Louisiana rice farmer Meryl Kennedy is a new chief of agriculture news

MER ROUGE – Meryl Kennedy’s story begins in a truck as a child driving with her father around her family’s rice farm in northeast Louisiana.

“He loved taking me there,” she recalled. “Drive around for hours.”

Elton Kennedy loved farming, loved the fields and loved the rice business he had built on the land he first farmed in 1964. As a father of four daughters, he wanted them to be involved.

Meryl, the youngest, did not share her father’s love for the fields or his “dusty little office in Mer Rouge”.



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Downtown Mer Rouge Louisiana on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)




She left. Her first stop was boarding school in Virginia. Next was the University of Georgia. She majored in International Relations—the kind of degree you study if you want to get far, far from a town of 500 in Morehouse Parish, where the flat expanses of farms and forests stretch to the Arkansas state line.

Her next stop should be the University of Oxford for a Masters in Latin American Studies. But Elton had a card to play.

He would pay Oxford, but only if Meryl returned to Morehouse Parish and worked for him over the summer.

And this is where the plot turns.

She accepted the deal and for a summer Meryl watched her father at work. In the one minute he was talking about agricultural techniques. Next, he spoke to traders in Chicago’s resource pits to hedge production based on changes in global markets. It was an eye opening experience.

“For a 21-year-old, it was very exciting,” she said.

From assistant to CEO



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Meryl Kennedy of 4Sisters Rice inspects rice being processed at the Kennedy Rice Mill in Mer Rouge, Louisiana on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)




Kennedy never made it to England.

After starting out as her father’s assistant, she is now President of a family farming business that has grown well beyond farming and rice drying.

Kennedy is President of the USA Rice Miller’s Association. She is an independent director of Origin Bank and serves on the boards of several other state and national business and industry groups, where she is often the youngest person and the only woman in the room.



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Kennedy Rice Mill loads giant sacks of rice onto trucks and trains in Mer Rouge, Louisiana on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)




“It’s a little bit hard to believe that I’m the first woman” to chair the Rice Miller’s Association, she said.

Kennedy is also a staunch advocate of agricultural and rural issues, and she represents a new generation of farm owners — many of whom are women — who are following a different path than the last generation.

US Rep. Julia Letlow R-Start, whose district includes Morehouse Parish, has observed Kennedy in meetings and other situations. She said that Kennedy’s fearlessness in mostly older and mostly male environments was “inspirational” and that she was a master at delivering “sugar on a knife.”

“As she spoke, she commanded the room,” Letlow said. “She wasn’t afraid.”

“Conquered the Earth”

Kennedy’s office is in a renovated century-old house a few blocks from downtown Mer Rouge. The expansive porch overlooks farmland reminiscent of her father’s farming era.

But anything else means the arrival of the millennial generation in farming.

The office is painted in crisp white and gray. Behind the plain wood desk is a modern white executive chair with an attached microphone, on which she occasionally records episodes of a podcast called “Rice Up Your Bowl.”



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Meryl Kennedy of 4Sisters Rice at her office near the Kennedy Rice Mill in Mer Rouge, Louisiana on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)






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Meryl Kennedy of 4Sisters Rice at her office near the Kennedy Rice Mill in Mer Rouge, Louisiana on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)




One wall is adorned with a huge American flag – she describes herself as very patriotic – and on the others hangs a painting of Wonder Woman and a picture of her little daughter riding the moon.

“Because women have already conquered the earth,” laughs Kennedy.

She has a professionally designed website that promotes her brands and includes links to her social media accounts.

And instead of dungarees, she wears jeans, short black boots and a green leather jacket that wouldn’t look out of place in a Magazine Street boutique.

Kennedy’s business is rooted in rice, but her time in farming has been defined by expansion into neighboring businesses with greater growth potential.



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The Kennedy Rice Mill processing facility in Mer Rouge, Louisiana on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)






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Kennedy Rice Mill employees walk through a warehouse where giant sacks of rice are loaded onto freight trains and trucks on Wednesday, November 9, 2022, in Mer Rouge, Louisiana. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)




In 2012, she helped her father start Kennedy Rice Mill and build a sprawling complex in Mer Rouge that processes millions of pounds of rice each year and generates $70 million in annual sales.

When a cookie dough factory in West Monroe nearly closed in 2016, Meryl bought it. Neighbors, LLC is one of the premier manufacturers of fundraiser cookie dough today.

It employs 150 people, about the same number as the rice mill.



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Meryl Kennedy holds raw rice in a warehouse at a Kennedy rice mill in Mer Rouge, Louisiana on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)




In 2019, Kennedy and her sisters launched 4Sisters Rice, a sustainably grown, organic rice sold in more than 5,000 stores. And at the start of the pandemic, as supply chains faltered, they built a direct-to-consumer website in a matter of weeks.

Her success did not go unnoticed. She and her sisters have been featured in Kellogg’s promotional materials, Southern Living Magazine, and several industry publications.



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Kennedy Rice Mill employees walk through a warehouse where giant sacks of rice are loaded onto freight trains and trucks on Wednesday, November 9, 2022, in Mer Rouge, Louisiana. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)




During a tour of her rice mill and interviews to discuss her lobbying work, Kennedy admitted that the knife edge Letlow was referring to sometimes gets a little sharper. She has been said by some to resemble Beth Dutton, the moody daughter of Kevin Costner’s character on the hit television show Yellowstone, who is known for her caustic, ruthless ways.

Some of this was showcased at a meeting of state economic development leaders and local businesses in West Monroe in September. Officials asked mostly sympathetic questions and offered information about programs available to support rural communities.

But little had been said about helping communities fix their own crumbling infrastructure.

Kennedy rose to speak.

“I didn’t hear anything from country roads today,” she said. “So maybe that’s something you can all focus on.”



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Meryl Kennedy of 4Sisters Rice stands in front of a pile of paddy rice at a warehouse at the Kennedy Rice Mill in Mer Rouge, Louisiana on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)




She credits her father with forcing her into situations where she needed to learn to assert herself, she said.

“Nobody should really be intimidated to speak their mind,” she said.

A growing number

Kennedy is among a growing number of women taking up leadership roles in agriculture.

According to the US Department of Agriculture Census for 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, the number of women working in agriculture in Louisiana increased more than 20% from five years ago to more than 15,000.

Denise Cannatella, who runs her family’s 4,000-acre St. Landry Parish farm with her husband and son, has witnessed the changes over the past few decades.



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Rice being processed at a mill at Kennedy Rice Mill in Mer Rouge Louisiana on Wednesday November 9, 2022. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)




Cannatella said the annual Women in Agriculture conference in Louisiana, which she helps organize, has grown from about 150 or 200 attendees in 2017 to over 500 earlier this year.

“When I got married, it was mostly a man’s world,” she said.

Amelia Kent, who runs a 3,000-acre cattle ranch in East Feliciana, has also witnessed the development.

“As I started showing up with my own pickup truck and trailer, you could see some men picking their jaws off the ground,” said Kent, 39.

Like Kennedy, she has not shied away from leadership roles, serving on the Beef Industry Council and a national beef committee. She is currently a member of the Farm Bureau Livestock Advisory Committee.

“I can’t tell you how many times I go to a meeting and I’m the only woman there,” she said. “But the chances of me chairing this meeting are pretty good.”

“Incredible Wave”

Kennedy calls the rise of women in agriculture “an unbelievable surge”.

She credits her father – who took her on those long weekend drives and made this deal to fund her academic ambitions – for pushing her in the right direction.

“He gave me the opportunity to go my own way,” she said. “There’s no way I wouldn’t be here without him.”



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Meryl Kennedy of 4Sisters Rice stands in the doorway of the Kennedy Rice Mill in Mer Rouge, Louisiana on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. (Staff photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)




Now she is passing on those lessons. A few male farmers she knows have asked her to mentor their daughters who are interested in getting into the business.

“It’s exciting to see,” she said.

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