Since his family was returning to Rhode Island after he graduated from high school in Guantanamo Bay, the University of Rhode Island seemed like the most fitting option for Ken Ayars.
Drawn to the school by the successful men’s soccer program, proximity to family and marine biology program, the current Chief of the Division of Agriculture in the Department of Environmental Management earned quite an education at URI.
As a double-major in zoology and agriculture & resource technology, Ayars accredits his family roots as the inspiration for him to study agriculture.
“Perhaps it was my genes that took over,” Ayars said. “Although I spent much of my childhood moving up and down the east coast, each of my summers included visits to agriculture dominated southern Jersey.”
Becoming more interested in the curriculum, Ayars decided to enroll in the agriculture graduate program. He was a graduate assistant under professor Mike Sullivan for two years, helping conduct research at the Graduate School of Oceanography and Agronomy Farm.
“There is a special place in my heart for URI and I continue to care for it,” Ayars said.
After graduating in 1985, Ayars spent two years working in house construction while looking for a stable job. He was contacted by a former professor regarding an opportunity in the Division of Agriculture with the DEM.
“It has been 30 years since I joined the Department of Environmental Management,” he said. “Getting this job really showed me the value of networking and creating connections with professors as a student.”
Despite having an abundance of schooling and three degrees, Ayars started at the bottom of the division. According to the chief, learning how each and every individual division operates holds its own value.
“We are a small state and have a small office so I approached my career from a bottom up, grassroots stand base,” Ayars said
Majority of Ayars career has been dedicated towards working and rebuilding relationships between local Rhode Island farms and the DEM. In addition to enhancing connections with farmers, Ayars has worked closely with Fresh RI, RI Food Council, various other environmental programs and non-profits.
One of Ayars’ favorite parts of his job is getting the chance to talk one-on-one with farmers. All very unique people, farmers are becoming more valuable and growing in terms of how society relies on them.
“When I first started my job, a lot of people looked down at farmers as polluters because they did not recognize the value or need for local food production,” he said. “I’m glad to see society’s perspective change over the past 30 years. I’m glad to be apart of helping raise their profile.”
Two of the most important skills the URI Alum has taken with him since he left the university in 1985 are interpersonal skills and public speaking. “In my career, I need to be able to convey messages and have the ability to interact with people especially in professional settings,” Ayars said.
In addition to rebuilding relationships with farmers and the local food system, Ayars uses these skills to address topics like sustainability, climate change and food insecurity. Representing the state of Rhode Island, he finds that working in several areas has allowed him to watch agriculture really blossom in the past two decades.
In the fall, Ayars received the URI Distinguished Achievement Award. Recognizing individuals that have brought distinction to themselves and the University through their professional career, achievements, leadership and community service, Ayars is extremely appreciative of being awarded one of URI’s highest honors.
“It was a true honor and I appreciate the recognition,” Ayars said. “Being a public servant itself can be challenging, but is very rewarding and I’m humbled URI recognizes that.”
Since leaving the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, Ayars commends URI for playing such a vital role in his profession. In the past 10 years he has seen the curriculum grow and take on the mission of sustainability.
Ayars encourages all students to think globally and act locally. The impact of mankind in the past generation is changing the lifestyles we live.
“Think about the impact you can make going forward and take responsibility,” he said.