A poll of South County farmers results in wide grins and a flurry of anecdotes about the way Ken Ayars has supported the growth of sustainable agriculture since becoming chief of the state’s Division of Agriculture (part of the Department of Environmental Management) 12 years ago.
Noted for his ability to bring diverse interests “to the table,” Ayars is credited with stewarding many new business-to-farm partnerships, such as Rhody Fresh Milk and Rhody Warm Blankets, in addition to supporting the recent explosion of local farmers’ markets.
After graduating from URI with a dual Bachelor’s in Zoology and Agriculture followed by a Master’s in Agriculture, Ayars joined the division in 1987, working his way through its branches and learning how to help farmers increase production while also protecting the environment. “If you look at the ills of society,” he says, “you can see that agriculture, more than any other industry, has the potential to play a role in achieving health.”
Ayars has worked tirelessly to promote awareness of food sources and to develop an infrastructure that allows the public to be involved in local agriculture: “If the business climate supports agriculture, then viability is possible,” he says.
After decades of decline, the number of Rhode Island farms has increased dramatically to more than 1,219, and agriculture has grown from a $38 million industry in 1980 to more than $65 million today.
“There’s an increased focus on local agriculture due to concerns about where food comes from,” says Ayars. “People are worried about the safety and purity of their food, the environmental cost of factory farms, and the contribution of long-distance transport to global warming.”
Ayars hopes to foster a collaboration of partners looking to the future in terms of a regional food supply and energy sources. He says that URI, the RIDEM’s Department of Agriculture, local businesses, and not-for-profits must all offer leadership in “preserving our ability to produce food locally, an important goal for Rhode Island.”