CELS Alum, State Ag Chief, Ken Ayars, Wins URI Distinguished Achievement Award
Ken Ayars has spent the last three decades highlighting the importance of Rhode Island’s agriculture industry to the State’s economy, environment, and public health. “The sustainability and health of our food systems are as important a societal issue as climate change, energy, or transportation,” insists Ayars, Chief of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s (DEM) Division of Agriculture and alum of the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS). His dedication to sustaining, promoting, and enhancing agriculture in Rhode Island earned him one of URI’s highest awards this October.
“I was honored. I still am honored,” recounts Ayars of his receipt of URI’s Distinguished Achievement Award, which recognizes alumni and friends of URI who bring distinction to themselves and the University through their professional achievements, outstanding leadership, and community service.
As leader of the division, Ayars is involved in everything from mosquito abatement to pesticides, but he has a particular focus on promoting sustainable food systems and farmland protection. “A career in agriculture in Rhode Island is challenging,” explains Ayars, noting that the cost of farmland in Rhode Island is among the highest in the country, while the age of the average farmer is on the rise.
To help connect a new generation of farmers with affordable farmland, Ayars is spearheading a new proposal to allow the DEM to protect agricultural lands threatened by development by selling that land at a discount to beginning farmers who would not be able to afford it otherwise. In this instance and in all of his work, Ayars reflects, “we try to look at things through a farmer’s eyes and think about how state government can try to solve issues.”
Ayars’s family has “deep roots in Rhode Island” dating back to colonial times. That is one reason why after graduating from high school in Cuba as a U.S. Navy pilot’s son, Ayars returned to Rhode Island for a degree in Zoology from URI’s CELS.
Ayars discovered his passion for agriculture at CELS, with encouragement from CELS professor and one-time director of the DEM, Dr. WM. Michael Sullivan. “Dr. Sullivan took me under his wing, so to speak,” Ayars recalls. With Sullivan’s support Ayars diversified his studies, eventually earning a dual bachelor’s degree in Zoology and Agriculture & Resource Technology, followed by a master’s degree in Plant Sciences from CELS. “URI is an important part of my story,” notes Ayars.
Developing successful relationships with non-profits, colleges, and universities to prepare the next generation of farmers is a key accomplishment of Ayars’s. Excited by the recent creation of the CELS major in sustainable agriculture and food systems, Ayars believes “there is momentum and vision at URI” for the land-grant institution to excel in the agriculture sector. With CELS’s leadership in educating the next generation of farmers and the director of DEM’s “phenomenal support of agriculture,” Ayars concludes, “the future of farming in Rhode Island is bright.”