively, for which the building blocks were her father’s rice farming business, started in 1964. Today, she and her three sisters direct all operations of the Kennedy family agribusiness, which includes rice farming, drying, milling and distribution, grain storage, grain marketing, land management, and real estate.
Kennedy holds a degree in International Affairs with a minor in Spanish from the University of Georgia, and holds seats on the Board of Directors for The Rice Foundation, USA Rice, USA Rice Council, USA Rice Executive Committee, and the Rice Millers Association, among many others. Kennedy also is managing co-owner and CEO of Neighbors, LLC in West Monroe, Louisiana, a leading manufacturer of specialized cookie dough for fundraising, private label, and co-manufacturing partners.
~ Michelle Pelletier Marshall is managing editor for HighQuest Group's Global AgInvesting's GAI Gazette magazine and its WIA Today blog, as well as a contributor to GAI News and the Oilseed & Grain News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.