Social Enterprise Greenhouse was excited to host Ken Ayers, Chief of the Division of Agriculture at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). He shared his story of moving about the country, but always returning to his connection to the land through his extended family, including many farmers. “My family are farmers, largely.” he said, “I never realized it would influence my life, but it did. It was something kind of inside me.” Here are 5 things I learned at this week’s Community Table event with Ken Ayers.
Building relationships is important. There has to be a certain degree of teamwork between those who are doing the agricultural work and those who are working in the Division of Agriculture. Ayers spoke of his focus on relationship building, listening, and how it’s been key to this teamwork.
Rhode Island faces unique challenges in agriculture. Our arable land base here in RI looks very different from that of a state such as Nebraska. What works in Texas or Vermont may not work here, due to the size and scale of our farms and the other competing needs that exist here. We have a certain tax structure, a generally high cost-per-acre for farmland and, as Ayers says, “We have our own brand of politics” in Rhode Island. It takes a certain commitment to navigate these political realities.
Definitions are changing. What does the word farm mean? We might picture in our heads rolling green meadows, a corn monoculture, grazing sheep or one million chickens. But is an intensely cultivated half-acre in Providence a farm? Is an indoor growing operation a farm? Can we integrate Cannabis into this definition, and microgreens, and Oysters? Should we? Right now Rhode Island’s official definition of a farm is 30 years old, and much has changed in technology, policy and land use in this time. “Acreage is, in some ways, not what it used to be,” says Ayers. And neither are farmers.
Public policy is shaped by the people who show up, for better or worse. The vast majority of humans eat, and most of what we eat has, in some way, come from a farm. We are all dependent on agriculture in some way to get through the day. And the environmental impacts of farms large and small affect the broader communities around them. But who is going to the policy meetings? Who is helping to set the rules and create the definitions? Ayers is enthusiastic about public participation, noting that his staff is small and he encourages the public to make their voice heard. “The bottom-up effort can survive almost anything.”
States may be in tension with Federal regulators, and this requires navigation. In the areas of climate change and environmental protection, not all states are on the same page with each other. Neither are we all in agreement with Federal policies about our environment. Ayers talked about working close to home, looking at the values and needs of fellow Rhode Islanders, and letting that lead his approach more than what is happening a thousand miles away. There is an immediacy to this approach, an ability to give and get feedback in real time, and this is something he and his team take into account. Federal regulations still need to be understood and grappled with. But the tension between local and Federal won’t go away, and that’s OK.
To learn more about the RI DEM and Division of Agriculture, check out their website here.
Venture Development Assistant
Traci Picard is a VISTA serving as Venture Development assistant here at SEG. She comes from the world of alternative health, running a small herbal business and teaching classes like Critical Thinking for Herbalists and Asking Better Questions. Traci is also a writer pursuing a Journalism degree, a mother of 3 and a passionate fan of books and the Public Library. Born in Providence, she has lived all over but continues to return home.